Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Seven Super-Simple and Very Speedy Sweet Santa Treats

Who has time to bake? Who has the privilege of not baking? These super-simple recipes make holiday baking about as quick and simple as it can be.

This collection of seven Santa favorites focuses on speedy, simple preparation and sweet results. Designed for maximum impact with minimal effort, these recipes will not help you work your way onto a Bravo reality show, but they do have just enough “wow factor” to satisfy Christmas-spirited kids, pacify nit-picking mothers-in-law, and inspire the one affirmation you want most—a hearty “Ho, ho, ho!” from the big man himself.

The women who pioneered these recipes openly confess, “All measures are approximate, because I have made these things so often my instinct and intuition substitute for measuring cups and spoons.” In fact, the women say these formulae and procedures are not recipes any more; they have become reflexes. They also admit they rely on commercial chefs’ stock-in trade: presentation is everything. If it looks delicious, it is delicious.

Two easy “mousse” pies—These pie recipes are so easy and so deceptive it really feels like cheating, but they have proven absolutely 100% failure proof, making the unsuspecting believe you are a pastry genius. The originators of this recipe base believe “the difference between pudding and ‘mousse’ comes from whipping cream, egg whites, vanilla, and attitude.” In fact, they stress attitude. They prepare regular old instant chocolate pudding with whipped egg whites, two teaspoons of vanilla, and heavy whipping cream, aggressively whipping it until it peaks, and then styling it into pre-made Oreo-cookie or graham cracker pie crusts. The secret to Santa satisfaction: applying the whipped cream with a pastry bag, delicately fashioning little whipped cream flowers around the pies’ edges and at their centers.

Super-easy “sweet potato” pie—From the same “keepin’-it-real housewives” who brought you the mousse pies, a variation on the basic formula with a distinctly seasonal flavor. Pour one can of pre-cooked yams and the syrup into a mixing bowl, adding a cup of brown sugar, two teaspoons of vanilla and a generous dose of pumpkin pie spice. Use a potato masher to pre-mix the ingredients; then, add whipped whites from two eggs. Slowly mix-in heavy whipping cream, beating the mix until it achieves the consistency of mousse. Style into a pre-made graham cracker pie crust and garnish with homemade whipped cream florets. Lightly sprinkle with nutmeg—more for looks than flavor.

• Fruit-filled crepes—Lighten-up and sweeten standard Bisquick pancake recipe with egg-whites whipped until they peak like meringue, confectioner’s sugar to sweeten the mix, extra milk to thin the batter, pumpkin pie spice and vanilla to add flavor; add a teaspoon of baking powder to maximize the “puff.” Cook as usual, and then roll-wrap each crepe around a generous portion of your favorite pie filling; an ice cream scoop works well for proper and uniform portioning. Garnish with your signature homemade whipped cream and appropriately colored sprinkles.

• The Tole House Holiday Upgrade—These simple adjustments to the time-honored Nestle tole house recipe take the drudgework out of preparing cookies in volume—as in cookie exchanges, contributions to the middle school bake sale, or baking for a crowd. You probably know the tole house cookie recipe by heart; for the holidays, go ahead and add the nuts. If you’re feeling really festive, add red and green M&Ms. Mix-in a little chocolate syrup to make the batter extra moist, and then bake the mix according to the “bar style” instructions on the Nestle chocolate chip wrapper, using a well-greased 10x15 Pyrex baking dish so that the bar is slightly thinner than the Nestle instructions suggest. When the cookies have cooled, carefully cut them into 1” x 1” squares, and decorate each square with red-dyed cream cheese frosting—the standard pastry-bag floret we know and love. Add sprinkles as needed. Wrap and deliver.

• Pumpkin bread—Every family has its favorite recipes for the standard assortment of sweet breads—banana, zucchini, and pumpkin. If you have them, of course, remember them and use them. This pumpkin bread recipe, however, may lay the foundation for a family’s new traditions, because it is wonderfully simple and blissfully inexpensive. In one bowl, mix pumpkin pie filling, raisins or currants, oil, sugar, molasses, and vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine the basic baking ingredients--flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger. Combine the contents of your two bowls and mix thoroughly; then, pour the mix into a properly greased loaf pan, and bake for an hour. This version of the recipe deserves passage from young mothers to young daughters. For details on this recipe, and for more super-simple versions of old favorites, look here.

• Double-layer pumpkin cheesecake— The appeal in this recipe originates in its clever deception: It looks as if it must require sophisticated skills, because the pie is, after all, layered. “How do you do that?” people wonder. You prepare the basic cheesecake recipe, using one cup of your standard mix as the bottom layer. Then, you mix the rest with pumpkin pie filling, and the usual flavorings, spreading the mixture on top of the cheesecake foundation. Voila. For full ingredients and instructions, look here.

• Grandma’s by-far-the-best carrot-cake cupcakes—As the best, most honest food writers attest, the real appeal in carrot cake is the cream-cheese frosting. Grandma hid her special secret in an obvious place: She added maple syrup to her standard cream cheese frosting, and applied “the taste of Christmas” to her carrot cupcakes in little flowers, so that the sweetness would not overwhelm the cake’s more subtle flavor. Her other secret was more carefully hidden. Grandma understood that, unless she kept her cakes moist, they would crumble to pieces as they came out of the cupcake pans. Therefore, she included a full 1 1/3 cups of canola oil in her batter, and she grated the carrots as fine as possible to distribute their natural moisture. The formula was perfect. For more great recipes like this one, look here.

One very important footnote: Santa enjoys practically any sweet treat when you serve it with his favorite “anti-freeze” egg nog…wink, wink.

Event planner Sylvia Carlton loves to embellish her themes with desserts from fabulous designers like Heather Barranco of Dreamcakes, a standout artist in the niche New York specialty cakes business.

Photo credits: choco cream pie by janineomg/flickr; Sweet Potato Pie by TheHungryDudes/flickr; Chocolate Chip Bars by Heather Kennedy/flickr; The Grand Central Baking Book Pumpkin Bread by Mike McCune/flickr; Double Layer Pumpkin Cheesecake by Gausshawn/allrecipes; Carrot cupcakes by joyosity/flickr

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