Thursday, March 22, 2018

Holiday desserts: A dozen reader-submitted recipes and the stories behind them

Welcome to this year's collection of reader-submitted holiday dessert recipes.



German Chocolate Cake


Linda Spurgus, New Port Richey

Linda says that one of her earliest holiday memories was her mom making a delicious fruitcake. But she says that since she "may be the last person on Earth that still loves all the candied fruits and nuts," she chose to share this chocolate cake instead.

"Growing up in the '50s, beating ingredients in our house was done all by hand. That was a challenge for Mom to do it all, so Dad flexed his muscles to help. He also chopped the nuts and whacked that coconut to be able to grate the coconut for her. Christmas brings back cherished memories now that Dad is no longer with us."

1 (4-ounce) bar German sweet chocolate, chopped

1 cup shortening

2 cups sugar

4 eggs, yolks and whites separated

2 ½ cups cake flour

1 cup buttermilk, divided

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon vanilla

Dash of salt

For the topping:

1 cup sugar

1 cup evaporated milk

1 stick butter

3 egg yolks, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup coconut, grated

1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt chocolate in a double boiler and set aside.

Cream shortening and sugar together. Add egg yolks one at a time to shortening and sugar mixture. Add the melted chocolate. Alternate adding the flour and 3/4 cup buttermilk. Dissolve baking soda in remaining 1/4 cup buttermilk and add to the bowl. Add vanilla and salt.

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold into the mixture.

Pour into 3 well-greased 9-inch cake pans and bake about 30 minutes. Cool completely.

Make the topping: Cook sugar, milk, butter and egg yolks in a heavy saucepan on medium heat. Stir constantly until mixture is slightly thickened. Remove from heat and add vanilla, coconut and pecans. Cool slightly and spread a third of the topping evenly over first cake layer. Place second cake on top and coat with topping; repeat.

Testing notes: You will need to melt the chocolate in a double boiler to avoid overheating. To make one, find a large pot and a smaller pot that can fit comfortably on top of the large pot without falling into it. Fill the large pot with a few inches of water and bring to a boil. Add chocolate to the smaller pot and cook until melted.

Tested by Brittany Volk



Mum's Sour Cream Coffee Cake


Don Waters, Tampa

"This recipe was made by my mother, Ruth Waters, every holiday season while I was growing up. She would 'encourage' me that since I liked it so much, it would be good for me to learn how to make it. I am glad she did because her baking lives on. This recipe is one of my favorites of the many things she would make."

1 cup butter

1 ¼ cups sugar

2 eggs

1 cup sour cream

2 cups flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon vanilla

For the filling:

¾ cup chopped nuts

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 tablespoons sugar

Combine butter, sugar and eggs and beat until light and fluffy. Blend in sour cream. In a separate bowl, sift flour and mix in baking powder and soda. Add to wet mixture. Add vanilla. Blend well.

Make the filling: Combine all ingredients together in a small bowl; toss to coat nuts.

Spoon half of batter mixture into greased and floured round, 10-inch angel food cake pan. Sprinkle half of the filling mixture over batter. Spoon in remaining batter. Top with remainder of filling. Place in a cold oven, then set oven to 350 degrees and bake for 55 minutes.

Serves 8.

Tested by Michelle Stark



Mimi's Chocolate Butter Cookies


Bonnie "Jo" Anderson, New Port Richey

"My mother, Mimi, often baked as many as 27 varieties of cookies at Christmas. Living here in Florida, she started baking early, freezing the cookies in nice containers and then giving them out as delicious gifts to friends and neighbors. Of course they always included these cookies, which were rolled exceptionally thin and cut out with her Christmas cookie cutters. Since I was a chocoholic even as a young child, these became her special gift for me. Many years later I still have her handwritten recipe and her antique cookie cutters. I can still hear her say, 'Be very careful, they burn quickly.' "

½ cup unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1 egg

2 squares (2 ounces) Baker's semisweet chocolate

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 ½ cups sifted flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream the butter, sugar and egg in a mixing bowl. Melt chocolate and add to the bowl. Add in vanilla. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, then combine with wet ingredients.

Chill dough for 1 hour. Roll out and cut into shapes that are about ½ inch thick, place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 8 minutes. They burn easily so keep watch.

Makes about 2 dozen.

Testing notes: Add up to ½ cup more flour if the dough seems too wet. You might need to use some flour when you roll out the dough to keep it from sticking to the counter.

