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Heather Gray

Heather Gray, a mom of two, makes a perfect peppermint cake. (Photo: www.hartphoto.com)

Nothing says happy holidays like holiday sweets. Growing up, this was the season when Mom took to the kitchen to bake chocolate crinkles, chewy snicker doodles and powdered sugar-covered snowballs. There was always fudge in the fridge and some of Grandma’s Chinese noodle treats – a retro candy of butterscotch-covered noodles.

In every family there is someone who is the go-to person for holiday treats – like Anita Morton, whose simple chocolate chip cookies, a must-have at seasonal parties, make her everyone’s favorite aunt.

“My mother was not really a baker,” Morton says. “And this is really all I bake. I don’t know why I started making them, and I don’t know why people love them so much, but they do.”

Morton makes 10 to 12 dozen during the holidays and wraps them up in pretty packages to give as Christmas gifts.

Friends of homemaker Robin Roth salivate around this time of year thinking of being gifted with her holiday toffee topped with nuts.

“It’s my mother’s recipe,” Roth says. “It’s very easy and fun to make. I always make a batch when I entertain, and it makes for great holiday teacher’s gifts.”

Homemade treats like Morton’s cookies and Roth’s Texas Toffee make great gifts because they come from the heart and hearth, and they are inexpensive treats in tight economical times.

At the Murrin family’s home, it’s just not the holiday season unless Joan and daughter Anna are whipping up a Yule log. This is not the kind Europeans traditionally burn in the fireplace during the 12 days of Christmas, but the dessert version often called Bûche de Noël, which is a cake-like creation decorated to resemble a log.

“My daughter started this tradition 11 years ago when she was 13,” says Joan Murrin, mother of two. “It combines her love of baking and art, and we’ve done one every year since then.”

Edible Yule logs are often elaborate creations. Chefs drag forks through the thick frosting to make it look like tree bark, sprinkle it with powdered sugar for a snow effect and add berries and real leaves. But the Murrins’ creations go a little further.

Anna Murrin, a graduate of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts who now attends the Manhattan School of Music, came home for the holidays last year and teamed up with mom and fellow artist Sarah Jones to create a Yule log commemorating Michael Jackson.

“It’s a basic jelly-roll recipe,” her mom says of the log, “but they decorated it last year with a Michael Jackson sequined glove.”

The family is big into holiday treats, also making a gingerbread house, which Murrin says may make it through the holiday season as a table decoration, but not the Yule log. “It’s just too good not to eat,” she says.

And if you like peppermint (and who doesn’t?), then CPA and professional recruiter Heather Gray has the cake for you.

“You get a lot of bang for your buck,” says Gray. “It’s real easy to make, but it’s so pretty everyone thinks you spent a lot of money on it.”

Gray used to host holiday-dessert parties for her friends. Her husband’s aunt turned her on to a Southern Living recipe for peppermint cake that Gray adapted for her traditional treat.

“It’s a cake mix with butter cream frosting,” she says. “You crush up peppermints and sprinkle them on the sides and top.” Gray ups the mint flavor by drizzling peppermint coffee syrup on the cake layers before frosting and then adds edible glitter.

“It looks like fairy dust, and it makes a great Christmas dinner centerpiece. So pretty and yummy.”

So try one of these recipes this season and enjoy a sweet holiday.

Anita Morton’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

11⁄2 cups of flour
3⁄4 cup softened butter
3⁄4 tsp. baking soda
1 egg
1⁄2 tsp. salt
1⁄2 tsp. vanilla extract
1⁄2 cup of sugar
11⁄2 cups milk chocolate chips or M&M’s
1⁄2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl and set aside. In large mixing bowl beat sugar, brown sugar and butter until creamy. Add egg and vanilla extract. Mix well. Gradually fold in flour mixture. Stir in chocolate chips. Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 10-12 minutes. Allow to cool for 2 minutes before removing from pans. Makes about two dozen cookies.

