Sweet spot

If you live in east central Indiana, you’re probably already acquainted with the exquisite chocolates of Ghyslain Chocolatier, but if you haven’t yet made time to stop in for a meal at Ghyslain’s Richmond Bistro, you need to. Soon.

Ghyslain (pronounced JEEZ-lay, as best I can tell) Maurais is a renowned French-Canadian pastry chef who met and married a Hoosier gal named Susan; the couple relocated to her hometown of Union City, Ind., where they established Ghyslain Chocolatier in 1998. The company has since grown to include satellite shops and eateries in Richmond and Zionsville, and opened a fourth location in Louisville last spring.

Ghyslain Bistro in Richmond

I visited the Richmond bistro on Saturday night with two girlfriends as part of a “Just Us Girls” overnight trip to Wayne County. Located in the up-and-coming Historic Depot District, Ghyslain makes its home in an old rehabbed industrial building. The open, airy dining room looks almost chocolaty, all done up in an elegant shade of deep, rich brown with baby blue accents.

The confectionary cases are front and center as soon as you walk in the door, a smart move. You’re already whetting your appetite for dessert before you even order your meal, and trust me, there’s no way you want to miss dessert here.

The dinner menu changes seasonally and offers just a small handful of well-conceived and expertly executed starters. Four entrees cover all the bases with fish, chicken, beef and vegetarian options.

We began our meal with glasses of wine from a very respectable list of choices, a basket of fresh bread with whipped butter, and a shared charcuterie platter that may have been my favorite part of the meal. Between the three of us, we each managed to sample a bite or two of all the delectable items on the plate, and there were plenty to enjoy.

Ghyslain’s sharable charcuterie

Most of the bits and bobs on the charcuterie plate were self-explanatory, but we did ask our server to give us a quick rundown of the meats. Thinking back now, I can’t even remember exactly what was included, I just know that everything was delicious. The memory of a small disk of duck salami brings a smile to my face, not to mention a great proscuitto and a couple other cured delicacies. I’m curious whether the meats are made in house or sourced from somewhere else.

Cheesewise, we received a small hunk of cheddar, a little wedge of brie, a slice of goat cheese and a few crumbles of blue. The goat cheese was my favorite, especially when I smeared a little on a slice of bread and topped it off with a dollop of sweet-but-not-too-sweet fig jam. Blueberries, blackberries, gherkins and candied pecans rounded out the platter. Seriously, with a glass of wine and a dessert, this could easily be a meal in and of itself. For me, anyway.

Ghyslain’s take on salad

My friend Eileen ordered an interesting composed salad, sort of like a deconstructed Caesar, although it wasn’t a Caesar. The lightly dressed lettuce took center stage, arranged in a diagonal mound across the plate and topped with freshly made croutons. A few spears of asparagus filled out one corner, several slices of crispy bacon the other. Very attractive, although it could have used just a little bit more dressing.

I must also mention the adorable white ceramic salt cellars on each table, filled with three kinds of salt and a little informational card to explain the origins of each — black Hawaiian sea salt, fleur de sel and a pretty pink Himalayan salt. A cute and thoughtful detail, and I enjoyed comparing and contrasting the flavors of each salt.

To spread the love around, we each ordered a different protein for our entrees. The plate presentations were elegant, but fairly simple, complemented by nicely cooked carrots and roasted potatoes. (Our server said they’d run out of the asparagus that should have completed the plate, but offered to make up the difference to us in more of either the carrots or potatoes.)

the morel chicken

My choice was advertised as “morel chicken.” As it turned out, morel referred to the rich mushroom sauce spooned over the sliced breast as opposed to actual pieces of morel mushrooms that you could really sink your teeth into. That was a bit of a letdown, although the chicken was certainly juicy and the sauce tasted very good. I am the daughter and sister of a pair of serious local mushroom hunters, so when you promise me morels, I get excited about it. Mushroom season is in May, though, not in December, so I guess I should have known better than to expect fresh morels this time of year.

steak and shrimp entree

My friends seemed very happy with their respective selections of mahi mahi with rice and veggies, and a beautiful surf-and-turf dish of steak and shrimp. My friend Laura said it was one of the best steaks she’d had in a long time. Portion sizes are reasonable, but definitely not gigantic. We cleaned our plates.

