On one of the final episodes of Top Chef Just Desserts Judge Johnny Iuzzini, bad-boy but really nice-guy pastry chef, sneered as one of the contestants presented him with a petit four. Johnny dismissed it and proclaimed it tasted like something found on a cruise ship. Apparently that was a bad thing.
I’ve never been on a cruise but should I ever embark on the high seas and they offer petit fours at the all-you-can-eat buffet, you can be sure I will eat many. Those perfect one-bite cake experiences combine so many of my favorite flavors, marzipan, apricot jam and fondant icing. Sometimes they’re a little cloying, but usually they’re moist and delicate. Unfortunately, I’m learning that a lot of people object to marzipan, so unless I want to eat an entire batch myself (which wouldn’t be so terrible) I won’t be making petit fours anytime soon.
As a kid, whenever the food-focused Christmas catalogs arrived, I’d grab them from the mail pile to flip through and fantasize over. Harry & David, Hickory Farms,The Swiss Colony. Oh why didn’t anyone surprise me with a nutty cheese ball or the Tower of Treats? My grandparents used to send grapefruits from Florida, once in a while including the coconut patties that were the pricier option, but that was so lame compared to the cakes and cookies and candy assortments these mail order companies splashed across their glossy pages. The Swiss Colony was always my favorite. They sold boxes of petit fours that looked so pretty in their crinkly paper holders. The fact that they were mass produced and probably had some freezer burn was lost on me. I wanted them. I never got them.
Years later I did enjoy a few months of the fruit club, a lovely gift that pays no mind to eating locally or minimizing your carbon fruit print. It’s so funny because even when you know you’re part of the club that gets a monthly fruit gift, each arrival comes as a surprise. Of course a dozen pears aren’t as exciting as a monthly delivery of say, cake, but they’re better than nothing.
These days the catalogs that crowd my mail box are from tonier establishments, Chelsea Market Baskets, Eli's, and of course Williams-Sonoma. And I still thumb through them picking out the gift no one will give me. But then again, why would anyone send me anything sweet when they know I bake all the time? That’s one of the perils of doing certain things yourself; people think you wouldn’t have it any other way. And the fact is, when I looked at many of the selections in the most recent Williams-Sonoma catalog, I thought, “Hey, I can do that.”
There was one item in the catalog that I would never go to the trouble of making myself, the Authentic Croissants from Jean-Yves Charon (a French-born chef who seems to do a lot of “handcrafting” in Northern California). He prepares them in the traditional French style, “Laboriously folding and cutting the puff pastry by hand.” See the word “laboriously?” I’ve made puff pastry "by hand" and it’s not so much fun. First of all, it’s loud; you have to repeatedly whack the pound of butter with a rolling pin when it’s ice cold. Second, you actually have to face how much butter goes into a croissant (oh my!) And third, you have to keep folding and rolling and folding and rolling when what you really want to be doing is sinking your teeth into a hot croissant right now. ‘Tis the season to keep it simple.
This week before Christmas is really stressful no matter what you celebrate. There is the sense that there’s tons to accomplish before the big day. Tackling complicated projects isn’t on anyone’s Christmas list. However, because there are still parties to go to and treats to bring, I thought I’d offer up a quickie sweet, a sort of riff on WM's Peppermint Bark Cookies, that captures the spirit of the season and looks so festive, whether on a plate at your house or individually wrapped in little clear bags to bring to another. I’m a little embarrassed that they call for a box of Nabisco Famous Wafers, but they do. Feel free to make your own chocolate cookie if you have the time. I didn’t feel like it plus I think these old-standbys are great.
And if you’re having trouble picking out a gift for me this year, here are some helpful hints: pages 22 or 36 of the Williams-Sonoma Christmas catalog. Just kidding. Sort of.
Beyond Easy Minty White Chocolate Dipped Wafers
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12 ounces white chocolate, chopped into 1" pieces (do not use chips, I used Ghiradelli's White Chocolate Baking Bars)
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
1 box Famous Chocolate Wafers (or 40 plain chocolate cookies)
1/2 cup crushed peppermint candy (5-6 broken candy canes smashed with a hammer)
Line two baking sheets with wax paper and set aside
Melt the chocolate using a double boiler or a bowl set over a pot of simmering water. (Note: you just want about 2 inches of water and you don't want the bottom of the bowl touching the water.)
Stir peppermint extract into melted white chocolate
Dunk cookies, one at a time, into melted chocolate so that chocolate comes about 1/3 of the way up both sides of the cookie. Shake of excess and place carefully on wax paper.
Sprinkle white chocolate with peppermint candy
Place cookie sheets in the fridge for at least 15 minutes (or pop in freezer for less) so white chocolate is set and firm to touch.
NOTE: These cookies are best stored in a container in the refrigerator, layered between pieces of wax paper.
Yield: 40 minty dipped cookies.