by Anne Byrn
When my children were young, they loved to decorate holiday cookies. Let me put that another way — they loved to decorate the kitchen with sprinkles and sugars and batter and everything colorful and festive. So I quickly learned to drape the kitchen floor with old sheets, nest the jars of the sugar sprinkles in cake pans on the counter, put aprons on everyone and then let the decorating begin! It was sheer chaos, but also sheer joy.
To this day, decorating sugar cookies is one of my girls’ favorite childhood memories. They are now 24 and 28, and last year while home for Christmas, they sat at our kitchen table — with aprons on — and the years seemed to roll back. I made the dough and cut it into shapes like I always did, and all they had to do was add their artistic touches. And eat a few baked cookies, too!
The trick to making holiday baking fun is to think ahead so it appears like seamless fun. With a little forethought, planning recipes, shopping ahead and blocking the calendar for no other distractions, you can relax and let the magic happen, at any age.
Use a Natural Cake Mix
One of the ways I make things fun and keep it simple is to jump-start recipes using a natural cake mix. Those sugar cookies can be made from scratch or from my yellow mix. We can also make red velvet cupcakes from that same mix, and we add a simple homemade peppermint buttercream frosting to swirl on top. I developed my own line of natural cake mixes years ago because I wasn’t crazy about cake mixes that contained artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. It’s homemade, but it’s easy, too. Once those cookies are decorated, you can box and gift them for all ages. I have found that everyone loves decorated sugar cookies. They are personal, heartfelt and one of a kind.
Sweet Treats You Can Freeze
People like to receive baked goods like bars and brownies that they can either eat or pop in the freezer for surprise guests in the weeks to come. One of my favorite freezable bars is a Marbled Cream Cheese Brownie (page 28) that begins with a good brownie mix. Double-batch the recipe in a 13- by 9-inch pan, and you have another holiday baking time-saving strategy: Bake twice as much of a recipe so you only have one clean-up. And you can always bake ahead and freeze the goodies ’til you need them.
Get Fancy With It
Should your holidays call for a fabulous dessert, a cake worthy of the occasion, then you should take a look at my Chocolate Praline Cake recipe. Essentially it’s just a chocolate cake batter (made from a good mix) that you pour on top of an easy caramel-nut mixture, bake and unmold. Those layers are stacked right on top of each other, praline-side up, and then you pile freshly whipped cream on top. It is scrumptious! And for all of you who suffer from fear of frosting, the idea of not frosting is a real relief. Buy a pint of heavy cream and place it in your electric mixer bowl and whip on high speed, adding a tablespoon of powdered sugar, until you have stiff peaks. Chill the cream until needed and pile on top of a cake in lieu of frosting. It is very retro, minimal and yet oh-so-satisfying. And I have never met anyone who didn’t love to fork into chocolate cake and whipped cream.
Holiday baking can be fun. Find your strategies and shortcuts, and to keep your sanity through the whole wonderful process, enjoy!
Easy Sugar Cookies
1 package Cake Mix Doctor Simply Yellow mix
12 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg white
Granulated sugar or colored sugars for decorating
1. Place the mix, butter, egg and vanilla in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds. Increase to medium and beat until the batter is smooth and stiff, about a minute. Place the bowl in the fridge to chill.
2. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Spoon one-inch rounds of dough onto ungreased baking sheets. Dip the bottom of a small flat glass into flour and press the glass firmly onto the rounds of dough until they are about 1/3-inch thick. Or, roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface and cut into desired shapes.
3. Brush the dough with a little egg white, and sprinkle on granulated or color sugars. Place the pans in the oven. Bake until the cookies are golden brown, 10 – 12 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven,
cool cookies on a wire rack. Store in tin.
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
Bake: 10 to 12 minutes
Red Velvet Cupcakes
For the Cupcakes:
1 package (18.25 ounces) Cake Mix Doctor Simply Yellow mix
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon liquid red food coloring, if desired
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 to 3 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon peppermint extract
Crushed peppermint candies, if desired, for topping cupcakes
1. Place a rack in the center of the oven; preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place paper liners in two cupcake pans. Set aside.
