Little Sweet Treats Equal Big Holiday Happiness

12/15/2012 7:00 AM
By Sue Bowman Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

LEBANON, Pa. — Is your holiday entertaining stuck in a rut? Do you long for new recipes that are not only tasty, but also quick to fix — and have a “wow factor,” as well? If so, you’re not alone.

Nearly 50 women recently attended the December classes of Lebanon County’s Cooking Institute, where the Institute’s instructor, Debbie Hartman, gave them plenty of reasons to sigh with relief. Just in time for the holidays, Hartman shared recipes that are pleasing to the eye and the palate and which can be largely prepared ahead so that only final assembly needs to be done when party time rolls around.

One of Hartman’s interests is to experiment with recipes and adapt them freely to fit the occasion and/or the ingredients she has available to her. She encouraged her class participants to do likewise so they can design dishes that best meet their particular entertaining needs.

The December class focused on nuts, cranberries and fruit, with a little meat thrown into the mix for good measure.

Sweet, Roasted Nuts

Roasted nuts with brown sugar caramel is a simple yet elegant way to greet guests — or to use in gift containers or as toppings for other recipes. Hartman’s simple list of ingredients for this palate-pleaser includes the following.

3 tablespoons of butter

1 pound nuts (such as walnuts or pecans)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

The directions are simple. After spraying a large heavy skillet with nonstick cooking spray, melt the butter in it and add the nuts, stirring constantly over low heat until the nuts are roasted — about four minutes. Then, sprinkle the nuts with salt and brown sugar; continue stirring and cooking until the sugar melts, about three more minutes. Spread out onto a foil-lined cookie sheet or jelly roll pan to cool. Either serve immediately or when completely cool.

If stored in tightly sealed containers, these showy nuts will keep at room temperature for several weeks.

Being a real-world cook, Hartman noted the need to be careful when toasting the nuts.

There’s “a fine line between nicely toasted and burnt,” she said, “so don’t walk away from the skillet.”

She pointed out that the small amount of salt in the recipe helps contrast with the sweetness of the brown sugar, but is not a necessary ingredient for those on a salt-restricted diet. Either way, you will end up with “a festive little thing to nibble on,” she said, or perhaps an item to use as a topping for other holiday dishes such as sweet potato casserole or cookies.

As a variation on the nut theme, Hartman shared her success with coating the nut of one’s choice in whipped egg white, then grinding some chai tea to sprinkle over the nuts before baking them to achieve a delicious gourmet snack. These can be baked for about 10 minutes at 350 F.

Fruit and Cheese Appetizers

Hartman’s next mouthwatering treat brings together fruit, cheese and nuts as refreshing compliments to each other that make a pretty and tasty snack or appetizer course.

She combined the following ingredients in a large bowl.

1/3 cup cream cheese

3 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Having these ingredients at room temperature makes the task easier. After they were well blended, Hartman stirred in the nuts and salt:

1/4 cup of lightly toasted nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, pecans or pine nuts

A pinch of salt, if desired

Here’s where the options begin. The cheese and nut mixture works well with slices of a colorful firm fruit, such as a pear or an apple. It can be used as a dip. Or, the fruit slices can be arranged on a serving platter and the hostess can top them with small balls of the cheese-nut mixture.

Hartman noted that using a melon baller to remove the fruit’s core creates a nice cavity in which to nestle little balls of the cheese mixture.

Garnishes on top could include a mint leaf or perhaps a bit of light honey heated and flavored with lemon juice.

If the fruit slices topped with the cheese mixture are placed on small individual serving plates, she said they would also make an attractive opening course for a holiday dinner.

One additional idea would be to place the cheese mixture onto wax paper and form it into a roll that could be refrigerated and then later served as a cheese log with fruit and crackers on the side.

Versatility is one of Hartman’s trademarks in the kitchen.

Sparkling Cranberries

Cranberries are a savory holiday fare that echo the bright red of the season’s decorations. Hartman described her next recipe, Sparkling Cranberries, from the Italian Dish blog, as a snack that is especially beautiful when placed in a pretty glass bowl and one that will impress your guests.

This deceptively easy recipe calls for just the following four ingredients.