After we’d finished our dinners, our server invited us to walk up and take a gander at the dessert counter. You simply order what you want on the spot, they hand it over and add it to your bill. We probably spent a good ten minutes just considering the choices before deciding on two to share. These desserts, like the signature chocolates in the next counter over, are GORGEOUS works of art. We asked the woman behind the counter what she’d recommend, and she proceeded to give us a detailed description of just about everything in the case. Some of these beauties are so labor-intensive, they require three days just to produce and assemble the various components. They are almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

the key lime tart

We finally settled on a key lime tart, a sweet-tart creation that looked like an art deco building you’d find in South Beach, and a Charlemagne made of chocolate cake and mousse surrounded by small tiles of white and dark chocolate and topped with a mountain of chocolate shavings on top. It goes without saying that both were ridiculously good.

the Charlemagne

Don’t come here if you’re in a hurry; the pace at Ghyslain is leisurely. This is a genuine dining experience, not fast food. The dining room was pretty full and there was a party of 15 or so seated next to us, so service might have been slightly slower than normal. No matter, we weren’t in any hurry. We arrived for our reservation at 7 p.m., lingered and were the last customers to leave when they closed at 10 p.m.

With choices like pecan chicken salad croissants, Caprese salad, a Mediterranean platter, muffaletta and a croque monsieur panini, the lunch menu is more extensive, less expensive, and sounds more my speed than the dinner offerings. I’ll come back mid-day next time.

Ghyslain Bistro is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, and only offers dinner on Friday and Saturday night, so plan your visit accordingly. Of course, you can also stop in and satisfy your sweet tooth with those insanely creative and delicious chocolates and desserts any old time.

For more information: www.ghyslain.com

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Cake walk

For me, one of the most memorable scenes in “Bridesmaids” was not the infamously disgusting bridal shop debacle, although that one is pretty hard to forget. It was the scene where Kristen Wiig, portraying a pastry chef, goes into her home kitchen and proceeds to bang out one of the most drop-dead gorgeous single-serving cupcakes I’ve ever seen.

I enjoy cupcakes and prefer them to ice cream if I’m going out for a sweet treat, but they’re not something I seek out on a regular basis. In fact, I have a great basic cupcake recipe that I like playing around with at home as the mood strikes me. However, my recent trip to Parcha Sweets, in conjunction with the past few episodes of Top Chef Just Desserts, has been a stark reminder me that I am indeed a mere amateur when it comes to cranking out culinary creations of the pastry variety.

Parcha Sweets exterior

When I saw Parcha Sweets open last fall in the old Domino’s Pizza building on 62nd Street just east of Broad Ripple, I thought… huh? Now, after finally making a visit nearly a year later, I get it. If you look close, you can figure out what the repainted building used to be without much trouble, but inside, you’d never guess high school hacks used to sling pies here. It’s really warm, cute and cozy. Parcha encourages customers to take a load off and relax by providing organic coffee, magazines, free Wifi, and even a small table and chairs for the kiddos, a smart move if you want to appeal to the mom crowd.

In case you’re wondering about the name, “parcha” means passion fruit in the chef’s Puerto Rican homeland. Here in Indy, she offers cookies, pies, bread pudding, old-fashioned coconut macaroons and other baked goods, but the cupcakes the real rock stars, displayed in a countertop cluster of glass cake stands. And they are gorgeous. There are about a dozen flavors to choose from daily. Some of the stands had already been depleted by the time I stopped by mid-afternoon; thankfully, there were still plenty of mouthwatering choices.

