One of the things that I like to think that I inherited from my mother, and her mother, is the understanding that "Christmas magic," as intangible as the concept may seem, really comes from someone going out of their way to make something a little extra special. This doesn't have to be incredibly time-consuming or expensive. It can be as simple as cutting out store-bought cookie dough with seasonal cookie cutters and tossing them in a cookie tin to share with friends.
As trite as it may seem, it really is the thought that counts, and that's where holiday baking really comes into play. I know it's officially Christmas time when my mom and grandmother's refrigerators are filled with said cookie tins, each of those filled with a different candy or treat, ranging from chocolate-covered cherries to gingerbread. They seem to pop up overnight (like magic!) though I logically know that lots of work went into that illusion.
Over the last week, our staff writers and freelancers have all been hard at work on some holiday baking-themed stories that can, hopefully, help you swing your own version of homemade magic. This collection of stories was first featured in Salon's weekly food newsletter, The Bite. Stay in the loop and get special recipes, essays and how-to's from the archives straight to your inbox by subscribing.
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Before jumping into holiday baking, check out this very quick history of the Christmas cookie as we know them today. It's quite a journey from ancient winter solstice feasts to suburban holiday cookie swap parties. As The Los Angeles TImes reported in 1960 of the "rising trend" of cookie parties: "From coast to coast, cooks are trading cookies and recipes to make gift boxes for Christmas. It provides a glamorous array of cookies for gifting, plus a hatful of leisure hours to enjoy in the last mad holiday rush."
Maggie Hennessy has had other delicious carrot cakes in her life — but none stack up to her mom's.
Of the other carrot cakes out there, she asks: "Are they as sweet, moist and tender (thanks to over a cup of oil and four whole eggs) with just the right hit of spice? Are they excessively frosted with the tangiest, richest cream cheese icing of all time? Are they blissfully free of nuts and raisins or currants, exactly as I think carrot cake should be?"
The answer? No. But with Hennessy's recipe, you can make this perfect — though as she acknowledges, "perfect" is incredibly subjective — version at home.
Speaking of perfection, as a child of the Midwest suburbs, my first introduction to panettone, a traditional Italian holiday bread, was definitely within the aisles of a T.J. Maxx. Starting in early November, tall boxes, often in jewel or metallic tones with a little ribbon affixed to the top as a sort of handle, begin to pop up on the department store's shelves. They remain there in the holiday rotation until they're slowly pushed out for Valentine's Day candy.
As such, I was never really a fan of panettone, until I finally had a fresh one this year. I spoke with Italian pastry chef Nicola Olivieri dishes on how his panettone differs from the department store variety
This is from a little earlier this month, but Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams spoke with the inimitable Lidia Bastianich, who shared her secret ingredient for making chocolate chip cookies extra special: ricotta cheese. The result is part cookie, part cannoli and all delicious.
We're all looking for a little extra help finishing up holiday baking and this year it can come in the form of your Instant Pot. It enables users to uniformly melt larger batches of chocolate and then keep it melted for as long as you're working in the kitchen. To get started, all you need is 3 cups of water, a large metal or glass bowl that is large enough to sit on top of your 6-quart or 8-quart Instant Pot and your chocolate. This guide will teach you how.