Start Christmas morning with something sweet – The Denver Post

By Jerrelle Guy, The New York Times

Christmas is coming for those who celebrate — and the holiday season is already here. For many of us, there’s a drumming urge to welcome it all back emphatically. Stringing fence lights and staging trees earlier and earlier, we hope to be swept away into something larger than ourselves.

One of the best ways to capture the benevolent spirit of the season is by baking festive sweets and sharing them with those closest to us, but also finding moments to enjoy them for ourselves.

There’s a pocket of time in the early hours of Christmas morning that has magic in it. It’s the most climactic point of the day, when the possibilities are fulfilling enough on their own and the entire house seems to wink with what’s to come. As the prologue to the evening feast, it should be prolonged with warm drinks, spiced confections and a brunch of festive breads that can be prepped the night before.

If you pull yourself from bed early enough to catch the tree with its belly still full of presents — before the boxes and bags turn to heaps of decorative paper — you’ll probably need caffeine and something sweet to perk you up. A brewing pot of coffee fills the kitchen with the smell of roasted beans, and a cup keeps you company as you settle into the scene. Take in a couple of bites of coffee-soaked cookie, some sips of cookie-soaked coffee and a final glimpse of the plump stockings.

When gingerbread biscotti is dipped in coffee, it adds spice and sweetness, its chocolate coating softening the bitterness. At the same time, the coffee soaks into the stiff biscotti, transforming its dry-brick texture into tender cake. The cookie is a gift in itself, filled with chunks of chewy ginger and all the best winter spices, such as star anise and clove, and can be baked days ahead.

While the biscotti alone can set the tone for the day, it’s not a show without popcorn. A small batch of sweet popcorn dusted with cinnamon takes little time to make and adds the luring scent of spice and caramel to the air, an aroma sure to rouse the household from slumber.

Grab some of Santa’s uneaten oatmeal cookies before the little ones awake, and arrange them on a serving platter with the cinnamon toast popcorn and biscotti. It’s the perfect dessert board to munch on while you watch the commotion around the tree.

If, before you know it, it’s already time for brunch, take an overnight-soaked French toast and ready-to-bake cinnamon roll wreath from the refrigerator and pop them into the oven. They can bake side by side while you return to opening gifts.

The eggnog-flavored French toast is essentially a bouquet of cream and butter made by deeply scoring a round loaf of bread and leaving the bottom intact. You do the same for raisin-stuffed cinnamon rolls: shaping the dough logs into an oval, then slicing them without cutting through the base and arranging the rolls to resemble a holiday wreath. Once baked, both become decorative centerpieces for the table.

While pulling at sticks of caramelized, custardy bread and hot cinnamon rolls, everyone is sure to feel merry, and so will you, having wittingly stretched the day you’ve waited for all year.

But you can do the same any day, for any celebration or none at all. However you choose to savor the season, fill the moments with something sweet.

Cinnamon Toast Popcorn

By Jerrelle Guy

This snackable pile of lightly sweetened popcorn is reminiscent of buttery cinnamon toast and the perfect treat for two or four (or one!). You can easily make another batch to serve a crowd. Popcorn is coated in syrup and toasted in a pot to create a shell of caramelized sugar that’s dusted with cinnamon. Five minutes out of the pot, the popcorn cools to a soft crispness, but if you bake it for just 10 minutes, the popped kernels dry all the way through and become crunchy to their core. This treat is delicious on its own or as part of a dessert board with gingerbread biscotti, iced oatmeal cookies or any other cookies of your choice.

Yield: About 4 cups

Total time: 20 minutes, plus cooling

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 4 1/2 cups/50 grams popped unbuttered, unsalted popcorn (see Tip)
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preparation

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and have a large sheet pan lined with parchment paper nearby.

2. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, combine the sugar, butter, corn syrup, salt and 1 tablespoon water. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring with a large metal spoon or rubber spatula, until the butter melts and the mixture turns into thick bubbling syrup, about 1 minute. Cook until it begins to smell toasty, about 1 more minute, then add the popcorn, carefully tossing every 2 to 3 seconds, until it starts to brown lightly, another 1 to 2 minutes. Begin tossing constantly for another minute or two until the popcorn turns deep golden brown in most spots, being careful to never let it burn. Remove from the heat, sprinkle with the cinnamon and toss a final time to coat.