Tested by Brittany Volk



Chocolate Zucchini Bread


Betty McCreight, Clearwater

"One of my most requested gifts of holiday time is my Chocolate Zucchini Bread. Topped with vanilla ice cream and a chocolate sauce, it makes a delicious and easy dessert."

3 eggs

1 cup vegetable or canola oil

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups shredded zucchini

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

3 tablespoons cocoa

½ cup pecans

1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two loaf pans by placing parchment paper on bottom of pans, then greasing and flouring the pans.

In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, oil, sugar and vanilla. Mix well. Stir in zucchini.

In a separate bowl, sift together flour, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, baking powder and cocoa. Mix well. Add to wet mixture and stir. Stir in pecans and chocolate chips.

Pour into prepared pans. Bake for 60 minutes. Cool the loaves in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and place onto wire rack to cool completely.

Makes 2 loaves.

Tested by Michelle Stark



Italian Rum Fruitcake Bites


Anthony J. Vento, Palmetto

"Being the son of a Sicilian mother, cooking was always an event — especially at the holidays. Dried fruit, especially currants, appeared in many of her Sicilian recipes, both savory and sweet. Also, many of her pastries and cakes were soaked in rum and it was typical for us as kids to have these all of the time, even for breakfast. Many people hate fruitcake, but I haven't had anyone not like these rum-soaked fruitcake bites because they are just the right size and don't have the same taste as commercial fruitcakes. They can be made weeks in advance — the longer they soak in the rum the more intense the flavor. These always remind me of my mother, who passed on to me her love of cooking and Sicilian heritage."

½ cup honey

6 ounces frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed

½ cup golden raisins

½ cup raisins or currants

½ pound candied pineapple, chopped

½ pound candied cherries, chopped, plus 15 to 18 cherries halved for garnish

½ cup butter, softened

? cup sugar

3 eggs

1 ¼ cups flour (Anthony likes to use half whole wheat flour for a darker color and deeper flavor)

? teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ teaspoon allspice

1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Cooking spray

½ cup dark rum mixed with 2 tablespoons of water

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine honey and orange juice. Bring to a boil and add raisins (and currants if using). Boil 2 minutes; set aside to cool slightly. Add candied pineapple and cherries and stir.

In a separate large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the fruit mixture. In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and spices, then stir into the wet ingredients. Add the nuts and stir.

Spray muffin tins with cooking spray and fill ¾ full. Top with cherry halves cut side down. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes.

Cool, remove from tins and brush with rum mixture. Optional: Layer fruitcake bites between cheesecloth in an airtight container and pour any remaining rum mixture over them. You can continue pouring more rum mixture over days or weeks depending on how intense you want them.

Makes about three dozen.

Testing notes: Finding candied pineapple and candied cherries separately in the grocery story is difficult. Your best bet is to buy the fruitcake mixture often sold in stores, which contains prechopped pineapple and red and green cherries. Candied cherries were easier to find on their own; we bought an additional package that was just cherries for the garnish on top. Feel free to use the prechopped mixture as a garnish if you don't want to buy another item.

Tested by Michelle Stark



Southern Pecan Pie


Becky Lamson, Tampa

"My parents met during World War II when my dad was in the Navy. He was from Arkansas and my mom from Ohio. They married and he took her home to meet his family. My mom had never heard of pecan pie and my dad's cousin Bula Mae brought over her pecan pie. She has made it every Christmas since. No one's pecan pie is as good as my mom's (and Bula Mae's)."

? cup sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

? cup unsalted butter

3 eggs, slightly beaten

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup halved pecans

1 frozen pie crust

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Combine sugar, corn syrup and butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Once butter is melted, remove pan from heat and let cool slightly. Add beaten eggs, salt and vanilla, mixing thoroughly.

Put pecans in the bottom of frozen pie crust. Check the packaging to see if you need to defrost first. (You shouldn't have to.) Pour pie filling on top of pecans and place on a cookie tray so it cooks evenly. Loosely place aluminum foil around the pie crust edges. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes. Remove the foil for the last 5 or 10 minutes.

Serves 6 to 8.

Testing notes: This recipe calls for pie crust, which you can buy frozen or make yourself using your favorite recipe. Becky uses a frozen pie crust, and so did we. She says she wraps aluminum foil loosely around the edges of the pie during the first 30 minutes of cooking, which we recommend.

