Christmas in July

Christmas in July is a lot like a half-birthday party. Most people ignore the midway marker, saving their energy for the main event later on down the road, but those who do observe go all out. More than a thinly veiled excuse to eat cake and throw a party on an otherwise mundane day, it’s an opportunity to spread holiday cheer when spirits may be flagging. Of course, cake is a necessary component.

Sometimes I wonder if the concept was originally popularized by writers and photographers hell bent on meeting magazine deadlines. Traditional publications are notorious for their extensive lead times, which means that July is high time to get those winter columns locked in. While visions of sugar plums dance in their heads, children splash through sprinklers beneath the summer sun. Feasts are prepared for readers to devour many months later, but right now, what’s one to do with the actual food? Really, the only responsible thing to do is turn it into a full-fledged holiday, lest all that festive effort go to waste.

While it’s still a temporary tease to patient VegNews subscribers, rest assured that this year’s yule log will be epic whenever you can roll it up. Fluffy peanut butter mousse wrapped up in a spiral of salted pretzel sponge cake sets this one apart from the predictable pumpkin spice or gingerbread affairs. A thin coating of whipped coconut cream provides the edible adhesion for thin planks of chocolate bark, making for an impressive finish that anyone can achieve. Flurries of soft confectioner’s sugar stand in for snow, melting away on the tongue, not in the mid-July heat.

Merry Christmas, one and all, now or later! If you’re a good, Santa might just swing by with this sweet treat in six month’s time.

Easy Like Christmas Morning

Light filters in through frosted windows, gently painting the tinsel-clad branches of pine, dancing across silken wrappings, glinting off glossy greeting cards. All is still, silent, and calm. The air is just a breath too cold for comfort, but nothing the sun won’t fix in another minute, glowing and growing stronger right before sleepy eyes, still clouded with dream of feasts from the night before. Christmas morning, in the best situation, is a magical time, the split second right before children squeal with glee to mark the start of joyous mayhem. Controlled chaos will soon describe the scene as paper is torn and tags go flying. The last thing you want to fuss with is a fancy breakfast that would tear you away from these fleeting moments, but a bowl of cold cereal just won’t cut it today.

Before calamity descends, take the wheel and prepare yourself well in advance. Sticky buns or cinnamon rolls are the classic daybreak decadence for this annual celebration, but who wants to wake up at 5am to start mixing dough? Not me, even if I don’t have children to beat down the stairs or a tree to furnish before Santa slacks off.

Save yourself some time and labor by turning out one giant, majestic, family-style spiral, rather than individual little buns. Dazzling with warm rivulets of cinnamon sugar goo dripping into every tender spiral of dough, wrapping around crisp pecans like a pillowy blanket, you’ll think you’re still dreaming when you take the first bite.

Perhaps it will be the scent of buttery dough or cinnamon spices that awaken Christmas spirits, rather than the sunrise this time around. All the hard work is done the night before, so in the morning, all you need to do is preheat the oven and pop in the pan. It’s not exactly holiday magic… But it may just taste like that.

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Once In a Blue Moon

Only once in a blue moon does one find a cookie so fetching, so beautiful and flavorful, so irresistible that it might become a new staple on the highly anticipated annual Christmas cookie platter. Classic recipes passed down across the generations don’t crumble in the face of passing trends. Newcomers try to work their way in at the edges, but they rarely have staying power beyond one holiday season, maybe two at best.

Allow me to introduce your new baking tradition. Almond crescents have stood the test of time, appearing in a multitude of European patisseries under the title of vanillekipferl, migdałowe półksiężyce, kupferlin, and more, depending on who you ask. Melt-in-your-mouth shortbread cookies with a snowy dusting of confectioner’s sugar, there’s no unseating this sweet staple… Until now.

Blue matcha, though actually made with powdered butterfly pea flowers rather than green tea leaves, adds an alluring hue along with subtly nuanced flavor. Placing greater emphasis on the nutty aspects of its namesake, almond butter and almond extract provide a much bolder bite than the typical blend. Anyone who thinks that all shortbread sweets are bland will have to reevaluate their assessment after even a tentative nibble.

