Category Archives: Holiday Treats

The Great Florentine Tradition

Morning Tea
As usual, I’m posting pretty late. The Christmas cookie storm has long been replaced by black eyed pea soups for the new year and vegan dips to help maintain resolutions, but this was the second year I made these bars for my family and this year my dad declared that they would have to become a holiday tradition.
My family doesn’t have a lot of recipe traditions. (Discovering the truth about the date balls I grew up thinking my grandmother made every time I visited coming crashing down when she permanently retired from cooking, but the date balls kept coming, brought this to light recently) So instating a cookie, or bar really, as a “family tradition” meant a lot to me. It probably had a lot to do with a few key ingredients that make this decadent dessert perfect for my intestinally challenged family: The original recipe I found called for gluten free flour. I have since become gluten free and so have tried it both ways. Notes on gluten-free flour follow but this was a huge plus for us this year. Also the recipe has always called for a drizzle of chocolate over the top. I have always intended to do this, get all the way through cooking, and realize how frickn good they are without chocolate. My dad, who is allergic to chocolate has always very much appreciated this last minute laziness and now that’s just how they are for me. Beyond that, almonds, apricots and cranberries smothered in gooey caramel? You really can’t go wrong.
So if they’re a family tradition they’re never really too late to share, right? I’m really just super early for next year. Or maybe I’ll make a batch for Valentine’s Day.

*gluten-free flour: I am still hoping to find the particular flour mix that magically can be seamlessly substituted for gluteny flour leaving cookies chewy, biscuits fluffy, and no one the wiser, but I haven’t found it. I like King Arthur’s Gluten Free Flour Mix a lot, but for this recipe used an Arrowhead Mills mix. It worked surprisingly well for the lobster pot pie we made but was pretty crumbly for this recipe. Make sure to chill the bars completely before you cut them to help with this problem.

Apricot Cranberry Florentine Bars
(adapted from Sweet Twist of Blogging)

INGREDIENTS
Crust
3/4 cup (a stick and a half) butter
3 egg yolks, room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup gluten free or AP flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp orange zest

Filling
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup honey
1 cup sliced almonds
½ cup dried cranberries or dried cherries
½ cup dried apricots
1 tsp orange zest

DIRECTIONS
For the Crust
Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 10 inch square pan with parchment paper and spray with non stick spray. Make sure the parchment reaches all the way up the sides of the pan.
Beat together butter and egg yolks until combined in a stand mixer. Add brown sugar and 1tsp zest and beat until light and creamy. Add flour and salt and blend until just combined.
Press the dough in to the pan. If you use gluten-free flour it will be extremely sticky, just stick with it, show it who’s boss. Bake crust 15 minutes, or until golden, remove from oven and let cool.

For the Filling
Heat butter, sugar, cream and honey over medium heat. Continue to cook until a candy thermometer reaches 240F, about 5 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in almonds, zest and dried fruit. Pour over cooled crust. Bake another 15 minutes.
Allow bars to cool completely before cutting. I left mine in the fridge for a bit just to make sure the gooey deliciousness is solid enough to keep the crust together when you cut through it. If you can remove the sheet of bars by pulling up on the parchment paper this will really help with the cutting process, but cutting in the pan is fine too, just be careful not to peel up the parchment too!

Florentines night

Torrone


This classic Italian confection is deceptively simple. It only has a handful of ingredients and there’s no baking involved, but don’t be fooled. The short ingredient list leaves the success up to skill and technique; admittedly a major reason I wanted to give it a try. But nougat is not for the faint of cooking heart. It’s sticky and hot and gets everywhere and will throw all your cooking confidence to the wind.

As with anything that dates back multiple millennia, the origins of torrone are somewhat disputed. The Italian history tells that ancient Romans developed a similar confection called cupedia, made from honey, flour, wine and sesame. It was so time consuming and expensive that the confection was typically made only for formal occasions or as an offering to the gods.
Perhaps a more logical, though more complicated history places torrone’s origins in Arabic Cordoba where a medical practitioner records making tu-run in the 12th century.
Regardless, its name appears to derive from the Latin torrere meaning ‘to toast’ due to toasting the nuts and seeds before combining them into the nougat, a etymological tidbit which has endeared torrone to me all the more.

