The holidays come in on a rush of cookies and snow (if you are so lucky) and parties and lists, and suddenly it's Jan. 1 and we're wiping the crumbs away and wondering where the year went. I'm currently tiptoeing into the season, my brain still basking in Indian summer despite the rain slated to descend on San Francisco in the coming weeks. "Ready" or not, the time is upon us.
What helps to get me in the mood is baking. Always, always baking. I'm plotting my edible gifts — some candies, of course, along with jars of jam I canned this spring that I'll tuck inside gift packages to send across the country — and devising new twists on old favorites. Butter, sugar, eggs — the usual suspects, but they are what ground me in the kitchen during this hectic season.
This year in particular, I'm focusing my energies on flourless desserts — specifically, those that are naturally flour-free yet still utterly delicious.
I wrote about this concept last winter after a visit to my brother and sister-in-law's home in Maine. Emily, who avoids gluten, is a prolific cook and baker; when I bake for her, I am aware that the bar has been set high, and I perpetually attempt to rise to it. The holidays are no exception.
This means I'm thinking more and more outside the bag of white flour that's ubiquitous in my kitchen. While I still may be somewhat drowning in powdered sugar, a true harbinger of the holidays, there's also a few not-as-traditional ingredients encroaching on my pantry space (a decent amount of cornstarch, dried fruits and brown rice slated for a myriad of baking projects).
The main thing to keep in mind when creating flourless desserts is to try not to see them as substitutions for more traditional sweets (along the lines of: it's almost as good as x, y, z). Rather, these delights are delicious in their own right, regardless of whether they call for wheat flour.
Nuts, egg whites (and yolks, too), fresh fruit and good chocolate are your allies here. The same goes for relying on unfussy, straightforward flavors. Many candies are naturally flourless, and make wonderful holiday presents. Think about what might work well together: Pecans, molasses, ginger and a hint of bourbon bake up into a moist, decadent riff on gingerbread that feels appropriately holiday-ish. The incorporation of the sometimes-underused pecans contributes to its success.
I've tried to focus on desserts, such as pumpkin pie custards, a buche de Noel and fruit-and-nut "truffles" that reflect the time of year, though of course if salted caramel pots de creme or poached pears with cinnamon whipped cream are your dream New Year's Eve dessert, they would no doubt be lovely, too.
The key is to not feel intimidated. Sure, we may be stepping a bit outside our comfort zone when avoiding recipes that call for flour, but that doesn't mean we can't be bold. Embrace cornmeal. Experiment with walnuts. Become enamored with the magic that is fluffy egg whites. Perhaps 'tis also the season to try something new?
A few words of caution: If you are preparing flourless goodies for someone who has gluten intolerance, be careful of your workspace. Wooden spoons and cutting boards especially can trap gluten, so keep dedicated utensils that do not touch flour, or use nonwood utensils to avoid cross-contamination. Make sure your counters and kitchen are very clean, or do your prep work in another space (say, on the dining room table).
The holidays for me are about gathering together and feeling thankful for all I am lucky enough to have in my life. It is also about celebrating my loved ones. I do this best through food — especially through baking — and there's little better than creating something delicious that won't trigger side effects.
The reality that they taste good to me, too — well, that's just one more reason to fire up the oven and get to work.
Confession: I am not really a fan of pie crust, so these custards fulfill my penchant for pumpkin pie quite handily with no flour required. This recipe could hardly be simpler — pumpkin, spices and a splash of bourbon are whisked with eggs, milk, maple syrup and vanilla to create a decadent holiday treat.
Makes 6 servings
1 can (15 ounces) pure pumpkin puree
1/2 cup whole milk (or coconut milk)
4 beaten large eggs
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Lightly grease 6 ramekins or custard cups. In a large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, milk, eggs, maple syrup, bourbon, if using, and vanilla extract. In a small bowl, whisk together the salt and spices. Add the spice mixture to the pumpkin mixture and whisk well to combine. Pour evenly into ramekins and bake for 40 minutes or until a knife comes out clean.
Remove from oven and let rest for 15 minutes. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.
If you prefer a more traditional gingerbread, omit the cranberries. Serve with applesauce or whipped cream.
Makes 10 servings
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) pecans
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup dark, unsulfured molasses
1/2 cup strong coffee
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
Heat oven to 350. Lightly grease an 8- or 9-inch square cake pan.
Combine the pecans, cornstarch, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process until evenly ground.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and molasses. Add the pecan mixture alternately with the coffee in thirds, finishing with the pecans and beating well after each addition. Add the cranberries if using and stir to incorporate.
Pour the batter into the cake pan. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes, until the cake is firm to the touch and toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs attached.
Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
These cookies couldn't be easier to make, and I encourage you to experiment with different dried fruits of your choice. The chocolate coating may be left off if you are pressed for time, but I think it elevates these humble little raw "truffles" into something sublime.
