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Sweeten Your Holidays
’Tis the season to fine tune your party dessert menus, so every get-together is one fabulous – and delicious – celebration.
By Jayne Jacova Feld

The pressed cookies, spiced cakes and sweet potato pies we associate with the season are more than merely sweet end courses for festive celebrations. Mixed in with the sugar and spice is often a dollop or two of holiday nostalgia. The shapes and contents of traditional cakes, cookies and confections (think gingerbread houses and chocolate coins) are delicious clues to the way these holidays were celebrated long ago and in distant lands.

Whether your dessert goal is to conjure up the sugar-coated sweetness of days past or to create new gingerbread memories, some of South Jersey’s most talented pastry chefs are eager to help you plan your ultimate dessert menus. We’ve gathered some of their most valuable and time-saving baking hacks, presentation tips and ideas for involving kids, as well as their personal stories about holiday favorites. With the help of these culinary kings,

you’ll be ready to withstand the heat and get into the kitchen.

When Yule Logs Were Real…

For Robert Bennett, executive chef at Classic Cake, both history and family tradition are reflected in every Yule Log sold at the Cherry Hill bakery. The former Le Bec Fin executive pastry chef says he can’t help but think about his chemist father each year when gathering ingredients for the sweet rolled cakes. Known as bûche de Noël in French, logs were given as gifts during the winter solstice in Europe centuries ago. Revelers, who gathered for feasts to celebrate the coming of longer days, burned decorated logs treated with fragrant oil.

Fast forward to the 1960s in Lynchburg, Virginia, when the young chef-to-be would watch his father drill holes into real wood and then treat them with chemicals. The Bennett family gifted the non-edible Yule logs to family and friends during the Christmas season.

“So I was exposed to the real bûche de Noël,” he recalls. “When they burned in fireplaces, the flames they gave off were such beautiful colors. I loved them.”

That love carries over with the edible version of Yule logs Bennett makes for Classic Cake. Before the ringing in of the new year, he expects the bakery will sell 1,000 logs. But creative cooks could also try this one at home, he says, noting that they are, in essence, made of sheet cakes filled, rolled and frosted to look like the trunks of trees. However, he cautions, the logs his father made should not be recreated.

“I had no idea what kinds of gases they gave off,” he says. “It was the late sixties after all.”

European Style, No Mixer Required

It’s a pretty tall order (bakery order, that is) when you need to create thousands of cookies, cakes and pies for the holiday season. But for Thaddeus DuBois, executive pastry chef at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, it’s all in a day’s work. DuBois is responsible for preparing the Borgata Baking Company and the resort’s dessert buffets for the upcoming festivities.

Within the realm of his confectionery toils, DuBois includes two spicy treats from Germany which have become his favorite  Christmas cookies: Pfeffernüsse and Zimtsterne.

Zimtsterne are star-shaped treats made from almond flour and cinnamon, and were considered specialty treats in the 1600s back when cinnamon was expensive and rare, and almonds were considered outright exotic – the imported food of royalty.

More Treats: 11 Holiday Cookies That Are As Fun to Make As They are to Eat 

Part of the modern appeal of the six-pointed star is that they’re gluten free, require few ingredients and little prep time, notes DuBois. For the topping, the treats can be covered with powdered sugar or iced.

“You can mix it by hand; they’re very easy to make, and very good tasting,” he adds.

Pfeffernüsse is a simple cookie with an exotic name. It means peppernut in German, although there are actually no nuts in the tiny spiced cookies that have been popular Yuletide treats since at least the 1850s.

Like its star-shaped cousins, they are not made with butter and can be mixed by hand. The list of ingredients is extensive – it includes honey, ginger and, of course, peppermint – but the preparation is easy. DuBois typically adds in currents, raisins and dried fruit before baking and finishes it off with a thin fondant or powdered sugar.

“The name may sound in­timidating, but it’s so easy to make,” he says, noting that they were a hit during the holiday pastries class he recently lead at the Borgata.

Both kinds of cookies are chewy and pair well with coffee, he adds.

Another holiday favorite – pecan butter balls – are also in the easy-to-make category. The crumbly, buttery cookies, also known as snowballs, are simply baked dough filled with pecans and rolled in confectioners’ sugar. DuBois says they have a melt-in-your-mouth appeal. And though he will make small batches upon request throughout the year, production peaks during the holiday season.

To make them a little different during the holidays, DuBois mixes in dried cranberries, chocolate chips or other nut combinations to the dough. He also adds white coconut to the exterior confectioner’s sugar.

Pies and More Pies

Pies are another class of holiday dessert classics. Pumpkin still carries the day, even after all the pumpkin pies that were consumed during Thanksgiving. Another popular variety is sweet potato praline pie – especially for Kwanza. Recognized as one of the most nutritious natural foods, sweet potato is the darling of tubers. Bennett, from Classic Cake, makes his with a marshmallow topping.

For a whimsical take on pies, whoopie pies are like comic relief. To create the cookie/pie/sponge cake mash up, Bennett adds pumpkin and spice to the mix for the holidays. They are then filled with spiced butter cream and garnished with whipped cream or a chestnut mousse.

At Wegman’s in Mount Laurel, the demand for pies is so high this month that it is not uncommon for the bakers to pull all-nighters before the new year, says pastry chef Mary Jane Boerner. “It’s very fast paced at this time of year,” she says. Along with pies, gingerbread cake made with different spices and garnished with chocolate pieces and gingerbread men fly off the shelves.

Chocolate is King

Two years ago, Wegman’s in Moorestown introduced its ultimate chocolate cake, which is three layers of sponge cake topped with a diplomat cream and topped with whipped cream. It is available year-round but particularly popular for the holidays, says Boerner.

“It’s popular, because it’s so chocolatey,” she adds. “It’s a dense chocolate cake with rich chocolate icing. It’s versatile for different events. And while it is a very high-quality cake, it looks more homemade.”

Also, in the chocolate category, chocolate bark and truffles make great hostess gifts, especially when paired with craft beers, she notes.

Holiday Cookies

For sheer variety, a cookie tray at the table is the ultimate crowd pleaser. With pressed star cookies, Pfeffernüsse, macaroons, butter pecan balls, decorated shortbread and butter cookies in the mix, your cookie tray becomes the baking version of an American melting pot of holiday treats.

In fact, some of the Christ­mas cookies popular in the tri-state area are virtually unknown in other parts of the country, says Al DiBartolo of Collingswood’s DiBartolo Bakery. He recently introduced foodies in Los Angeles to his Christmas cookies, and they were blown away by the co­co­nut macaroons, among others.

“We haven’t changed our cookie recipes going back 50 years,” DiBartolo says. “It’s a staple of the holidays, and people tell me it’s not Christmas without these cookies.”

Pecan Butterballs

by Borgata Executive Pastry Chef Thaddeus DuBois

Ingredients:

4 sticks of butter
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
½ egg
1 Tbsp vanilla
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
3 cups pecans, finely chopped
Powdered sugar for rolling

Instructions:

Combine butter and powdered sugar, then cream until light and fluffy for 8-10 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla. Add flour and nuts.

Portion out cookies using a small scoop or spoon and shape into balls. Place onto parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake at 350º until golden brown. Cool for 5-10 minutes and then gently toss on sifted powdered sugar. Place on sheet pans to cool.

December 2018
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