The trick with torrone is temperature. Ok. Full disclosure: that is the only secret I uncovered. There very well may be others, ones that may have prevented my entire kitchen becoming sticky white, but they never revealed themselves to me. Getting the sugar to the right temperature to harden when it cools but not so hot that it cracks, and working quickly once the nougat is whipped before it cools too much to handle are key steps. Planning ahead and making sure everything is prepped when needed, will help immensely.

INGREDIENTS
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar
1/2 c honey
1/4 c corn syrup
1/2 c water
2 egg whites
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
½ cup almonds
½ cup pistachios
½ cup dried cranberries

DIRECTIONS
If you are using wafer paper prepare your pan first. When done properly a sheet of wafer paper on the top and bottom of the nougat makes the torrone look more uniform and the decorative surface is more the sliced one than the top. Mine just looked like a mess. I found that using only the bottom layer helped keep the torrone together, and release easily from the pan but left a pretty, whipped top. It’s like “torrone rustica” (yep, I just made that up. Famed Italian paticceres are rolling in their graves at my confectionary blasphemy).
You can buy wafer or rice paper at any baking supply store, or Amazon. Cut a sheet to the size of the bottom of your 8×8 inch tray and fit as exactly as you can into the bottom. Grease the sides with oil and Voila, your pan is torrone ready.

Combine the sugar, corn syrup, water and honey in a large saucepan over medium heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. As the sugar heats it will bubble and expand so make sure to use a large enough pot to allow for it.
Use a candy thermometer and heat the sugar to 315 degrees, hard crack stage. The sugar will continue to heat when you remove it from the burner so watch carefully and pull it just a couple degrees early. I have read both to stir the syrup occasionally and not to stir at all. I couldn’t tell much of a difference and it makes me feel better to stir a bit. The important thing is just to watch it carefully.

While the sugar is cooking whip your egg whites in an electric mixer with the whisk attachment until “stiff but not dry” peaks form. Whatever that means. The whites will separate if left in the bowl for too long after whipping so I started at about 290 degrees.
When the sugar reaches temperature remove from heat and stir it a bit to help the bubble fall. Set the mixer on high and pour the syrup into the egg whites in a very slow, steady stream. When you’ve scraped all you can from the pot leave the mixer running while the nougat grows and thickens and the mixer bowl has cooled enough to handle, about 10 minutes. Slow the mixer to low and stir in the nuts and cranberries. As soon as they’re incorporated detach your mixer bowl and use your stiffest plastic spatula to transport the nougat into the pan. This will take no small amount of conviction, bull-headedness, and willingness to get your fingers covered with the stuff. Manhandle that candy into place and press down into the corners and smooth out the top as much as possible. (If you’re opting for the double wafer sheet style, place the second piece of paper over a mostly smoothed nougat and press down with a clean spoon or spatula to squeeze out any bubbles).

Now all you have to do is let the candy cool and cut it into pieces. I found that it’s easiest to cut at just-a-bit-warmer-than-refrigerated. Take well-cooled torrone from the fridge and let sit 10-20 minutes. Use your sharpest knife and a large cup of hot water. Keeping the knife clean, hot and dry slice the nougat into mini brownie sized bites or elegant ½” slices (if you’re a show-off). You can use a bit of corn starch if it gets too sticky to handle but use sparingly.
You can store the nougat for a week or two wrapped and refrigerated. Despite its seeming personal vendetta against me torrone is still a personal favorite that will always hold a special place in my heart, right next to all the half-disastrous kitchen adventures on which I’ve embarked. But my favorite way to eat it is just slightly chilled with a cup of tea or coffee.

Buon Natale!