Makes about 3 dozen truffles
1 cup walnuts
1/2 pound dried cherries
1/2 pound dried Turkish figs
1/2 pound dried apricots
1/4 pound dried cranberries
1 to 2 tablespoons orange juice
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped or as chips
1 cup powdered sugar
Put the walnuts in the bowl of a food processor and process them to chop finely. Place the walnuts in a large mixing bowl.
Rinse the bowl of the food processor, wipe it dry, and fill it with the dried fruit. Pulse the machine to chop the fruit finely, but watch to make sure it does not turn gummy. Add the fruit to the walnuts and stir to mix well. Add 1 tablespoon orange juice and stir to combine; add more if needed to hold together.
Put about 1/2 cup of powdered sugar into a small bowl. Scoop out teaspoon-sized balls of the fruit-nut mixture, shape them into balls, roll each ball lightly in powdered sugar to coat, and place them on a baking sheet. Let the balls stand at room temperature, uncovered, for 24 hours.
Melt chocolate. Dip each ball half in the chocolate and let stand until chocolate has cooled.
A version of the traditional French holiday cake, this recipe, adapted to incorporate a flourless chocolate cake, has a few components but it's not complicated. Translated as "log of Christmas," ambitious decorators may want to play with making meringue "mushrooms" or using colored marzipan to create leaves and other loglike things. But it's absolutely delicious unadorned, too.
Makes 12 servings
6 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup light or dark brown sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup white sugar
Heat oven to 350 degrees and line a jellyroll pan with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat egg yolks with brown sugar until thick and pale. Beat in the cocoa, vanilla and salt.
In another large bowl, using clean beaters, whip egg whites until they form soft peaks. Gradually add 1/4 cup sugar and beat until whites form stiff peaks. Immediately fold the yolk mixture into the whites. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan.
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the cake springs back when lightly touched. Dust a clean dishtowel with confectioners' sugar. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, and turn the warm cake out onto the towel. Remove and discard parchment paper. Starting at the short edge of the cake, roll the cake up with the towel. Cool for 30 minutes.
Unroll the cake, and spread the filling (recipe below) to within 1 inch of the edge. Roll the cake up with the filling inside. Place seam side down onto a serving plate, and cover with the buttercream frosting (recipe below). Refrigerate until serving.
1 1/2 cups bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup heavy cream
Place the chocolate chips in a medium bowl. Heat the cream until just barely boiling, remove from heat and pour over chips. Let stand about 5 minutes, then whisk and stir to completely melt the chocolate into the cream. Whisk until smooth. Set aside to cool — ganache will thicken as it cools.
Coffee Butter Cream
1 1/2 teaspoons espresso powder
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
Mix espresso powder into vanilla until dissolved and set aside.
In a large bowl, whip the butter on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low and add confectioners' sugar 1/2 cup at a time, occasionally stopping to scrape down the bowl. When all sugar has been incorporated, increase speed and whip for another minute until frosting is fluffy.
Add vanilla-espresso mixture and beat until incorporated.
These are the cookies of my childhood. Each year around the holidays, my dad would sneak into the kitchen and make a large batch of dolmades (Greek stuffed grape leaves) and a batch of almond crescent cookies. These are a bit lighter on the butter than the ones he used to make, with ground almonds standing in for the flour. It's a winner of a recipe, and I love it for its utter simplicity — from a few ingredients comes pure delight.
Makes about 2 dozen cookies
4 cups whole, unpeeled raw almonds, plus 1 cup sliced almonds
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 large egg whites
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups confectioners' sugar
In a food processor, pulse whole almonds and sugar until very fine.
In a large bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Add almond and vanilla extracts and salt.
Fold in sugar and ground almond mixture. Mix lightly until all ingredients are combined. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours or more.
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Place sliced almonds in a shallow dish.
Remove dough from refrigerator. Scoop out generous teaspoons of dough. Shape into logs, press each log into crushed almonds then confectioners' sugar, then shape the logs into crescents. Place on parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat until dough is used up.
Bake for 35 minutes, or until lightly browned on the bottom. Remove from oven and cool on a rack. Roll in confectioners' sugar again before serving.
The brown rice makes for a tender, melting foil to the sharp bite of ginger, and a dusting of raw sugar finishes off this classic holiday treat.
Makes 2 dozen cookies
2 1/4 cups long or short grain brown rice
1 1/2 teaspoons dried cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried cloves
3 tablespoons dried ginger
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
1/2 cup raw sugar (optional)
In a food processor, grind rice until very fine. Place in a medium-size bowl and add cinnamon, cloves, ginger, baking soda and salt. Whisk to combine.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar in a separate bowl until fluffy, then beat in egg and molasses. Fold in rice mixture and combine well. Refrigerate dough about 2 hours.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator and scoop out teaspoons of dough. Form teaspoon-size balls and roll in raw sugar, if using.
Place on parchment-lined cookie sheets and flatten with a fork. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and cool on a rack.