It is so much fun to hunker down and let the rain fall while baking delicious cookies or holiday cakes! A stormy Northwest day begs for a warm cup of coffee, your favorite music, and amazing smells coming from the galley. Holiday baked goods have long been a tradition in many cultures. The northern European cultures mastered baked goods long ago, and many of the American traditions come from there. The holidays are a time to gather, celebrate, enjoy festive gatherings, and bring the year to a close. Here in the Northwest, we love the Christmas ships, Yulefests, holiday parades, and the like. I remember as a child the magic of all the beautiful gingerbread houses, Christmas cookies, and sweet breads that appeared during the holidays. Our family would give gifts of holiday cookies when we travelled from party to party, and on Christmas Eve we had a tradition of delivering warm, beautiful braided bread wreaths to our friends in our neighborhood. Our treats, delivered warm in the morning, were small tokens of our friendship, but something that people still talk about to this day.
Baking seems difficult, but is really quite easy, especially a pie dough turned into a simple galette or tart. Bread dough is just yeast, water, and flour, and needs just a bit of coaxing to make magic. Fillings, batters, and doughs can be easy, requiring only a bowl and maybe a whisk. When guests arrive, you can have some short dough stashed away to make quick cookies, or to build a quick tart with some apples or pears. A crepe batter becomes a quick and easy dessert that is easily put together if an impromptu party is assembled. Crepes can be filled with fresh fruit and whipped cream, flavored butters, or something simple like Nutella or jam. Gingerbread is always a favorite and can be made in advance then frozen or baked on the fly as guests arrive. I use gingerbread batter and create an upside down cake using apple, persimmons, bananas or squash. The holiday bread wreath is a simple, sweet-bread dough that can be used for cinnamon rolls, or rolled flat and filled with nuts, sugar, and butter and woven into a wreath. The wreath requires a few more steps, but is a beautiful treat on a cold winter morning.
Equipment-wise, it is tricky baking on a boat, but the following desserts only require a bowl or two, a whisk, wooden spoon, measuring cups and spoons, parchment paper, knives, and a cookie sheet. Ingredients can be chopped by hand and blended with a wooden spoon, provided the butter is soft. Most of the tools can be found as the basics in a small kitchen. If you have the luxury of a food processor or stand mixer, then your job will be that much faster to assemble.
Stock up on apples and pears and keep a stash of holiday spices, unsalted butter (at room temperature), sugar, and flours so it will be easy to assemble a lovely dessert or gift. The more you bake, the easier it becomes. Don’t worry if something is not perfect, you made it from scratch with the spirit of giving and the season in mind. Everyone will love it.
Holiday Braided Bread
For the Dough:
For the Filling:
1. For the filling, put all the ingredients into the food processor and pulse until it resembles a very coarse meal.
2. For the dough, roll out the proofed dough 12”x10” on a floured surface. Sprinkle the filling over the surface of the dough, leaving an inch at the top of the dough. Roll the dough up, starting at your end and finish on the uncovered edge of dough. Press together. With a sharp knife, split the roll lengthwise down the middle. Turn the two halves up with the filling showing, and quickly braid, forming a rope. Move to a parchment-lined sheet pan and cover with a tea towel or plastic wrap and proof to double in size.
3. Once proofed, brush with melted butter and sprinkle with granulated sugar.
4. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes to one hour. Allow to cool for 20 minutes before serving.
Squash Upside Down Cake
For the Pan:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt three tablespoons of butter in a ten-inch cast-iron skillet (or cake pan) over medium heat, using a pastry brush to coat sides with butter as it melts. Sprinkle 1/2 cup brown sugar evenly over bottom of skillet and cook until sugar starts to bubble and turn golden brown, about three minutes. Slide pan off heat and allow to cool slightly. Arrange squash slices in a circle, laying the pieces flat on the caramel in a fan pattern. Arrange another layer of squash on top and fill the center and set aside.
Sift flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl and add spices. In a stand mixer, beat butter and sugar with a mixer on high speed until pale and fluffy, and scrape down sides. Add eggs one at time, beating well after each addition and scraping down sides of the bowl. Mix in vanilla and molasses, reduce speed to low, and blend in flour mixture alternating with buttermilk in two additions. Drop large dollops of batter over the squash and caramel. Spread the batter evenly with a spatula. Bake until golden brown and the cake springs back when touched, about 20 – 25 minutes. Allow the cake to cool. When ready to unmold, heat the pan quickly on top of the stove burner, shake the pan lightly to loosen the caramel, and use a knife to release the sides. Quickly invert the cake onto a serving platter, reposition any loose squash pieces.
Apple and Cranberry Galette
Short Dough: Combine the dry ingredients in the food processor; add the cold butter and process. Add eggs, blend till smooth. Chill.
Frangipane filling: Beat together almond paste, butter, sugar, and almond extract in a bowl or food processor until creamy, about three minutes. Reduce speed to low and add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, then mix in flour and salt.
Galette: Combine cranberries and one tablespoon of sugar in a small bowl. Allow to macerate while you assemble the rest of the tart. Peel, core and slice the apples into thin wedges. Roll out shortdough into 1/8-inch thick pastry round, about 12 inches in diameter. Spread frangipane or pastry cream filling in center of dough into a four-inch circle, about 1/4-inch thick. Fan the apples over the filling, place macerated cranberries in the center of the apples, then fold the dough up two inches toward the center of the tart, covering the outer edge of the apples and leaving the center with the cranberries open. Brush the pastry dough edges with egg wash and sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, or until golden.
Roll out a 10” disc of shortdough for the top of the tarte, chill. In a heavy 10” sauté pan, melt the butter and add the sugar and lemon. Allow to cook on high heat until it becomes caramel. It should be a deep brown color. Allow cooling, the caramel should be firm. Peel and quarter the fruit. Remove the core, arrange fruit in a circle with cut side facing down in the pan on the cooled caramel. Top with the chilled short dough. Press the dough around the edges of the pears. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 20 minutes, reduce and cook at 350 until the dough is golden and the caramel is bubbly. If the caramel is wet, continue to cook.