Champagne Cake, Eggnog Bars and Snowy-Topped Brownie Drops are perfect holiday confections — delicious, pretty to look at and not hard to bake. (Photo by Chris Hunt/Special; styling by Wendell Brock)
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

Holiday baking made simple

Like many people, I grew up in a world where holiday baking, candy-making and cooking-swapping seemed as mandatory as shopping for gifts and putting up a tree.

My grandmother baked old-school fruit cakes, whiskey-soaked Lane Cakes and towering Japanese Fruit Cakes. My mother stayed up until the wee hours concocting snow-white Divinity candy (sometimes dyed pink or green, always topped with half a pecan or a cherry); bourbon balls; lady fingers; cheese straws and all manner of things coated with nuts and rolled in coconut.

But let’s be real: Who has time for such flour-slinging frenzy nowadays? I can barely spare a moment to decorate the mantle, much less dig out a pastry tube for painting faces on gingerbread guys.

All that said, I remain a dedicated holiday baker, always on the prowl for something new to add to my repertoire.

But I’m talking two or three memorable recipes, not the dozens of Mama and her ilk. And for the most part, I try to stick to simple techniques and minimal ingredients, no-fail recipes that store well, freeze well, travel well. I like sweets that pack flavor and inspire envy.

Luckily, this year we’ve witnessed a sleighful of baking cookbooks with bookoodles of ideas and inspirations.

With “Dorie’s Cookies” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35), Dorie Greenspan proves herself a cookie goddess extraordinaire. I can’t look through her recipe collection without wanting to try it all, from Sweet Potato Pie Bars to French Vanilla Sables to Snowy-Topped Brownie Drops. That latter confection packs the texture of gooey brownies inside a crackly, sugar-coated crust. These cookies are pretty and so easy to make.

Anne Byrn’s “American Cake” (Rodale, $29.99) is where I go to reflect on the legacy of my Southern grandmother, and to find something new. Many of Byrn’s cakes caught my eye for the holidays, but the real clincher was the Pink Champagne Cake with Pink Champagne Buttercream Frosting. Apparently, it’s a holdover from the 1960s, when wearing long white gloves and sipping pink bubbly was the height of fashion.

For some reason, pink didn’t seem all that Christmas-y to me (though my mother would probably disagree), so I decided to use regular bubbles and omit the pink food coloring.

The results: a magnificent three-layer study in ivory, with a fine, moist crumb and a luxurious amount of icing. The champagne gives the cake a delicate aroma of roses and honey. Make it for someone you love. Top it with flowers. Pour some bubbles, and celebrate the coming of a New Year. May it be as sweet and memorable as this cake.

Finally, I was delighted to thumb through Rosie Daykin’s “Butter Celebrates!” (Knopf, $35), a collection of recipes from her Vancouver sweet shop, Butter Baked Goods, and see chapters for the holidays. For Hanukkah, there’s Apple-Stuffed Challah and Chocolate Hazelnut Rugelach. For Christmas, Pecan Crescents, Orange Gingerbread Cake and Cranberry Pistachio Icebox Cookies. For New Year, Champagne Cupcakes (aha!) and Boozy Chocolate Truffles, among others.

But the recipe that really sang out to me was the so-called Eggnog-less Bars. So what’s up with the name?

Seems that on the fine June day Daykin set out to create this recipe, there was no store-bought eggnog to be had, so she had to improvise. And boy, did she hit pay dirt.

These easy-to-put-together bars have the texture of cheesecake, a hint of spice and a touch of booze. And even without the eggnog, they are delicious and evocative of the creamy holiday libation.

And so, friends, after some experimentation, I present a pair of recipes that are ideal for packing into cookie tins or putting out when friends stop by for coffee. And a special-occasion cake that will turn heads and make you flush with excitement.

One of these holidays, I’m going to get out the cookie cutters and the sprinkles.

I’m going to bring down all the ornaments from the attic and put up a tree, or three.

But for now, there’s work to do, gifts to buy — and parties. Happily, I can check off the holiday baking box, and with these three gems, you can, too.

Snowy-Topped Brownie Drops

This wonderfully rich, moist-at-the-center chocolate cookie is just the thing for a holiday cookie swap or for enjoying alone with a glass of milk. The brownie-like drops get their crackled crust from rolling the dough in confectioner’s sugar before baking. As the cookie expands, you get what cookbook author Dorie Greenspan describes as “dark valleys and white plateaus.”

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into about 10 pieces

8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 large cold eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

Confectioners’ sugar, for dredging

Fit a heatproof bowl over a pan of gently simmering water, making certain the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl, and put the butter in the bowl. Coarsely chop 6 ounces of the chocolate and scatter it over the butter. Finely chop the remaining 2 ounces chocolate; set aside. Leave the bowl over the simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients are just melted, taking care that they don’t get so hot that they separate. Remove the bowl from the pan.

Using a whisk or a heatproof spatula, stir in the sugar. The mixture will turn grainy, but that’s OK. One by one, add the eggs, whisking energetically after each one goes in and then for a minute or two more. The dough will become smoother, shinier and thicker. Whisk in the vanilla and the salt and then, less vigorously, the flour. Stir in the finely chopped chocolate. Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. (Or you may chill in the freezer for 30-40 minutes.)