Tested by Brittany Volk



Angelfood (Sponge) Candy


Erin Baehman, St. Petersburg

Erin shares an atypical confection that has grown to be a year-round favorite for her family but is made especially around the holidays. She writes: "Christmas baking and cooking has always been important for the women on both sides of my family. One of our family favorites, Angelfood Candy, is something of a tradition for both my grandmothers, my mother and now, myself. ... When I was little, my mother, Judy, and I would bake, cook and decorate a variety of candies and cookies as a gift to friends, family, teachers and, of course, Santa Claus. As I got older, I've carried out the same traditions, both in my own home and at work. Going to culinary school in Chicago started out as a way to hone the skills these three ladies had already placed in my hands. ... I have to admit, my mom's baking still tastes better to me than my own, and it probably always will. ... It must be the love, a phrase I use often when someone says something tastes delicious. But Mom's love is always the best."

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup dark corn syrup

1 tablespoon white vinegar

1 tablespoon baking soda

Candy coating chocolate

Place a large pot on the stovetop. Put brown sugar, dark corn syrup and white vinegar in the pot. Turn heat up to medium-high. Mix ingredients for a minute until incorporated. Stop stirring and leave on stove to boil until mixture reaches 290 degrees as measured by a candy (or digital) thermometer. This could take up to 20 minutes.

Turn off heat immediately once temperature is reached.

Using a wooden spoon, stir in baking soda vigorously. For roughly 1 minute, continue stirring to make sure all baking soda is incorporated. Mixture will puff up quickly and give off puffs of hot steam, so be careful with your hands and arms.

Pour mixture into an ungreased 9- by 13-inch metal pan, quickly scraping all mixture out of pot into a single pile. Do not spread or flatten.

Allow candy to cool completely at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.

When candy is almost cool, melt candy coating chocolate in a double boiler over medium-high heat.

Once cool, break candy into small pieces and dip in melted chocolate. Keep in mind that humid air quality can make the candy sticky and chewy, rather than crisp and crunchy. So be sure to dip the candy as soon as it is cool.

Testing notes: For this recipe, you will need a candy (or digital) thermometer.

Tested by Patty Yablonski



Great-Grandmother Friend's White Fruitcake


Gayle Hackbarth, Summerfield

Gayle passes along a note from her aunt about this recipe that dates back to the 1850s: "Luke E. Friend, six-generation Yankee, married Frances Goodale in Salem, Mass., in the 1850s. Eventually they owned and operated a restaurant at Salem Willows. My father, Charles Williams Friend, married Abigail Grace McKoy, in 1889. My mother not only learned to shuck clams and fry them as they did in the restaurant, but was taught to make Charlie's favorite cake. Did that mother-in-law of the 19th century ever dream that one of her recipes would become the favorite of great-great-grandchildren in faraway California and Florida?"

3 cups mixed candied fruit (Gayle uses candied green cherries, candied red cherries and candied pineapple)

2 cups nut meats, chopped

3 ½ cups flour, divided

1 cup butter

3 ½ cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

4 eggs

2 teaspoons baking powder


1 cup milk

Mix the fruit and nuts with ½ cup of the flour and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter, sugar and vanilla and almond extracts until creamy. Add eggs and beat until smooth.

Mix remaining 3 cups flour with baking powder and a pinch of salt. Alternate adding flour mixture and milk to the butter-egg mixture until both are gone. Stir in nuts and fruit.

Pour into well-greased and floured ring molds, loaf pans or an angel cake pan. Bake at 300 degrees for 2 hours. Cool a bit before turning out of pan.

Testing notes: Unlike the modern light, fluffy box cakes, this recipe is on the heavy side, with a crispy, sugary top. It also cooks on a low heat for much longer than a typical cake recipe — 2 hours. This is accurate.

Tested by Jan Brackett





Mona Peters, Crystal River

Mona shares this flan recipe, a treat that has become a tradition for her over the past decade. She warns that the ingredient media crema table cream can be hard to find. (Look in the Hispanic section of the grocery store, next to where the sweetened condensed milk is.) If you can't find it, substitute half-and-half.

"My nest has been empty for more than 25 years now. Since moving to Florida six years ago, I eat restaurant food at holiday time. Each year I've made a flan for my favorite restaurant owners, Raphael and Maria Ramirez, who have a small Hispanic grocery and restaurant in Lecanto. I get to practice my Spanish and they never laugh at me. I always buy my cans of Cafe Santo Domingo coffee there."