Robin Roth’s Texas Toffee

1 cup of sugar
1 Tbsp. water
2 sticks butter
2 cups chopped nuts (unsalted, any kind)
1 Tbsp. light Karo syrup
11⁄2 cups chocolate chips

Melt butter, sugar, Karo syrup and water over medium heat in saucepan. Boil mixture, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes. When the mixture turns caramel in color, remove from heat. Fold in 1 cup of nuts. Line a shallow 9x12 pan with parchment paper. Quickly spread mixture onto paper in a thin layer. While the toffee is very hot, sprinkle chocolate chips on top. Use the back of a spoon to spread chips until melted. Sprinkle remaining nuts on top of chocolate. Press lightly to adhere. Refrigerate for 3 hours. Break into bite-size pieces. Toffee can be frozen. Leftover crumbs make a great ice cream topping.

The Murrins’ Bûche de Noël

Cake
1⁄2 cup sugar
6 large eggs, separated
1⁄3 cup strong coffee, cooled
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Boil the sugar with the coffee for 2 minutes. Place the yolks in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add in the sugar/coffee mixture and beat for 6 minutes, until tripled in volume, becoming fluffy and light. Add in melted chocolate. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until firm. Add half of beaten egg whites to chocolate mixture. Quickly but gently fold in remaining egg whites.

Grease a 12x16-inch cake pan thoroughly and line with parchment or wax paper. Butter and flour the pan. Pour cake mixture on top of the paper and spread to about 1⁄2-inch thick. Bake for about 15 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

Invert cake onto parchment or wax paper. Remove paper from the back of the cake. If not ready to make the filling, place the paper back on the cake, roll it up, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Filling
1 Tbsp. instant coffee
2 cups heavy cream
3 Tbsp. boiling water
2 Tbsp. sugar
1⁄2 envelope unflavored gelatin

Combine the coffee and boiling water, sprinkle gelatin on top. Mix the cream and sugar together and whip until the cream holds a peak but is still soft. Stir the gelatin into the coffee until smooth, quickly pour it into the cream and whisk fast until well combined.

Unroll the cake and remove the top layer of paper. Spread with a 1⁄2-inch layer of cream. Use the bottom paper to help roll the cake along the long edge. Don’t press too hard or the cream will seep out, and don’t worry if the cake cracks. Keep rolling until the seam is on the bottom and use the bottom paper to help lift it onto a serving platter.

Ganache
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
1 cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp. cognac or brandy

Combine the cream with melted chocolate and cognac and beat the mixture with a whisk until it holds a peak. Spread the ganache all over the cake log. Using a fork, make stripes in the ganache to resemble tree bark. Use marzipan, food coloring, powdered sugar and cocoa for decorations. Color and shape the marzipan as desired. Traditional decorations include holly leaves, berries, snowmen and mushrooms, but use your imagination. Place decorations on Yule log and sprinkle with powdered sugar and/or cocoa.  Refrigerate until serving.

Heather Gray’s Peppermint Cake

Cake
1 (18.25 oz.) package of white cake mix
3 egg whites
1 1⁄3 cups buttermilk
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 9-oz. package yellow cake mix
1⁄2 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
11⁄2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa
1⁄2 tsp. baking soda
2 Tbsp. liquid red food coloring
1 tsp. cider vinegar
Peppermint syrup (available at Starbucks)

Combine and beat first four ingredients according to cake mix directions. Set aside. In a separate bowl, beat yellow cake mix plus next six ingredients following suggested mix times on cake mix box. Distribute the white batter evenly into the three greased and floured 9-inch round cake pans. Spoon the red batter on top of the white batter in each of the three pans. Swirl gently with knife. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Cool on racks 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans and cool completely on racks. Drizzle peppermint syrup over all three layers before frosting the cake.

Frosting

1 8-oz. package cream cheese, softened
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 lb. package powdered sugar
2 tsp. peppermint extract
1 bag of Starlight peppermint candies

Beat cream cheese and butter until smooth and creamy. Add in sugar and extract. Spread frosting between layers, then on top and on sides. Before serving, crush peppermints and press peppermint pieces on the bottom half of cake sides and sprinkle remaining pieces on top. As a special bonus, sprinkle entire cake with edible glitter, available at Make a Cake.

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