I used my book club meeting as an excuse to visit, looking for a dessert to contribute to the evening’s group. I’d read online somewhere that Parcha Sweets offered mini-cupcakes, which I thought would be a great way for us to sample several flavors each. Alas, the nice young gal who waited on me said they’d stopped making the minis because they were too difficult to package without falling over. Hmph. Well, no matter, I figured we’d just cut the full-size cupcakes into fourths. Additionally, one of the ladies in my book club has a son who’s dealing with a list of food allergies that would make your head spin. As a show of solidarity, she’s following the same restrictive diet he’s on. So with her in mind, I asked about gluten-free, vegan cupcakes (I’d also read in another online review that Parcha did these as well). Found out they’re not regularly available, either. Just for special orders, apparently.

I had trouble making selections when so many of the cupcakes looked so tempting and finally just asked the server to pick eight and box them up for me. Packaging is thoughtfully designed to preserve the integrity of the cupcakes – sturdy cardboard boxes with molded holders inside to keep those little beauties from sliding around if you take a sharp turn. And a little ribbon and sticker on the top. Pretty.

Parcha Sweets cupcakes to go

Let’s get on to the main event… here’s what we sampled and our impressions of each:

the Red Velvet

Red Velvet – the hands-down favorite of the bunch. Rich, luscious claret cake topped with a mountain of creamy cream cheese frosting. Delectable. Everyone who tasted this one loved it.

Lemon – ricotta lemon cake filled with a lemon cream and topped with lemon buttercream. Another crowd pleaser.

Peanut Salty Caramel – tasted sort of like a Snickers bar. Chocolate cake with a caramel filling, peanut butter frosting and a few chopped nuts on top for garnish. I could have eaten the peanut butter frosting with a spoon, but the cake was a little dry, and the caramel filling was a little too liquid.

Carrot – a big hit with the gals who like carrot cake. Moist and delicious with more of that yummy cream cheese frosting on top.

the Chocolate Passion

Chocolate Passion – chocolate cake with a big pile of chocolate ganache topping. Almost overkill on the chocolate, if there is such a thing. The ganache was firm on top, not soft like frosting, which kinda threw us a little bit. However, I’m positive my son would LOVE this.

Wedding Cake – got mixed reviews, but I really liked it. Creamy vanilla cake topped with what tasted like amaretto buttercream frosting. The sweet almond flavor really comes through.

the S’mores

S’mores – chocolate cake with chocolate ganache, marshmallow filling (toasted on top) and graham cracker crumbs. Good, but not great. It looked really intriguing, but we found the marshmallow a bit chewy.

Caribbean Coconut – one gal in the group really liked this one, the rest thought it was ok. The cake was a wee bit dry, but there was tons of good coconut flavor.

Parcha Sweets prices are a little steep – $2.99 for a beautiful cupcake of average size, which is a few cents higher than what you’d pay at Flying Cupcake and Holy Cow. Although you do get a 10 percent discount if you order more than six. Just make sure you don’t eat all six by yourself in one sitting. It could happen…

For more information:

http://www.parchasweets.com/

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Blazing the Chocolate Trail

Last week, I had the delicious pleasure of daytripping down the Chocolate Trail of Wayne County. CVB leisure marketing director (and fellow Richmond native) Nancy Sartain proved a great host for this undertaking. Really, who isn’t on the lookout for an excuse to justify eating more chocolate?

I grew up in Richmond, but the trail promotion is a relatively recent addition to the local tourism scene, and one I wasn’t familiar with until just a few months ago. While I have randomly visited a couple of the Chocolate Trail businesses on prior occasions, many of the stops were brand-new experiences for me.

Here’s how the Chocolate Trail works – you swing into the (very nicely organized) visitors center on the east side of town near the intersection of U.S. 40 and I-70. There, you pick up a list of participating Chocolate Trail businesses, a chocolate passport and discount coupons. Then you get your sweet tooth on and set off to hit the trail in any order you choose. Best of all, the promotion is totally free to take part in, no purchase necessary.

At each of the nearly dozen stops on the trail, all you have to do is present your passport to receive free samples and chocolate-related giveways. It’s like Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day all rolled into one!