3. Immediately pour the toasted popcorn onto the lined sheet pan and spread in an even layer. Bake until a shade darker, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool the popcorn on the pan on a rack for 5 to 10 minutes to harden. Toss a final time to break up any clumps and serve.

Tips: To make popcorn from scratch, pop 1/4 cup kernels according to package instructions. Or make the recipe even more effortless by using a popped bag of unsalted, unbuttered microwavable popcorn. Just be sure to discard any unpopped kernels before adding them to the pot.

Eggnog Overnight French Toast

By Jerrelle Guy

Like a good pitcher of eggnog, this French toast is rich, sweet, boozy and covered in nutmeg. Slicing the bread but keeping the base connected not only makes this an attractive breakfast centerpiece, it also feeds family and friends with little effort since all the servings bake simultaneously. Allowing it to soak in the refrigerator overnight deepens the dish’s flavors. Don’t worry about forcing the bread pieces apart when pouring in the soaking mixture: The loaf will flower naturally as it bakes. This dish is sweet enough to eat without a final drench in maple syrup, but it’s great with a mountain of fresh, tart berries. A little homemade whipped cream wouldn’t hurt either.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes, plus 30 minutes’ resting

Ingredients

  • 1 (16-ounce) day-old, plain country bread loaf (oblong or similarly shaped)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon dark rum, brandy or bourbon
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • Freshly grated nutmeg, for dusting
  • Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Preparation

1. Have a rimmed dish or pan (about 1 inch deep) that fits the bread loaf snugly nearby. Using a serrated knife, slice a very thin layer (about 1/16 inch) off the bottom of the loaf to expose the surface for better batter absorption. Cut the top of the bread in 1 1/2-inch-thick slices, being sure not to cut all the way through and leaving about 1/2 inch of bread at the bottom uncut. Then turn the loaf 90 degrees and cut 1 1/2-inch slices in the other direction to make a grid-like pattern, again, not cutting all the way through. Transfer the cut loaf to the dish.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar, cream, melted butter, rum, vanilla and salt until well combined. Slowly pour the batter into the loaf beginning in the center. Gently peel back all the pieces to drench every crevice and the top of the loaf with the batter. Allow to soak for 30 minutes at room temperature, or cover and refrigerate up to overnight.

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

4. Spoon any excess batter that has pooled into the dish back into the loaf and over any dry patches of bread. Carefully transfer the loaf to the lined baking sheet, and bake until the loaf is deeply golden brown on top and the custard has set, about 1 hour. Remove from the oven and dust with the nutmeg and confectioners’ sugar. Serve immediately.

Raisin Cinnamon Roll Wreath

By Jerrelle Guy

Perfume the house and decorate the table with this whimsical wreath made of buttery, sweet cinnamon rolls. Arranging the rolls into a ring makes it easy to tear away individual servings. The extra protein in bread flour yields a sturdier dough that’s easier to shape, but all-purpose flour works too. If you assemble these a day ahead and refrigerate them overnight before baking them the next morning, be sure to let the rolls rise three-quarters of the way before placing them in the fridge. A few hours before baking, allow them to come to room temperature on the counter. Have fun, and complete the wreath decoration with dehydrated orange wheels, cinnamon sticks, sugar-dusted cranberries or even a red ribbon bow.

Yield: About 2 dozen rolls

Total time: 4 hours

Ingredients

For the Dough:

  • 4 cups/540 grams bread flour or all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1/4 cup/50 grams granulated sugar
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons/14 grams instant (fast-acting) yeast (2 packets)
  • 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 6 tablespoons/78 grams unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
  • 2/3 cup/171 grams whole milk
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature, beaten

For the Filling:

  • 3 cups/480 grams dark raisins
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 2/3 cup/70 grams finely ground almond meal or flour
  • 2/3 cup/150 grams packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 8 tablespoons/114 grams unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

For the Icing:

  • 4 ounces/115 grams cream cheese, softened
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup/60 grams confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3 tablespoons whole milk, plus more as needed

Preparation

1. Prepare the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, combine the flour, granulated sugar, yeast and salt. Toss with your hands to mix.

2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Once it’s melted, add the milk and remove from the heat. The mixture should register 125 to 130 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, so let it cool or warm it as needed. It should feel warm to the touch, but not be hot. Pour the warmed milk mixture into the flour mixture, along with the beaten eggs. Turn the mixer to medium-low speed, and knead until the flour has been fully incorporated and you’re left with a smooth, supple dough that’s firm to the touch, about 5 minutes. (When you press it with your thumb, the dough should spring back gradually.)