2 cups cranberries

2 cups water

2 cups sugar

1 additional cup sugar (for coating the berries)

A simple syrup is made by bringing the 2 cups each of water and sugar to a simmer in a medium saucepan and then letting this syrup cool, before pouring it over cranberries that have been placed in a medium glass bowl. The bowl can then be covered and refrigerated overnight. The cranberries will plump up from absorbing some of the syrup, and the remaining syrup can be saved and used for a second batch.

A skimmer or slotted spoon can be used to drain the cranberries they are removed from the bowl with the syrup. Then, working with a small batch at a time, the well-drained berries can be gently swirled around in another bowl containing the remaining 1 cup of sugar. Making sure to drain the cranberries well helps to avoid possible clumping of the sugar and gives the cranberries a lovely frost-covered look. While some people feel that using large-grain sugar makes a prettier appearance, Hartman just used regular granulated sugar and achieved good results.

She suggests drying the newly sugared cranberries on a sheet of wax paper for a few hours. She also recommends storing the coated berries in a shallow container with the layers of sparkling cranberries separated by wax paper.

Cranberry Cream-Cheese Pastries

Hartman next presented pastry baskets filled with a cream-cheese mixture and topped with cranberries. While the recipe she used called for phyllo pastry, Hartman found it easier and more economical to use wonton wrappers from the grocery store’s produce section. Before pressing the square wonton wrappers into mini-muffin pans prepared with non-stick spray, she tailored them by using a biscuit cutter to create round pieces of wonton wrappers; the wonton baskets were then baked at 350 F for 8 to 10 minutes.

Another basket option would be to cut out pie-crust dough circles for lining the mini muffin pans.

A cream-cheese filling was whipped up using this mixture:

4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon lemon or orange juice, if desired

3 tablespoons chopped, toasted nuts (see prior nut recipe)

The topping could be either the sparkling cranberries (see recipe preceding), or 6 ounces of fresh cranberries cooked in a medium saucepan with 1 tablespoon of water and 3/4 cup of sugar. After bringing this mixture to a boil for about 10 minutes, the cranberries will pop; they should then be removed from the heat and refrigerated until cool before use.

To assemble this attractive mini-dessert, fill the cooled “baskets” with a dollop of the cream cheese mixture and top with one of the cranberry options. Since these are best served at room temperature, you can wait to assemble them until shortly before your guests arrive.

Other variations on the mini-pastry shell theme include filling them with a store-bought fruit dip and topping them with blueberries. For a non-sweet treat, you could fill the shells with a black bean salsa and top with a dollop of sour cream.

Mini-Cheesecake Parfaits

Another crowd pleaser for holiday guests are mini-cheesecake parfaits, which Hartman calls “a no-bake, no fool recipe.” Small-scale parfaits not only look pretty when layered into juice glasses or petite flutes, but they even can be made low calorie. First, Hartman mixes together:

12 ounces lowfat cream cheese, room temperature

1/2 cup lowfat sour cream

2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar

2 teaspoons flavoring, such as almond or vanilla extract

1/2 cup lite whipped topping

She layered this in glasses with layers of fruit<

1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs

2 tablespoons melted butter

For the fruit, Hartman used cooked cranberries in some of the parfaits and frozen peaches that had been cooked in a simple syrup for others; strawberries would be another good fruit layer alternative. Garnishing the little parfaits can be as simple as using a sprig of mint; however, graham cracker crumbs, gingersnap crumbs — or some of the sugared nut pieces described earlier, would make tasty toppings, as well.

Candied Bacon

Hartman’s final surprise of the evening was an unusual meat dish — candied bacon! She suggests using a less fatty bacon to fry crisp. Then, the bacon can be coated with a heavy sprinkle of brown sugar that will caramelize on the hot bacon. A less messy option is patting brown sugar onto raw bacon and baking it on a foil-lined pan at 375 F for 15-20 minutes.

Do not attempt to drain caramelized bacon on paper towels — the sugar will make it stick to the paper. Caramelized bacon makes a nice accompaniment to brunch items like pancakes or French toast, but it can also be cut up into bite-sized pieces and served with toothpicks to make a unique appetizer.

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