Want to give a gift that shows how much you care? Then put down that fruitcake catalogue. For a personal touch -- and a relaxing, get-in-the-spirit couple of hours -- consider baking a batch of cookies from scratch. Not just run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter Christmas confections, mind you, but festive holiday sweets from the likes of François Payard (chocolate-coated candied citrus peels), Fauchon's Florian Bellanger (orange-glazed cocoa-almond shooting stars), and Citarella's Bill Yosses (nut-studded, sugar-dusted Russian tea cakes with a cardamom zing). A recipe for buttery sablés au citron comes from Paris (via cookbook writer Dorie Greenspan). And Craft's Karen DeMasco gets in the sugar-and-spice spirit with a trio of temptations -- crunchy peanut brittle, zest-laced linzer cookies, and the thinnest, spiciest ginger snaps we've ever had. Tie them up in a tumbler or nestle them in wooden boxes, and they're perfect to bring to a holiday party. That is, if you've been able to resist devouring them yourself.
Craft and Craftbar
Makes about 2 dozen 1-inch chunks.
2 cups sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
1⁄3 cup light corn syrup
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1 and 1⁄2 tablespoons salt
12 ounces dry-roasted salted peanuts (do not chop)
Spray a 12-by-16-by-1⁄2-inch sheet pan lightly with vegetable oil. Add the sugar, butter, corn syrup, and 1⁄2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water to a large saucepan, and stir together until all the sugar is wet. Cook over high heat until the mixture turns a medium golden. Immediately remove from the heat, and carefully whisk in the baking soda followed by the salt (taking care, as the caramel will rise in the pan and bubble). Switch to a wooden or metal spoon, and fold in the peanuts. Quickly pour the mixture onto the sheet pan, and spread it out over the pan using the back of the spoon before it starts to harden. (It may not cover the whole pan.) Once the brittle is completely cool, break it into bite-size pieces with the back of a knife or other blunt object.
Candied Citrus Dipped In Dark Chocolate
Makes 3 to 5 dozen.
2 and 1⁄3 cups granulated sugar
4 tablespoons light corn syrup
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate (preferably Valrhona or Callebaut), finely chopped
To prepare the rinds: Slice each fruit in half, squeeze out the juice, and remove and discard pulp. Stir together sugar, corn syrup, and 4 cups water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Add the citrus peels, and place a saucer on top to keep them submerged. Cook for 5 hours just below the boiling point. (Use a flame tamer to keep the temperature down.) After 5 hours, the syrup will be twice as thick as when you began. Transfer peel and syrup to a bowl, and set in the refrigerator overnight. (Candied peel will keep in the syrup for one year.)
Drain the peel, scrape out most of the pith, and cut into 1⁄4-inch strips. Dry on a rack for 2 to 3 hours. (They must be thoroughly dry before you begin dipping.)
To temper the chocolate: Melt 8 ounces of the chocolate in a bowl placed over simmering water, until the temperature gets to 110 degrees (it will feel warm when touched to the lips). Remove the bowl of chocolate from the heat, and dry the bottom. Using a spatula, stir in the remaining chocolate. When it has all melted and no lumps remain, return the bowl to the simmering water, and heat for 3 to 5 seconds until it feels warm on the lips again. Remove from heat.
To coat: Dip each fruit strip into the chocolate, coating three quarters of the strip, and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Reheat the chocolate over the hot water if it cools and stiffens. Allow the dipped citrus to set in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.
Lemon Butter Cookies
From Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan
(Broadway Books; $26)
Makes about 4 dozen.
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2⁄3 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1 to 1 and 1⁄2 lemons, to taste
2 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄2 cup granulated sugar, for coating
Beat butter in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment at medium speed until it's smooth. Add confectioners' sugar, and beat until silky. Beat in 1 of the egg yolks, following it with the salt, vanilla, and lemon zest. Reduce speed, and add flour, beating just until it disappears. (It is better to underbeat than overbeat; if streaks of flour remain, blend with a spatula.) Turn the dough out onto the counter, form it into a ball, cut in half, wrap each half in plastic, and chill until firm, about 30 minutes.
Form each piece of dough into a 11⁄4-inch-diameter log. Wrap the logs in plastic, and chill for 2 hours. (The dough can be wrapped and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month.)
Position racks to divide the oven into thirds, and preheat to 350 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Whisk the remaining egg yolk in a small bowl until it is smooth and liquid. Spread the sugar on wax paper. Remove logs from the refrigerator, unwrap, and brush lightly with egg yolk. Roll the logs in the sugar, pressing gently so it sticks. Slice them into 1⁄4-inch-thick rounds. (If you make them thicker, bake them longer.) Place on cookie sheets, leaving about 1⁄2 inch between them, and bake for 12 to 14 minutes, or until they are set but not browned. (It's fine if the yolk-brushed edges brown a bit.) Transfer to cooling racks.
Note: Because the sugar coating will melt, these cookies are not suitable for freezing. For Christmas, roll dough in larger-grained, crystal, or colored sugar.