Start Christmas season on a sweet note

December 4, 2013 

BETTY CROCKER Putting the cookie tree together.

PICASA

Christmas just would not be Christmas without cookies and delicious pastries, even if some of us can haveonly one or two.

"I just thought I'd share a quick-and-easy cookie recipe I tried since it's that time of year," Catherine Nelson said. "Kids could make this one."

Nelson shares the original recipe that she found on Food Network and her version.

SUGAR COOKIES WITH PISTACHIOS AND CHERRIES

1 (8-ounce) roll refrigerated sugar cookie dough

1/2 cup lightly chopped pistachios, or the nut of your choice

1/2 cup dried cherries

Powdered sugar and milk or half 'n' half for glaze

Preheat oven to 350.

Open sugar cookie log and press into a rectangle on a parchment sheet or cutting board. Sprinkle over the pistachios and cherries, pressing into the dough, then reshape into a log.

Slice into1/4-inch rounds. Bake on ungreased cookie sheet about 12 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. Cool completely, then ice with a glaze. Original version from Food Network

My Version: I used roasted and salted pistachios and finely chopped them in my little electric chopper. I ended up just mixing the nuts and cherries into the dough because it was too hard to roll it back into a log. Then I pinched off about a tablespoon of dough and flattened each one slightly to about1/4-inch thick. I also lined the cookie sheet with parchment paper. Carl liked them a little crunchier, so they baked about 15 minutes. I made the glaze with just powdered sugar and milk. Makes about 2 to 3 dozen cookies, depending on how big you make them. Carl liked them so much he immediately asked me to make more.

-- Submitted by Catherine Nelson

Red-hot top 10 treat

Betty Crocker -- yes, the company that produces one of the best go-to cookbooks -- offers 10 red-hot holiday trends for this Christmas. Some are easy for kids to do, such as the cookie tree; others are more for adults.

Making the red-hot list are sweet and savory cookies; the new fruitcake made with marscapone cheese; crafty cookies for kids; global flavor flights, such as cheeseballs with international mix-ins; all-American pastries from doughnuts to shortcakes; popcorn re-invented in a caramel corn fudge; jam cocktails, favorite jams and jellies used in drinks; copycat candies; merry mash-ups, two desserts combined to make one; and communal food, sharing tasty tidbits with loved ones.

In a later column, I will share some of the cheeseballs, jam cocktails and new fruitcake.

First on my list is the cookie tree. It has few ingredients, and the whole family can get involved. This treat takes about 15 minutes of preparation time and a total time of 50 minutes, a family creation in less than an hour.

COOKIE TREE

1 pouch Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix

1/3 cup butter, softened

1 egg

Betty Crocker green gel food color

1 container Betty Crocker Whipped fluffy white frosting

Betty Crocker cinnamon imperials and Betty Crocker decors, as desired for decorating

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 15-by-10-by-1-inch pan with foil.

In medium bowl, stir cookie mix, butter and egg until soft dough forms. With moistened fingers, press dough in bottom of pan.

Bake 10 to 14 minutes or until light golden brown; cool completely, about 30 minutes.

Cut tree shape from baked cookie. If you need help, create a tree template. Place the template on the baked cookie and cut around it using a sharp knife.

Stir food color into frosting as desired. Decorate cookie tree with frosting and candies.

Expert tips:

• Chocolate chip cookie mix can be substituted for the sugar cookie mix. Stir some chopped nuts into the dough for an indulgent treat.

• You can make the cutout cookie the day before the fun begins! Store cookie covered with plastic wrap or foil.

• Try a variety of sugared gumdrops, candy-coated sunflower nuts and cinnamon candies for fun designs and colors.

• Cut shapes out of the scrap cookie; a star to decorate the top of the tree or squares and rectangles to make gifts to go under the tree.

Farro, at last

George Staudt of Florida wanted to know more about farro, a nutty Italian grain that can be used in salads, soups, side dishes and even in main dishes. Farro is in some major supermarkets but certainly can be found in specialty markets, such as Whole Foods, and independent gourmet shops.

Here is a recipe that I found from Giada De Laurentiis on Food Network. It is easy and really brings out the nuttiness of the farro, a nice complement to the fresh tomatoes.

FARRO SALAD WITH TOMATOES AND HERBS

4 cups water

10 ounces farro (about 1- 1/2 cups)

2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste

1 pound tomatoes, seeded and chopped

1/2 sweet onion, chopped

1/4 cup snipped fresh chives

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves

1 large garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Combine the water and farro in a medium saucepan. Add 2 teaspoons of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the farro is tender, about 30 minutes. Drain well, and then transfer to a large bowl to cool.

Add the tomatoes, onion, chives and parsley to the farro, and toss to combine.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the garlic, vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil. Add the vinaigrette to the salad and toss to coat. The salad can be refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.

-- Recipe courtesy of Giada De Laurentiis

If any readers have more farro recipes, please send them to me.

More starter uses

"My question is about the Amish starter," a reader named Linda said. "Can the Amish starter be used in place of the sourdough starter in the sourdough hot rolls recipe and the sourdough coffee cake recipe?"

Yes, Linda. The Amish starter is sweeter than the sourdough starter. If you want the rolls and coffee cake to taste sweeter, by all means, use the Amish starter.

Pat Kersteter shared some recipes using both Amish and Herman starters in a recent column. She sent in several more, but I will share one this week that would be great for a holiday brunch or even Christmas morning.

"This is my favorite of all the Herman or Amish starter recipes," Kersteter said.

CREAM CHEESE BRAIDS

(Can use Amish or Herman starter; Kersteter prefers Herman)

1 cup commercial sour cream

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cups melted oleo

2 packages dry yeast (or 1 cup Herman starter)

1/2 cups warm water (105-115 degrees)

2 eggs beaten

4 cups flour (all purpose or bread flour, not self rising)

Heat sour cream over low heat. Stir in sugar, salt and oleo; cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast over warm water in large mixing bowl, stirring until yeast dissolves. If you use starter, just mix it into the warm (not hot) water. Add sour cream mixture, eggs and flour; mix well. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, divide dough into 4 equal parts. Roll out each part on a well-floured board into 12-by-8-inch rectangles, spread with filling and roll up in a jellyroll fashion beginning at long ends, lightly place rolls, seam side down on greased baking sheet. Slit each roll at 2-inch intervals about two-thirds of the way down through dough resembling a braid. Cover and let rise in warm place for about an hour. Bake at 375 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. Spread with glaze while warm. (I usually bake at 350 for about 30 minutes.)

CREAM CHEESE FILLING

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened

1 cup, plus 3/4 cup sugar

1 egg, beaten

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine cream cheese and sugar in a small mixing bowl. Add egg, salt and vanilla extract. Mix well.

Yields about 2 cups.

Glaze:

2 cups powdered sugar

4 tablespoons milk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well.

-- Submitted by Pat Kersteter

Christmas ideas

Don't forget to share your holiday favorites with fellow readers. I know there is plenty of baking and party planning going on. For us, the weekend of Dec. 13 to 15 looks pretty crazy, but I refuse to let all the hustle and bustle rob us of the joy and meaning of this season.

Andrea Yeager, who can be reached at ayeager51@cableone.net, takes contributions or requests at Cook's Exchange, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-4567.

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