When you’re ready to bake, center a rack in the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.

Put some confectioners’ sugar in a small bowl. (If your confectioners’ sugar is lumpy, you can sift it, but even lumpy sugar seems to be fine for these cookies.) Using a medium cookie scoop, scoop out level portions of dough or use a tablespoon to get rounded spoonfuls. Roll it in a ball, and drop it into the bowl of sugar. Gently toss the dough around in the sugar until it’s generously coated. Place the ball on one of the baking sheets and repeat, giving the balls about 2 inches of spread space. Slide the sheet into the oven and bake the cookies, for about 12 minutes, rotating the baking sheet after 6 minutes. The cookies will have spread and cracked; their sides should feel set and their centers should still be a little soft.

Put the baking sheet on a rack and wait 2 minutes, then carefully transfer the cookies to the rack using a broad spatula and let cool until they are just warm or have reached room temperature.

Repeat with the second baking sheet and the remaining dough. (If the dough has softened to the point that it’s sticky when you roll it, return to the refrigerator or the freezer for a few minutes.) Makes: About 25 cookies

— Adapted from “Dorie’s Cookie” by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35).

Per cookie: 107 calories (percent of calories from fat, 43), 1 gram protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 5 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 23 milligrams cholesterol, 45 milligrams sodium.

Champagne Cake With Champagne Butter Cream Frosting

Cake queen Anne Byrn includes a recipe for a Pink Champagne Cake in her latest book. She calls for a touch of pink food coloring, but we skipped the dye and the pink bubbles in favor of white champagne. If you want to color the cake and frosting, add just a tiny bit of food coloring at the end of the mixing process; Byrn suggests Wilton pink coloring paste.

For the cake

Butter and flour for prepping the pans

3 cups cake flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

6 large egg whites, at room temperature

1 cup champagne, at room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the frosting

1 3/4 cups (3 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

8 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

4 to 5 tablespoons champagne

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

White chocolate shavings, sliced strawberries, coconut, or edible rose petals for garnish

Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 8-inch layer pans. Shake out the excess flour; set pans aside.

Place the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium-size bowl, and sift to combine well. Set aside.

Place the egg whites, champagne, vanilla and oil in a large mixing bowl, and whisk by hand until well blended. Set aside.

Place the sugar and butter in a large bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until creamy and light, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the flour mixture and the egg white mixture alternately, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Stir in the pink coloring. Divide the batter between the prepared pans, and place the pans in the oven.

Bake until the cakes just pull back from the sides of the pans, 23 to 27 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven, and place them on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the inside edges of each pan, give each cake a gentle shake, then invert it once and then again onto the rack to cool completely, right side up, 30 minutes.

While the cakes are cooling, prepare the frosting. Place the butter in a large mixing bowl, and beat on medium speed until creamy and smooth, about 3 minutes. Add 6 cups of the confectioners’ sugar, the champagne and vanilla. Blend on medium speed until smooth. Add the remaining confectioners’ sugar, adding what you need to make the frosting thick but spreadable. (I think 6 to 7 cups is plenty, but if you like tons of icing, use the full 8 cups.) Increase the mixer speed to medium-high, and beat until the frosting is fluffy, 30 seconds.

To assemble the cake, place 1 layer on a cake plate. Spread about 1 cup cup of the frosting to the edges. Place a second layer on top and repeat. Place the third layer on top, and frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting. Garnish as desired, depending on the occasion. Slice and serve. Serves: 12

— Adapted from “American Cake” by Anne Byrn (Rodale, $29.99).

Per serving: 973 calories (percent of calories from fat, 42), 4 grams protein, 136 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 46 grams fat (27 grams saturated), 116 milligrams cholesterol, 255 milligrams sodium.

Eggnog Bars

These dessert bars don’t contain eggnog, but the use of spice and spirits definitely evokes the holiday beverage. Though author Rosie Daykin specifies brandy, I chose Irish whiskey, to lovely effect.

2 cups graham-cracker crumbs

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 (8-ounce) packages full-fat cream cheese

1 (14 ounce) can condensed milk

1 large egg

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons brandy (may use rum, Bourbon, rye or Irish whiskey)

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg, plus more for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-9-inch baking pan, and line with parchment.

In a medium bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs, allspice and butter. Press the mixture firmly and evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for 10 minutes, or until a light golden brown. Remove and set aside. Leave oven on.

In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the cream cheese on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the condensed milk, egg, flour, brandy (or other liquor of choice) and nutmeg. Continue to mix until well combined, about 2-3 minutes.

Pour the cream cheese mixture over the baked graham base, using a small spatula or knife to spread evenly. Sprinkle more nutmeg on top.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until the center is firm.

Remove from oven, and allow the dish to cool completely in the pan or place in the refrigerator overnight.

Run a small knife around the inside of the pan. Carefully remove the slab from the pan, and cut into 16 bars. Make sure to use a long knife to avoid cutting and dragging the knife across the bars. It is also helpful to wipe the blade between cuts to ensure a clean cut. Serves: 16

— Adapted from “Butter Celebrates!” by Rosie Daykin (Knopf, $35).

Per serving: 290 calories (percent of calories from fat, 59), 5 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 19 grams fat (12 grams saturated), 68 milligrams cholesterol, 184 milligrams sodium.

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