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

1 (7.6-ounce) can media crema

4 eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

? cup sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Blend first five ingredients with a fork or whisk until well incorporated. Do not overbeat.

Melt sugar in a heavy skillet. Do not stir. Tilt the pan from side to side as needed so sugar melts evenly and does not burn. Pour the caramelized sugar into a 1-quart 6-inch by 2-inch deep heavy aluminum saucepan. Tilt the pan from side to side to mostly coat the bottom.

Pour the flan mixture slowly on top of the melted sugar. Bake 55 to 60 minutes. Flan will puff up and look like a baked cake. A knife inserted should come out clean. Remove when done, and after a few minutes invert onto a serving plate. Cover with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge until served.

Testing notes: This recipe calls for a 6-inch by 2-inch deep heavy aluminum saucepan. That's a very unusual size, one that we didn't have, so we used ceramic ramekins. If we made this again, we would pour the caramelized sugar and batter into six small ramekins and serve this an as individual dessert. Also, there is no water bath, as is customary with baked puddings and custards, which means that it puffs more like a cake, with the top being more cakey and the bottom more eggy-custardy.

Tested by Laura Reiley



Italian Sesame Cookies


Gina Rehberg, Wesley Chapel

Gina sends along her family recipe for Italian Sesame Cookies, which she says are "sweet little cookies that are easy to make using simple ingredients."

"Mom always made these at Christmas for her cookie trays she gave out. I used to love to help shape and then roll them in sesame seeds. Sometimes, I would make them too big and they would puff up in the oven, but I knew my mother would let me eat the big ones then. The recipe does call for shortening — I know, shortening is bad — but it's what gives the cookies a nice texture. And, after all, Christmas comes only once a year."

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup shortening

1 tablespoon vanilla

3 eggs

3 cups flour

3 teaspoon baking powder

Sesame seeds

Cream sugar and shortening together in a bowl. Add vanilla and eggs and mix well.

In a separate bowl, combine flour and baking powder and add to creamed mixture. Shape cookies into logs about 1 inch by ½ inch then roll in sesame seeds to coat. Cookies puff when baking, so don't make them too large. Place on baking sheet and bake about 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Cookies will stay white but should be slightly brown on bottom. Store in airtight container.

Makes 64 cookies.

Testing notes: The dough is very sticky and difficult to roll, so it benefits from being in the fridge for 15 minutes to firm up a bit. Roll the dough as thin as a pinkie finger. Otherwise they puff too much.

Tested by Laura Reiley



Nut Bread


Maggie Cook, Tampa

Maggie shares her mom's recipe for Nut Bread, something she would only make for Christmas.

"We always had lightly buttered slices of her nut bread with breakfast on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and it was always also (cut into squares) on the holiday cookie platter. All year long, Mom would save her empty 1-pound coffee cans and use the cans as baking tins. She always said that the secret was to make each batch in a separate bowl. ... My job was to remove the loaf from the coffee can, and to individually wrap them in aluminum foil once they cooled. Many times, we would tie them with red bows and she would give them as holiday gifts."

1 cup brown sugar (light, dark or even Splenda brown sugar work)

4 tablespoons butter

1 egg

1 cup milk (whole milk, 2 percent and fat-free are all fine)

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup walnuts (use whole nuts, halves or rough-chopped)

Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream sugar and butter in a bowl, then add egg, milk and vanilla and mix until blended. Add flour, baking powder, walnuts and salt and mix ingredients together with a spoon by hand until blended.

Let the batter sit in the bowl at room temperature for about 20 minutes

Pour into greased and floured pans. Maggie says she has used both loaf pans and coffee tins, like her mom.

Bake for about 1 hour. You will see cracks in the top of the loaf when it's done.

Makes 1 loaf.

Testing notes: We thought this recipe would benefit from the addition of some fat, so we added 4 tablespoons butter to the batter. And, for some more flavor, a teaspoon of vanilla. We filled the can ¾ full of batter.

Tested by Patty Yablonski



Cassava Bibingka


Cynthia Espiritu, St. Petersburg

Cynthia submits this recipe for a cake that uses cassava, the root of a bushlike plant that is used in Asian cuisine. We know it more commonly as the stuff from which tapioca pudding is made. Cynthia, who came to the United States from the Philippines in 1971 with her family, says she uses cooking to stay connected with her culture.