2. For the cupcakes, place the cake mix, cocoa, milk, oil, eggs and red food coloring in a large mixing bowl and blend on low speed with an electric mixer until just combined. Increase the mixer speed to medium and blend until smooth, one minute. Scoop the batter into the liners, filling them three-quarters of the way full. Place the pans in the oven.
3. Bake the cupcakes 16 – 20 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool.
4. For the frosting, place the butter in a large mixing bowl and blend with an electric mixer on low until creamy. Add 2 cups of the powdered sugar, the milk and extracts, and blend until smooth. Add the remaining 1 cup sugar and blend on medium-high until the frosting is creamy and fluffy.
5. When the cupcakes are cool, spread frosting
over each one. Garnish with crushed peppermint.
Makes about 20 cupcakes
Bake: 16 to 20 minutes
Chocolate Praline Cake
Vegetable oil spray
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter
¼ cup heavy (whipping) cream
1 cup light brown sugar
¾ cup chopped pecans
1 package (18.25 ounces) Cake Mix Doctor Classic Chocolate mix
2/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup water
2 large eggs
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1 tablespoon grated chocolate or miniature
chocolate chips, if desired
1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut two rounds of parchment paper to fit in the bottom of two 8-inch round layer pans. Spray the bottom of the pans with vegetable oil, place the parchment rounds in the pans, then spray the parchment with oil.
2. For the praline, place the butter, cream and brown sugar in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring, until the butter has melted, three minutes. Divide the mixture between the two pans. Sprinkle the pecans over the top, dividing them between the two pans.
Place the pans in the fridge while you make the cake batter.
3. For the cake, place the cake mix, sour cream, oil, water and eggs in a large mixing bowl. Blend with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase the mixer speed to medium and blend for 1½ minutes, or until the batter is smooth. Divide the batter between the two pans, pouring it over the pecans. Place the pans in the oven side by side.
4. Bake the cakes until they spring back when lightly pressed with your finger, 35 – 40 minutes. Run a dinner knife around the edge of each layer and invert onto a rack to cool praline-side up. Remove the parchment rounds.
5. Meanwhile, prepare the whipped cream. Place the cream in a chilled large mixing bowl and beat on high speed until cream has thickened, one minute. Stop the machine and add the sugar. Beat the cream and sugar on high speed until stiff peaks form, one to two minutes more.
6. To assemble the cake, place one cooled layer on a cake stand, praline-side up. Spread with half of the whipped cream. Place the second layer on top of the first and dollop the remaining whipped cream in the center of the cake. Garnish with grated chocolate or mini chips. Drape with plastic wrap and chill until serving time.
Makes 12 to 16 servings
Bake: 35 to 40 minutes
Marbled Cream Cheese Brownie
1 package (15 ounces) Cake Mix Doctor
Bebe’s Brownie mix
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, melted
2 large eggs
Cream cheese layer:
4 ounces cream cheese, at room
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour an 8-inch square baking pan.
2. Stir together brownie mix, melted butter and eggs in a large bowl until well combined, about 50 strokes with a wooden spoon. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Set aside.
3. Place the cream cheese, butter, sugar, flour, egg and vanilla in a medium bowl, and blend with an electric mixer on low until smooth, one minute. Dollop this cream cheese batter by the spoonful over the brownie batter, and swirl with a fork to combine the two batters in a marbled pattern. Place the pan in the oven.
4. Bake the brownies until they are just firm to the touch about 38 – 42 minutes. Let cool 30 minutes before slicing.
Makes 12 to 16 brownies
Bake: 38 to 42 minutes
Anne Byrn is a busy mom with three children in their 20s and is a New York Time’s best-selling author of The Cake Mix Doctor series. She developed a line of natural baking mixes after she was dissatisfied with the cake mix on the supermarket shelf. Her Cake Mix Doctor products are sold in Nashville-area Publix and Kroger stores. For more baking tips and recipes, go to cakemixdoctor.com.