A step above the basic butter cookie, the dough couldn’t be more accommodating for any deadline or level of expertise. No chilling, no rolling, no cutting; just mix and bake. Best of all, they can be fully prepared well in advance and stored in the freezer until the time for gift giving arrives… Or cravings strike. Let’s be honest, they’re possibly even more delicious straight out of the deep freeze, with just a touch of refreshing frost lending surprising authenticity to the aesthetically pleasing icing sugar.

Astronomically speaking, a blue moon has nothing to do with color. If it happens to look blue, looming high in the night sky, it’s because of dust in the atmosphere. These treats are made of even more precious stuff than moon dust, which fully delivers on the promise in every regard.

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All Hail Wassail

Cheers, to the drink that’s worthy of a toast in and of itself! “Wassail” was actually an Old Norse salutation meaning “be well,” spreading merriment and good spirits, long before it ever became a drink spiked with them. Typically red wine but occasionally beer and cider join the festivities as well. Regardless of the base, the warm, spicy blend of seasonings have come to define wassail today, inextricably linking it with the flavors of Christmastime. Just like chai or pumpkin pie, every mix is a little bit different, balancing a unique bouquet of floral, hot, sweet, and earthy tastes; a delicate harmony as distinctive as the deft hand holding the whisk.

There’s a lot to be said for the complex nuances of every different batch, but just as many reasons to recommend the consistency and reliability of a set approach. When you nail down the perfect combination, it quickly becomes one tradition you can’t mess with. For ease and nostalgic comfort, there’s no beating the wassail mix from Rodelle Kitchen. Like clockwork, I’ve been emptying those jars every winter since I first discovered this secret shortcut. Robust, sweet but not sugary, it’s a staple for serving up some instant holiday cheer.

While I would never mess with an essential, tried-and-true ingredient like this, I certainly would mess with the format.

Sandwiched between disks of buttery, flaky biscuit dough, the spicy seasoning turns into the delicious, edible spackling paste holding together a loosely glued loaf, just waiting to be ravaged. Rip apart the pieces at the seams, still warm and covered in a light, lemony glaze for greatest effect. The aroma is transportative but the taste is like nothing else.

Lightly caramelized from the heat of the oven, this singular spice mix needs no additional ingredients to sing. Alcohol need not apply to turn any gathering into a party when this fun, festive loaf hits the table. Even if it’s just plain apple cider, I’d definitely raise a glass to that!

Wassail Pull-Apart Bread

Biscuit Dough:

3 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Vegan Butter
1 1/2 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1 1/2 Teaspoons Apple Cider Vinegar

Wassail Filling:

1/2 Cup Wassail Mix
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Applesauce

Lemon Glaze:

2 Cups Confectioner’s Sugar
1 – 2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease an 8 x 4-inch loaf pan.

The dough is prepared exactly like any batch of biscuits at first, so start by combining the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces, drop them in, and use a fork, pastry cutter, or your fingers to slowly incorporate the cubes. The resulting mixture should be the consistency of coarse crumbs, with no chunks of butter remaining that are any bigger than the size of peas. Pour both the non-dairy milk and vinegar in together, stirring gently just until everything comes together into a cohesive, slightly shaggy ball.

Press the dough out onto a lightly floured surface to about 1/2 an inch in thickness. Use round cookie cutters, approximately 4-inches in diameter, to stamp out circles, re-rolling scraps and cutting them to fit until the dough is entirely used up.

To assemble to loaf, start by stirring together the applesauce and wassail mix until smooth. Take one round of dough and smear around a 1 – 2 teaspoons of the filling, to cover. With the naked side facing out, line this up flush with the heel of the loaf pan; it’s easiest to stack the pieces if you tip the pan on the short end, allowing gravity to help keep the rounds together until the pan is full. Repeat with the remaining dough, flipping the final piece so that the uncovered side is also facing out.

Bake for 24 – 28 minutes, until deeply amber brown all over. Let cool for at least 5 minutes before applying the glaze. If you glaze it while warm, it will soak in, but if you want it to be more visible and sit on top, wait for it to cool completely.

Make the glaze by simply whisking together the confectioner’s sugar and lemon juice, adding more or less liquid until it reaches your desired consistency. Pour generously over the finished bread and raise a toast, to your health and happiness!

Makes 1 Loaf; 8 – 10 Servings

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