The businesses that make up the trail are quite a diverse collection, and not strictly just chocolate shops and candy stores. Amid the stops, you’ll encounter J&J Winery, Warm Glow Candle Outlet, Maria Mitrone’s Italian Market, the SOS Craft Shop and a couple of antique dealers in Cambridge City.

On the chocolate side of things, you’ll find yourself stopping in the swanky Ghyslain Chocolatier, hometown favorite Olympian Candies, and Hagerstown’s answer to the best caramels ever, Abbott’s Candy Factory.

This is a lot of territory to cover in a single day, but you can do like I did and ask if it’s ok to take your samples with you. Even for a chocoholic like me, ingesting that much sugar in one day just isn’t a good idea. There are a few freebies you do have to enjoy on site, like the scoop of chocolate ice cream you’ll receive at Maria Mitrione’s and a glass of chocolate wine at J&J. Be aware and plan your visits accordingly.

When my personal chocolate trail trip was all said and done, I had amassed chocolate samples from Ghyslain, Olympian and Abbott’s; a little box of fudge from Pour House Antiques and Sweets; chocolate jelly beans and a single chocolate pearl from Building 125 antiques in Cambridge City; an oversized Grandma’s Brownie-scented votive from Warm Glow; and a chocolate brown potscrubber from SOS Craft Shop. (Did I mention, I got all this stuff for FREE???) You should have seen hubby’s and son’s eyes light up as I unwrapped all my loot to show off. I had to hide the chocolates and treats in the back of the fridge behind a bag of arugula to prevent them from scarfing it all down in one sitting.

A few edible impressions:

Ghyslain’s gorgeous handpainted chocolates

• Ghyslain Chocolatier’s products are beautiful and tasty works of art. Accordingly, they are also the priciest of the bunch. The hand-painted signature items come in adorable shapes like butterflies (my favorite), turtles, fans and horseshoes.

Olympian Candies on the Promenade

• The soft Greek-recipe cream fillings at Olympian Candies are ooey-gooey heaven, try the dark chocolate lemon cream for an interesting and delicious combination.

• The old-fashioned flavor of the Smith Dairy chocolate ice cream you’ll get at the Maria Mitrione’s soda fountain took me right back to my childhood with just one lick. (Can’t wait to come back here for lunch sometime at the Italian market deli.)

Pour House fudge varieties

• It’s nearly impossible to choose just one flavor of fudge to sample at the Pour House counter. Peanut butter, rocky road, amaretto swirl, maple nut, plain old chocolate – whatever you select, rest assured it will be fabulous.

Abbott’s chocolate counter

Abbott’s Candy Factory‘s buttery soft caramels can’t be beat, but their chocolates are darn good, too. The coconut cream I sampled held real bits of chewy coconut encased in dark chocolate. Mmm.

I made a few additional purchases throughout the day to take advantage of my Chocolate Bucks discounts, and was all too happy to do so. This is a great grouping of local businesses that deserve support, and the trail is a fun way to explore some of the best tastes Wayne County has to offer.

It’s fun to learn something new about a place you thought you already knew everything about.

For more information, go to:

http://www.visitrichmond.org/files/Chocolate%20Trail%20Brochure.pdf

Wham bam biscotti

My macaron mojo has apparently left the building. I hosted a book club meeting at my house on Sunday night and was intent on dropping a batch of these babies on my guests. If you’ll recall from my previous posts, my most recent attempt at macarons didn’t go so well.

The first few batches I made at the first of the year turned out beautifully, with little “feet” at the bottom of the cookies and everything. Must have been beginner’s luck, because the last time I tried to make them about a month ago, all sorts of things went wrong. First, the dough wasn’t loose enough and the cookies cracked and bubbled as they baked. Then, the dough was too wet and they didn’t rise at all. One thing after another, yadda yadda yadda. Three batches in a row – all disastrous.