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Mayan Chocolate Bark


I hardly ever make anything with chocolate in it, but it seemed like a necessary player in a holiday gift box. I love spicy chocolate, and several times have embarked down the Spicy Chocolate Truffle road before realizing (or remembering) how much more I’d bitten off than I could possibly chew with my mouth closed. This chocolate treat, however, runs circles around homemade chocolate truffles in terms of delighted-recipient-bang for your cooking-effort-buck. the most important thing is the ingredients. Spring for some quality dark chocolate. Not that 97% single origin cacao stuff they tout from upon their fancy white horses at prestigious coffee shops, but some quality dark chocolate you’d want to eat straight. I used a combination of dried fruits and nuts that matched my other treats and spoke to the season. pistachios and cranberries from the torrone, ginger from the molasses cookies, cashews that always make me think of christmas (maybe because this is the only season I allow myself to eat them) and sour cherries for some extra tart to offset the sweet. You can use whatever combination of fruit/nuts you prefer but the total quantities are a good rule of thumb.

From the Box
MAYAN CHOCOLATE BARK
Cashews, cranberries, cherries, pistachios and ginger all folded into spiced dark chocolate. ‘nuf said.

INGREDIENTS
1lb dark chocolate (those giant bars at trader joe’s work well)
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cayenne
1/2 cup tart dried cherries
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup candied ginger, chopped
1/2 cup pistachios
1/2 cup roasted cashews

DIRECTIONS
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment or wax paper.
In a double boiler (or one pot set into a a larger pot of water) slowly melt the chocolate over medium-low heat. heat slowly and only enough to melt the chocolate. excessive heat can burn the chocolate and make really unattractive lumps.
When just melted add the cinnamon, ground ginger and cayenne and stir until incorporated.
Add half of each of the nuts and fruits and stir until everything is coated.
Pour the chocolate out onto the prepared baking sheet and spread into a thin layer while keeping all the elements cohesive
Sprinkle the remaining fruits and nuts over the chocolate and chill the bark until firm, or at least a couple of hours.
Break into pieces of desired size (wildly varying sizes accounts for both shameless-chocolate-binger and this-piece-is-so-small-it-doesn’t-even-count appetites)

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Spicy Cheddar Shortbread


An unquestioned favorite among my holiday treat box recipients. Maybe it was just the rarity of receiving a savory gift around the holidays or maybe its just that no one can resist spicy, cheesy, perfectly flaky shortbread. Either way these crackers are so easy and so delicious you can freeze the dough, pull them out whenever you have company and serve them in no time. I know from experience, your guests will be in awe of your apparent skill.
Adapted from these little crackers

From the Box:
SPICY CHEDDAR SHORTBREAD
Nothing cures a holiday sugar overdose faster than a savory, spicy snack to remind you just why dessert comes after dinner. But don’t be fooled by these innocuous little crackers. Stuffed full of sharp cheddar, pepper and a sprinkling of cayenne these little crackers just might bite back!
Try with some savory jam or a glass of wine.

INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup butter at room temperature (i always use salted)
2 cups (about 8oz) sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated (cheddar and parmesan also work well together)
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp salt (1 1/2 if using unsalted butter)

DIRECTIONS
1. Using an electric mixer with the paddle attachement beat butter and grated cheese soundly, about 2 minutes.
2. Add flour, salt, pepper and cayenne and continue to beat. dough should be crumbly, but just about to come together, or forming larger clumps. If your dough is too dry add ice water, a tsp at a time, adding as little as possible to make the dough manageable.
NB: I needed to add water when my butter and cheese were colder and therefore less prone to blending with the flour. Using comfortably-room-temperature ingredients and making sure your mixer has had enough time to do its job may avoid the need to add water. If not, that’s fine, just add very sparingly.
3. Turn out dough on a piece of parchment or wax paper and form into two logs. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice logs into about 1/4 inch thick crackers and place on an ungreased cookie sheet (if frozen, you may want to let the logs thaw on the counter for about 10 minutes before slicing). Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or just until the edges start to turn golden.

Neel’s Addition: a drop of truffle oil on these crackers is really to die for. I’ve never baked the oil in but will have to try next time. In the meantime, whenever these crackers are around my truffle oil stores become sadly depleted!