3. Gather the dough and shape it into a round ball in your hands, then transfer to a large, lightly buttered bowl, turning over a couple times to coat with the butter. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

4. While the dough is rising, prepare the filling: Place the raisins in a large heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to sit for 10 minutes to plump, then drain, and return to the bowl. Add the almond extract and toss with a spoon to coat. Set aside to cool, about 20 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the almond flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt mixing with a fork or your hands to remove any clumps. Set aside.

6. Fill and assemble the dough: Lightly flour a clean working surface, and a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper nearby. Cut the risen dough in half with a pair of kitchen shears. Place one half of the dough on the floured surface, keeping the other half covered in the bowl. Lightly flour a rolling pin and roll the dough out to a 12-by-9-inch rectangle (about 1/4 inch thick), picking up the dough to stretch and turn it with your hands to make the edges as straight and even as possible. Spread 4 tablespoons of butter evenly over the entire surface using the back of a spoon. Evenly sprinkle over half the almond mixture, spreading with your hands to cover every inch. Firmly pat the mixture down to help it adhere to the butter. Evenly sprinkle over half of the raisins, pressing down firmly to help keep them in place.

7. Starting with one of the longer edges, tightly roll the dough into a log ending with the seam side down on the counter pressing the log down firmly to help seal the seam closed. The log will feel very stuffed. Wipe down and re-flour the work surface, then repeat with the other half of the dough and the remaining 4 tablespoons butter, almond mixture and raisins.

8. Carefully transfer the two rolled logs, seam side down, to the lined sheet pan and arrange together to form an oval or circle with their ends barely touching. Using kitchen shears with the point of the shears facing down toward the counter, cut slits into the ring roughly 1 inch apart, being careful not to cut all the way through the ring by leaving a 1/2 inch dough still attached at the bottom. One by one, lean every other rolled piece outward away from the center of the ring, creating a staggered look. Make any final adjustments to the shape that you like, turning some rolls up slightly to create air between them and filling out the baking sheet, being sure to keep a rough circular or oval shape.

9. Loosely cover the entire pan with plastic wrap and allow it to rest on the counter until slightly puffed, 30 to 40 minutes. (At this point, you can refrigerate the dough overnight: Wrap the entire pan of slightly proofed rolls very well in plastic wrap, being sure not to squish the rolls, but ensuring the wrapping is airtight. Chill for up to 12 hours. Remove the pan from the fridge and place them on the counter for an hour or so before you’re ready to bake them, so they come to room temperature.)

10. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, stir the milk and the granulated sugar with a spoon until the sugar dissolves. Uncover the risen rolls. Using a pastry brush, brush the tops of the rolls with the milk wash.

11. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the wreath is deeply golden brown on top and the edges of the rolls are puffed and cooked through. Remove the rolls from the oven and place the sheet pan on a cooling rack, and allow to cool for 30 minutes.

12. When the rolls are almost done cooling, make the icing: In a medium bowl, using a fork, mix the cream cheese and butter. Add the confectioners’ sugar and mix until smooth and most of the clumps of sugar are gone. Add the vanilla and milk and mix. The icing should be thin enough to drizzle. If it isn’t, mix in another tablespoon of milk.

13. With your serving platter nearby, carefully lift the wreath using the parchment and lower onto the platter with the paper. Tear the parchment down the center and along the edges, then carefully pull out the paper without disturbing the wreath. Decorate the finished wreath with the icing: Drizzle it over the top with a fork or transfer to a piping bag with a small tip or a resealable plastic bag with a corner cut open to pipe thin lines along the tops of the rolls. Or smear the icing all over the tops of the rolls using a butter knife. Decorate with a ribbon, or dried or sugared fruit. Serve warm.

Iced Oatmeal Cookies

By Jerrelle Guy

These extra craggy oatmeal cookies start by beating sugar with eggs, instead of mixing the typical way: creaming butter and sugar first. This method gives the cookies a crusty exterior, which eventually cracks, creating deep fissures along the surface over centers that are still gooey and chewy. With a couple of teaspoons of cinnamon (or pumpkin pie spice) and vanilla for flavor, they make a wonderful and simple pantry cookie to bake over and over again. Don’t skip the final step: These cookies are visually and texturally incomplete without their classic coat of glossy white icing.

