Spruce up your holiday cookies

San Jose Mercury NewsDecember 4, 2013 

Rev up the mixer. Fire up the oven. It's holiday cookie baking time, and this trio of cookbooks offers something for everyone, from die-hard chocoholics to citrus devotees. There are sweet treats from San Francisco dessert maker and marshmallow maven Shauna Sever, seriously unusual twists from Portland, Ore., pastry cart owner Kir Jensen and a baking tome from Seattle's legendary Tom Douglas -- who popped up on Bravo's "Top Chef Seattle" recently. Here's the scoop:

'The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook'

No trip to Seattle is complete without a foray to one of Douglas' 13 popular restaurants. The 2012 winner of the James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur award celebrates the fresh ingredients of the Pacific Northwest and spins them into lovely, memorable meals. Now he's unveiled his pastry secrets in "The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook: Sweetness in Seattle" (William Morrow, $35) with 125 recipes that range from sweet -- hello, Triple Coconut Cream Pie -- to savory sandwiches and bennies, the trendy nickname for eggs Benedict and its variations.

That pie was what put the Dahlia Bakery on the map, and his cinnamon-sugar and mascarpone doughnuts and peanut butter cream-filled peanut butter cookies have passionate followings, too. But it's recipes for treats such as Jackie's Holiday Fruitcake Bars with Dried Cherries and Brandy and intensely chocolaty Chocolate Truffle Cookies with Crackly Crust that make this book a winner for holiday bakers.

The book abounds in technique tips and recipe asides -- use a spring-loaded ice cream scoop, for example, to transfer batter to baking sheets -- that will help even novice bakers turn out decadent desserts.

'Pure Vanilla'

You may remember Sever's name from her "Marshmallow Madness!" (Quirk Books, $16.95). Now the Bay Area dessert caterer has turned her attention to everyone's favorite flavor in "Pure Vanilla" (Quirk Books, $22.95). Sure, we may say we're chocoholics, but we put vanilla in everything we bake, pour vanilla syrup in our lattes and serve vanilla ice cream with every pie or birthday cake.

Sever delves into the various forms of vanilla -- the pods, paste, powder and extract -- as well as the differences between Madagascar, say, and Indonesian vanilla. But it's the recipes that really shine. Her Buttery Baked Vanilla Bean French Toast or Dutch Babies are perfect fare for Christmas morning, while her Cherry Vanilla Shortbread Cake Squares and Lemon-Vanilla Dream Bars would be great at any holiday cookie exchange. Filled with lemon curd and white chocolate, the latter dessert combines the best of both the blondie and lemon square worlds.

'The Sugar Cube'

You may think food trucks are hot where you live, but in Portland, they're a major part of the food scene -- and Jensen's Sugar Cube is a mainstay. Jensen traffics in what she calls "deliciously twisted treats," salty-sweet mixtures such as the chocolaty Highway to Heaven cupcake, which sports salted caramel drizzles and potato chips. Everything is created, baked and frosted in her tiny food cart, which means that the 50 recipes in "The Sugar Cube" (Chronicle Books, $24.95) should work in your apartment kitchen, too.

The chapter on cookies offers all sorts of holiday-ready possibilities, including spicy gingersnaps with fresh ginger, Seven Layers of Sin Bars -- with cashews, coconut, butterscotch and crushed Ruffles potato chips -- and a significant twist on the typical, jam-filled shortbread theme. She grates the frozen dough for her Della's Austrian Shortbread Bars over the pan bottom, covers it with homemade Cranberry-Port Jam, then tops it with more grated, frozen shortbread dough so the cookie layer remains light and fluffy.

Merry baking!

DELLA'S AUSTRIAN SHORTBREAD BARS WITH CRANBERRY-PORT JAM

Cranberry-port jam:

1- 1/2 cups tawny port

1- 1/2 cups sugar

18 ounces fresh or frozen cranberries

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Black pepper

1/2 vanilla bean

Shortbread:

4 cups unbleached flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon sea salt

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

2 cups sugar

4 large egg yolks

1/2 vanilla bean

Zest from 1 lemon

Powdered sugar, for garnish

1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine port, sugar, cranberries, orange zest, salt and 2 or 3 good twists of pepper. Split vanilla bean lengthwise; scrape out seeds. Add to pan along with the pod.