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Gingeriest Molasses Chews


I have to admit these may be my personal favorite among the F+T treat box recipes (although I will always hold an extremely soft spot for the love and tears that went into the Torrone). But I am in good company with my father and uncle. Warm from the oven these little cookies are simply unbeatable, but even wrapped up and saved for later they will stay chewy and delicious for a couple weeks making them prime cookie candidates for gift mailing.

From the box:
GINGERIEST MOLASSES CHEWS
Not your grandmother’s ginger cookies. These tiny cookies may look adorable, with their crackly sugar coating, but they pack some serious ginger punch. Little candied ginger chunks help the cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and, of course, molasses, make the season spicy and bright.

INGREDIENTS
2 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp ground ginger (1 tsp if you don’t use as much candied bits)
1 1/2tsp cinnamon
2 tsp baking soda
3/4 cup butter at room temperature (I use salted. if you don’t add 1/2 to 1 tsp salt)
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup molasses
1 egg
1/4 cup candied ginger diced (I did a bit more than this for the batch I did later, depends how much you like ginger)

DIRECTIONS
Sift dry ingredients (flour through baking soda) together in a bowl.
Cream butter and sugar in an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until fluffy (about 2 minutes)
Add egg and molasses and blend well.
Add dry ingredients in 2-3 phases, blending well after each addition.
Slowly pour in ginger chunks with mixer at lowest speed

I think it’s a bit easier to work with the dough if it’s chilled a bit but you don’t need to chill it if you don’t mind the extra gooeyness. Scoop a large tsp of dough and roll it into a ball in your hands. I made tiny ones for gifts, just under an inch diameter but you can do larger ones if you want them chewier, just watch the time when you bake.
roll the balls in the coarsest sugar you have. I used organic sugar which tends to be a bit coarser than regular granulated.
Place on a cookie sheet. use a silpat if you have one, and bake at 375 for 8 minutes (for small ones) or a bit longer for larger. be careful not to over bake. pull them out once the cookies are cracked and the tops look dry but the cracks still look moist.

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The Fig + Thistle Holiday Treat Box Extravaganza


Several years ago, when my best high school girlfriends and I were poor college students, yet still enamored of the sparkly warmth and good cheer of christmas (even the jewish ones, i’m convinced) we decided to start a make-a-gift exchange. We enlisted a trusty boyfriend (thanks, Pete. You may be the only other person who’s been along for the ride since the beginning) to draw names and assign each girl with a recipient of a gift with the sole criterium that it had to be hand made.
I hardly remember what drama ensued as each of our 5 very smart but extremely different personalities set about determining what to give a (very smart, but very different) friend. But I’m sure there was plenty to be shared around. I had the distinct advantage of access to a wood shop at college and managed to piece together some wall organizer which i actually saw on Alison’s kitchen wall years later, which warmed my heart.
After that first year I was thrilled with our new game. But I was always the flaky, creative one, much more apt to make something with scraps laying around and infer some highly sentimental meaning than purchase something someone might actually have a use for. In our democratically governed clique, however, I was outvoted, and our christmas craft tradition slowly deteriorated as our paths diverged in more productive directions like medical school and theatre christmas show schedules.
I tried to keep the dream alive, one year offering to do all the work to create a group recipe book to fill our First Apartment kitchens. That year no gifts were exchanged until the following thanksgiving. My bad, guys. But 2011 was the year I embraced my crafty, recipe ignoring side and started The Fig + Thistle. So I did christmas gifts my way, and thus The Fig + Thistle Holiday Treat Boxes were born.
My favorite part of any meal is how the food will look and so I developed four treats that would litter the spectrum of holiday snacks, chewy, sticky, crunchy and brittle. sweet, spicy, salty and chocolatey. Wrapped in F+T packaging and mailed away in christmas boxes I started what I hope to be a strong foodie-designer tradition. Each box included a bag of the Gingeriest Molasses Chews, a small box of Spicy Cheddar Shortbread Crackers, a few pieces of mayan chocolate bark and a sampling of traditional Italian Torrone. In the next few days I will post recipes for each because I am thrilled to say they were all a great success. Thank you to everyone for your kind words and I hope you had a very Fig + Thistle holiday.

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