Yield: 15 cookies

Total time: 35 minutes, plus cooling

Ingredients

  • 1 cup/95 grams old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 cup/128 grams all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup/100 grams granulated sugar
  • 1/4 packed cup/55 grams light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 4 tablespoons/57 grams unsalted butter, melted
  • 3/4 cup/92 grams confectioners’ sugar
  • 5 teaspoons whole or oat milk, plus more as needed

Preparation

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and line a large cookie sheet with parchment.

2. In a bowl, combine the oats, flour and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat both sugars with the egg, cinnamon, vanilla and baking soda on high speed, scraping the bowl as needed, until glossy, pale and thick, a full 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium. Very slowly drizzle in the melted butter and whisk until thoroughly incorporated. Add the oat mixture and gently fold by hand using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula just until incorporated, being careful not to overmix.

3. Using a small cookie scoop or two spoons, drop 15 golf ball-size mounds of dough onto the sheet pan, spacing them at least 2 inches apart. Bake until the edges and surface are set and lightly golden brown, but the center is still gooey, 12 to 14 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately rap the cookie sheet on the counter or stovetop a couple of times to help the cookies flatten a little more, and cool on the sheet for 5 minutes.

4. In a small bowl, mix the confectioners’ sugar and milk using a fork until the icing is completely smooth and very thick but still moves if you tilt the bowl. Add more milk in small increments as needed. Dip only the very tops of the cookies into the bowl of icing, leaving the deeper cracks in the cookies uncoated and allowing any excess icing to drip back into the bowl. Flip the cookies over and return them to the cookie sheet to allow the icing to harden, 10 to 15 minutes. The iced cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

Gingerbread Biscotti

By Jerrelle Guy

Have a hot cup of coffee ready for dipping these spiced, crunchy biscotti. Like most Tuscan biscotti, these include no fat, which makes for an extra-dry cookie. That means it saturates quickly when dunked, turning it into something like silken cake while also sweetening your coffee. Pops of chewy candied ginger and a slick of dark chocolate make this biscotti a little more special. And while the ingredient list may be longer than some, each item builds upon the last, creating a symphony of warming flavors and smells. To help keep track of the many spices while assembling your ingredients, measure them into small piles on a dinner plate.

Yield: 1 dozen

Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes, plus cooling

Ingredients

  • 1 large egg plus 1 large egg white, at room temperature
  • 2/3 packed cup/150 grams light brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup/70 grams granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 whole star anise, finely ground (1/4 teaspoon)
  • 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
  • 2 cups/256 grams all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup/35 grams diced (1/4-inch) crystallized ginger
  • 2/3 cup/113 grams dark or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped (4 ounces)

Preparation

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the egg, egg white, both sugars, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, star anise, espresso powder, salt, baking soda, almond extract and lemon extract. Beat on medium speed just to combine, scrape down the bowl and beater, then increase the speed to high and beat for a full 90 seconds or until the mixture is slightly paler, thick and ribbony.

3. Add the flour and the candied ginger. Beat on low speed until mostly combined, stopping the beater just before all the flour is incorporated so you don’t overmix. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to incorporate any remaining dry bits into the dough.

4. Gather the dough with your hands, kneading lightly in the bowl just to bring everything together into a cohesive mass. Place the dough on the center of the prepared sheet, then dampen your hands with water and mold the dough into a 9-by-4-inch log about 1 inch tall. Bake until the log puffs and spreads a little, turns golden brown at the edges and is firm to the touch, 40 to 45 minutes.

5. Remove the loaf from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Transfer the loaf to a cutting board and, using a serrated knife, cut at a diagonal into 12 (3/4-inch-wide) slices. Turn the slices on their sides and return to the oven.

6. Bake, flipping the slices halfway through, until slightly browned and dry in the centers, 10 to 15 minutes. Bake longer for drier, crunchier biscotti. Remove from the oven and cool the biscotti on the sheet. Turn the slices top sides up.

7. In a double-boiler or a heatproof bowl set over simmering water, melt the chocolate, stirring until completely smooth. (See Tip.) Remove the bowl from the heat, and using a small spoon, drape the melted chocolate over the tops of the biscotti, nudging some to drip over the edges. Allow the chocolate to sit at room temperature or in the refrigerator to fully set. The biscotti will last for a couple of weeks in an airtight container at room temperature.

Tips: You also can melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl in the microwave: Microwave on high for 30 seconds, then for 1 minute longer, stirring at 10-second intervals until smooth.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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