2. Bring jam mixture to a boil over medium-high heat; simmer and cook, stirring, until berries burst and mixture is as thick as cranberry sauce. Let cool for a few minutes. Remove vanilla pod.

3. Puree jam until smooth and easy to spread. Let cool completely, then refrigerate. (This will keep for several weeks.)

4. For shortbread, whisk flour, baking powder and salt.

5. Using a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add yolks, one at a time, beating after each. Scrape down sides of bowl. Split vanilla bean in half lengthwise; scrape in seeds.

6. On low speed, add lemon zest and dry ingredients; mix until just combined. Divide into 2 logs; wrap in plastic and freeze until very hard, at least 2 hours.

7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter bottom and sides of a half-sheet pan (18-by-13 inches); line bottom with parchment. Use a grater to quickly grate one log of dough evenly over the sheet pan (do not press it in).

8. Measure out 2 cups of jam; arrange dollops evenly over dough and spread to create an even layer, leaving 1/4-inch border at edges. Grate remaining dough evenly over the top. Do not press.

9. Bake until golden brown, 40 to 50 minutes. Cool in pan on rack. Cut into 3-by-2-inch bars, and dust with powdered sugar. The bars will keep in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 6 months.

Makes 36.

-- Kir Jensen, "The Sugar Cube" (Chronicle Books, $24.95)

LEMON VANILLA DREAM BARS

Makes 1 dozen

Note: If using a filling other than lemon curd, choose something that's fairly tart to offset the sweetness of the bars.

10 ounces white chocolate, chopped, divided

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

1 cup flour, sifted

1/2 cup lemon curd, orange marmalade or raspberry jam

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8-by-8-inch pan with cooking spray; line it with an 8-by-14-inch strip of parchment, leaving an overhang on two sides.

2. Melt 8 ounces white chocolate and butter in a bowl set over, but not touching, simmering water; stir. Off heat, stir in sugar and salt.

3. Whisk in eggs; whisk in vanilla extract and paste. Gently fold in flour; when just a few streaks remain, fold in remaining white chocolate. Spread batter in pan.

4. Dollop lemon curd on batter in 5 or 6 equal portions. With a knife, swirl curd into batter. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean but not dry, about 25 to 28 minutes.

5. Cool on a wire rack. Grasping the parchment overhang, lift out the entire block. Cut into 12 bars. Makes 1 dozen.

-- Shauna Sever, "Pure Vanilla" (Quirk Books, $22.95)

CHOCOLATE TRUFFLE COOKIES WITH CRACKLY CRUST

1-1/4 cups flour

3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pound plus 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1-1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2-1/4 cups sugar

6 large eggs, at room temperature

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

Generous 2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Sift together the flour, cocoa and baking powder; stir in salt.

2. Melt chopped chocolate in a bowl over, but not touching, simmering water, stirring occasionally until smooth. Remove bowl from water; cool 5 to 10 minutes.

3. Using an electric mixer on medium, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, mixing until incorporated. On high speed, beat for a few minutes until light, creamy and pale. Mix in melted chocolate and vanilla just until combined. Fold in dry ingredients with a rubber spatula; add chocolate chips.

4. Scoop the cookies quickly, before the batter firms up, onto prepared pans in scant 1/4-cup dollops. (It's easiest to use a 2-ounce ice cream scoop, filled 3/4 full). Space the cookies 2 inches apart; flatten each mound slightly with a damp hand.

5. Bake cookies until they are evenly cracked all over the tops and softly set, 14 to 16 minutes, rotating pan halfway through. If you have 2 pans in the oven, switch them between racks, too. (If baking in batches, don't refrigerate the scooped dough. They will not spread properly.) Cool completely before using a metal spatula to separate cookies from parchment.

Makes about 30.

-- Tom Douglas, "The Dahlia Bakery" (William Morrow, $35)

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