"Filipino food has been the primary link to my heritage. Every Christmas, I cook Filipino food for my family in celebration of our Filipino heritage. On Christmas Day, I prepare Filipino dishes such as lumpia and pancit. Cassava Bibingka is one of the desserts that is always on our table at Christmas. My Filipino mother moved from North Dakota to live with my family 20 years ago. It is her favorite dessert and she also requests that I make it for her birthday in July."

2 cups (one 16-ounce package) frozen grated cassava, thawed

1 (16-ounce) package frozen young coconut (with water from the package), thawed

¾ cup coconut milk

¾ cup water

2 tablespoons melted butter

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients thoroughly in a bowl and mix well. Pour into a 9- by 12-inch pan. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, then broil on high for 3 to 4 minutes or until browned on top. Set aside until cool before slicing into serving pieces.

Serves 8 to 10.

Testing notes: You can find grated cassava and frozen young coconut at Asian grocery stores.


The facts about farmed salmon you wish you didnít know

The facts about farmed salmon you wish you didnít know

A couple years ago, salmon passed tuna as the most popular fish in the United States. Our doctors have told us to eat more of it; our fitness and diet regimens have put it in heavy menu rotation.The problem is not all salmon is created equal. More th...
Published: 03/21/18
Clearwaterís Sixty South Salmon aims to change the world with its super-premium farmed salmon

Clearwaterís Sixty South Salmon aims to change the world with its super-premium farmed salmon

Your seatbelt is still fastened, you have not yet reached cruising altitude and youíre calculating just how to while away the eight hours and 40 minutes from Santiago, Chile, to Miami. Hereís what you donít know: Beneath you, in the belly of the plan...
Published: 03/21/18
Use your leftover risotto to make this Baked Arancini With Peppery Tomato Sauce

Use your leftover risotto to make this Baked Arancini With Peppery Tomato Sauce

When was the last time you enjoyed leftovers?For me, it was when I turned a Pyrex full of three-day-old risotto into this recipe below. Aside from chili or other stew-like dishes, it is a sad fact of home cooking that most dinners donít taste as good...
Published: 03/20/18
Updated: 03/21/18
Recipe for mozzarella and radicchio ziti

Recipe for mozzarella and radicchio ziti

hereís something to be learned from even the simplest recipes, and this bowl proves the point.Radicchioís bitter edge mellows once this vivid chicory spends seconds in a hot pan. That same pan, graced with a little olive oil, can then immediately coa...
Published: 03/20/18

Taste test: Cream cheese

Cream cheeses come in many flavors, but our judges were most interested in texture when they began to compare 10 different brands. We tried the cheese spreads alone and with bagels to test spreadability. Our sample included only plain cream cheeses a...
Published: 03/19/18
Oh la la: Chicken With Cider and Pears

Oh la la: Chicken With Cider and Pears

The French know a thing or two about the perfect braise, so I wasnít surprised when I tasted the rabbit in cider, Calvados (apple brandy) and cream that my host family served me during my semester abroad in Nantes. If you ever find yourself in France...
Published: 03/16/18
Try a fresh twist on fish with Cod With Pomegranate and Zucchini en Papillote

Try a fresh twist on fish with Cod With Pomegranate and Zucchini en Papillote

The health benefits of eating fish two or three times a week are well-documented. So, as a mom, Iím always looking for creative ways to add fish into our weekly menu. I love Alaskan cod, which is loaded with omegas and lean protein, and my girls all ...
Published: 03/16/18
Chrissy Teigenís Lemony Arugula Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe recipe is an easy, flavorful weeknight meal

Chrissy Teigenís Lemony Arugula Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe recipe is an easy, flavorful weeknight meal

Iím a glutton for pasta. All I need is some homemade red sauce and lots of Parmesan, and thatís a weekly dinner in my house. But every now and then, I try to find another way to carb it up. Enter Chrissy Teigen, whose Twitter account has been stalkin...
Published: 03/14/18
10 ideas for 4-person meals you can make for $10 or less

10 ideas for 4-person meals you can make for $10 or less

We’ve all been there. Hands gripping the shopping cart, crazy eyes darting up and down the shelves, every thought about how to construct an affordable and filling dinner completely gone from your brain. It’s the quickest way to end up wit...
Published: 03/14/18
Spring break snacks you can bring to the beach

Spring break snacks you can bring to the beach

I miss spring break.Growing up on the gulf coast, I spent the holiday slathered in sunscreen, swimming in cerulean water. When I graduated from college, I traded in those endless beach days for an occasional summer sunset. Stay in school, kids. This ...
Published: 03/13/18
Updated: 03/14/18