The best part of the holidays is giving yourself permission to eat too much of everything from turkey and ham, roast, fish, sides and bread, to indulging in tempting desserts. New Year’s Eve — and, at the very least, a mental commitment of returning to the gym after the holidays — gives us license to savor the delicious sweets we resist year round.
Here are a few my favorite treats (after all, if you are breaking the rules then make it worthwhile). These are good as hostess gifts or to keep yourself. And it’s the holidays for goodness sake, so relax, have fun in the kitchen by yourself or invite some kids or friends to join you. The more, the messier — I mean the merrier!
Holiday Sea Salt CaramelsYou will want to have a candy thermometer for this, a worthwhile investment, as you will want to make these over and over. You will also need wax paper or cellophane for wrapping individual caramels. Great Performances’ pastry chef Rob Valencia makes these for us to bring to our customers throughout the holiday season. Yields a 9 x 13 pan.
2 cups heavy cream
10 Tb sweet butter
2 tsp fleur de sel
3 cups sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
½ cup water
Spray pan w/ pan spray or use vegetable oil, line bottom with parchment paper and lightly spray.
Bring cream and butter to boil, set aside.
Boil sugar, corn syrup and water in heavy 3-4 quart saucepan. Do not stir ingredients but swirl pan to mix, cook until light amber in color.
Carefully stir in cream mixture, being aware that sugar mixture will bubble up. Stir frequently, and boil until candy thermometer registers 242 degrees, about 10 minutes.
When mixture reaches temperature, mix in fleur de sel. Immediately pour into greased pan and let cool on level surface for two hours.
Cut into 1-inch squares and wrap in wax paper or cellophane.
Maple Walnut Caramel-Corn Balls, by Liddabit Sweets’ Jennifer King, from “The New Greenmarket Cookbook”Now that you are interested in caramel, and practice makes perfect, here is another caramel-based recipe from my friends at Liddabit Sweets, an amazing Brooklyn-based handcrafted candy company. I became addicted to their caramels years ago in the New Amsterdam Market. This recipe appears in a cookbook I adore, “The New Greenmarket Cookbook,” where you are more likely to find recipes for every seasonal vegetable, hence the double delight of getting this treat. (The cookbook and the popcorn balls are a great gift set.)
Vegetable oil for greasing
18 cups popped popcorn (about 2⁄3 cup unpopped kernels)
8 Tbs (1 stick) unsalted butter
3⁄4 cup granulated sugar
3⁄4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3⁄4 cup maple syrup, preferably grade B
1⁄2 cup light corn syrup
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1 1⁄2 tsps baking soda
1 Tb salt
Grease two heatproof spatulas and one extra-large bowl. Place the popped popcorn in the bowl and set it aside. Pop the corn kernels, or buy some really freshly made popcorn. (My note: Make enough to snack on while you cook!)
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the sugars, maple syrup and corn syrup. Using a heatproof spatula, stir to combine. Bring to a boil and insert the candy thermometer. Stirring often, cook the mixture to 290°F and stir in the walnuts, if you’re using them.
Remove from the heat, gently add the baking soda, and stir thoroughly. The mixture will foam slightly.
Carefully pour the hot caramel evenly over the popcorn and, using the spatulas, toss gently and constantly — as you do a salad — until the popcorn is coated with caramel, about 1 minute. Add the salt and toss again. Then, using greased hands, shape the popcorn into balls (anywhere from tennis ball to softball-size) and place on sheet pans to cool.
Carrot-Ginger SquaresThis is an all-time favorite and very easy to make. I like it because it can be made as two layers and turned into a cake as easily as it can be poured into a 9x13 baking dish can cut into finger friendly squares. Carrots are also in abundance at the farmers market, so there is an element of seasonality to it! This recipe appears in my cookbook, “Sylvia’s Table.”
For the squares:
Butter or vegetable oil to crease the pan
1 ¾ cups all purpose flour plus more for the pan
1 cup of sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp baking soda
3 eggs lightly beaten
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup shredded carrots (about 4 smallish ones)
1 ½ Tbsp peeled and grated fresh ginger
½ Tbsp Myers’s rum or 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 Tbsp butter, melted and cooled
For the frosting:
12 oz cream cheese at room temperature
2 Tbsp butter at room temperature
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
About 3 cups confectioners’ sugar
Minced candied ginger, optional
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour the pan, tap out excess.
Mix the flour, sugar, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, baking soda and powder together in large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine well but do not over mix.
Pour the batter into the pan, place in over and bake until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center is nearly clean when removed, about 25 minutes. Carrot cakes should be a little moist, so take care not to over bake it. Allow the cake to cool in the pan, then turn it out and frost it.
For the frosting: Beat the cream cheese, butter and vanilla together in the bowl of an electric mixer on high speed. Lower speed to medium and gradually beat in the confectioners’ sugar, adding more or less to your preferred consistency. Spread the frosting over the cooled cake, let set for 5 minutes. Cut into squares and garnish with candied ginger if using.
Pumpkin Bread PuddingGreat Performances’ Pastry Chef Rob Valencia recommends this dish because it is so versatile. He serves it warm right out of the oven and loves it cold from the fridge a few days later. For entertaining purposes, you can assemble the ingredients early in the day and pop into the oven during the meal for a stunning grand finale! The great aroma will whet your appetite!
Ingredients to fill a 9x9 casserole baking dish:
2 yolks (reserve whites for your morning eggs!)
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups half & half
1 10 oz can pumpkin puree (I like Libby’s)
4 oz butter, melted
½ tsp pumpkin pie spices
1 lb brioche, diced, toasted in oven on baking tray
2 Tbsp cinnamon sugar to garnish
Mix together all ingredients until thoroughly combined. Pour over diced bread, let soak about 30 minutes. Fill a ceramic casserole dish, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Bake in a 200-degree oven for 30 minutes until the top is brown. The consistency inside will be moist and custard-like.
Happy, tasty holidays!
Liz Neumark is the CEO of Great Performances catering and the author of the cookbook “Sylvia’s Table.”