Doodling in the Margins

When you’re ready to jazz up your sweets this holiday season, there’s more than just cinnamon in the spice rack. Snickerdoodles epitomize the power of this humble seasoning, bringing the full bouquet of warm, woodsy, piquant notes out to the surface, quite literally, by varnishing chewy sugar cookies with a crackled cinnamon coating. Though it’s hard to argue with that elegant simplicity, that tried-and-true method that children of all ages, including children at heart, adore, there’s a lot to be said for embracing the saltier side of the pantry.

No longer a crazy concept, adding just a pinch of salt to sweets is now the norm, embraced by wise bakers seeking to amplify the layers of flavors already in place. By emphasizing those saline crystals, even the most basic tastes take on greater dimension. Case in point: The pretzel. Without their darkly varnished exteriors sparkling with coarse salt, they would merely be dry bread sticks. Take the next step forward, adding crushed pretzels to the tender cookies we all know and love, and an equally startling, yet wholly satisfying transformation can take place.

In stark contrast to the supple cookie dough beneath, crunchy layers of everyone’s favorite bar snack turn this treat up to eleven. It’s the kind of cookie that has real staying power, after the other guests have gone home and the decorations are carefully packed away, after Christmas, New Year’s Day, and beyond.

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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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Miraculous Olive Oil

The legendary oil that fueled the original Hanukkah miracle, burning brightly for eight days on end, was most certainly olive oil. Capable of wonders both big and small, historically and still to this day, it’s an indispensable staple that’s saved me from all variety of culinary plights. Just as the biblical story exhorts, a little bit of extra virgin olive oil goes a long way.

Why is this the obvious, and only rational choice? While it doesn’t last forever, kept in a dark and cool place, tightly sealed bottles will stay just as fresh for up to a year and a half without any preservatives, high-pressure canning practices, or refrigeration. Plus, it can handle the heat. Contrary to popular belief, extra virgin olive oil does indeed have a high smoke point (400° F), so it can handle anything from a light sauté to a deep (and deeply flavorful) fry. You can bake with olive oil, as well.

Extra virgin olive oil is made by sheer force, extracted by pressure without heat or chemicals. It represents quality you can taste. Virtually free of acidity(below 0.8%,) each oil is judged by experts, who must agree that it meets the high flavor standards to bear the official designation of “extra virgin.” Each bottle that makes the grade must exhibit the presence of nuanced fruity, bitter, and spicy notes, in every bold drop. If these signature components aren’t all in perfect, harmonious balance, it won’t receive the esteemed rating, and you’ll never suffer the injustice of a subpar specimen.

European extra virgin olive oil in particular is held to some of the highest standards. The olive tree has been revered in Europe since antiquity. Over thousands of years, farmers have evolved hundreds of cultivars and optimized them for different environment conditions and terrains to produce the most flavorful yields.

Beyond its legendary piquancy, aroma, and zest, extra virgin olive oil can literally shed a light on the darkness of a largely overlooked holiday practice. The fabled tale of the Hanukkah miracle is more than just mythology, after all. Even without a fancy vessel or ornamental candles, my menorah burns as brightly as ever this year, powered by oil alone. If you have wicks and olive oil, you can make one from scratch in a matter of minutes, too!

Just make sure you save a little drizzle for dessert. While balsamic vinegar often gets all the attention as an unconventional ice cream topper, lending a savory, tangy twist to the usual old frosty scoop, I happen to love the richness that this golden-green elixir adds instead. Vanilla would be most traditional, but what’s to say it doesn’t pair just as well with a luscious spoonful of giandua (hazelnut-chocolate) ice cream, melting luxuriously to mingle with the oil itself?

Quality staples are worthy of a celebration everyday, but especially for the holidays, splurging on really good extra virgin olive oil will taste like a little miracle in every dish.

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All That Glitters

Like a moth drawn to a flame, I find myself irresistibly attracted to all things that sparkle. Once the glint of something reflective hits my eye, all previous tasks go straight out the window. Be it a gemstone or a piece of aluminum foil, it must be examined, admired, possibly even cherished. I’m no magpie, but I do find myself with a conspicuous collection of gleaming metallic platters, shimmery eye shadows, iridescent glasses, and high-gloss nail polishes, just at a glance.

Following suit, I can’t possibly turn down any opportunity to indulge in a pinch of culinary glitter. This one, in the form of organic raw cane sugar, is entirely natural, too.

Coated in sweet crystals that catch the light, the tender bite and gentle, warm spice of soft speculoos cookies will be enough to lure in anyone, with or without a propensity to delight in all that glitters. Spread a thick layer of creamy speculoos frosting on top of that, and sandwich it with a second cookie, doubling down on that earthy golden glow is almost too much brilliance to take… Although, I trust you’ll find some way to manage.

Make space on your holiday cookie platter because these speculoos sparklers are all dressed up and ready to dazzle.

Inspired by the Florida Crystals Blogger Challenge, I’m betting that this recipe will be as good as gold. These sweet sprinkles brighten up countless recipes on their website, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram pages, but nothing quite like this. Making use of standard granulated, brown, and powdered sugars, the cookies radiate an almost effervescent sweetness, inside and out.

Even the word “speculoos” seems to sparkle, but if it doesn’t dance across your tongue in quite the same way, you could just as happily use creamy peanut butter instead. The results will be every bit as dazzling.

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