On Sunday afternoon, I felt up for another go. Mixed the batter, piped them out and realized they were too stiff. Proud of myself for recognizing the problem while I still had time to correct it, I scraped them back into the bowl, whipped up a couple more egg whites, folded them into the batter and tried again. As they rested on the cookie sheets before baking, they looked much better. Even my piping was fairly consistent. I thought to myself “now that’s more like it! Finally!”

It came time to throw them in the oven, but when the timer went off and I took them out, they looked pathetic. Bubbly and full of holes, barely risen. Disgusted, I tossed them straight into the trashcan without even sampling one and started looking for other cookie recipes to make for my gals. You win, macarons. I give up.

After some consideration, I came across a butterscotch biscotti recipe I’d made once before several years ago. Hm. I had all the ingredients on hand, and it required no sifting or electric mixing. I was suddenly back in business.

The recipe I was using as a blueprint called for a few tablespoons of bourbon and the additions of butterscotch chips and almonds. I can’t make anything like this without putting my own individual stamp on it, so I replaced the bourbon with coffee and left out the chips and nuts, figuring I’d work them in as toppings later.

After I’d mixed the dough, the directions said to shape it into two flat logs. Only problem with this was that the dough seemed very wet and sticky, so every time I tried to flatten it into the requisite shape, it soundly refused to go quietly into that good night. It stuck to my hands like glue and was impossible to form correctly. I somehow figured out to wet my hands in between pats to coax it into the right shape, stuck it in the oven and nervously hoped for the best.

Lo and behold, after the required 20 minutes, the dough had risen into little flat domes just like it was supposed to. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and took the loaves out of the oven. Once they are cool enough to handle, you slice them thinly to make the biscotti and then stick them back in the oven to toast on all sides, turning every few minutes or so until they’re golden brown and crunchy all over.

You can either mix stuff into the dough to flavor it from the get go – chocolate chips, spices, nuts, etc. – or you can follow my lead and dress up the cookies once they’re baked. I melted some chocolate chips in the microwave with a tiny bit of cream to make a quick ganache, which I then used to frost the biscotti on one side. It still needed a little something to increase the wow factor, so I sprinkled chopped almonds on some and toasted sesame seeds on others. You may think sesame an odd choice in this instance, but I’m telling ya, it was awesome.  Almost like a peanut flavor, and a great combo with the chocolate.

All in all, the biscotti went over well. In fact, I just whipped up another batch this afternoon. Take that, macarons.

Basic biscotti

(Makes about two dozen)

Ingredients:

1/2 c. butter, melted

1 cup brown sugar, packed lightly

4 tablespoons strong coffee, cooled (or replace with bourbon or brandy if you want to get a little crazy!)

4 eggs

2 tsp. Vanilla

2 1/2 c. flour

1 1/2 tsp. Baking powder

1/4 tsp. Kosher salt

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl, mix the melted butter, brown sugar and coffee until smooth. Add the eggs one by one, mixing well to incorporate between each addition, then stir in the vanilla. Add the flour, baking powder and salt, mix well to combine.

Line two rectangular baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat. Divide the dough evenly between the two cookie sheets and shape each into one long flat log around 1/2 inch high. Try to spread the dough as evenly as you can, wetting your hands lightly as you go to prevent sticking.

Bake the logs for 18 to 20 minutes, rotating the pans once at the halfway mark, until dough is solid and has risen slightly. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and let cool slightly.

When the dough is cool enough to handle, transfer each log onto a large cutting board. Using a long, serrated bread knife, slice the dough on a diagonal into 1/2 inch widths. Return all the cookies back to the baking sheets, placing them on their sides and spacing them out as far as possible.

Put the cookies back in the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes, flipping all the cookies over once halfway through the baking time. When they’re light golden brown and toasted on both sides, they’re done.

(As I mentioned before, there are all sorts of ways you can jazz these up:  mix chocolate chips, butterscotch chips or nuts into the dough before baking; or frost/glaze them with icing of your choice, then sprinkle with chopped nuts or jimmies.)

Buon appetito!

chocolate almond and chocolate sesame biscotti

Book swap sweets

Last night, I hosted a small group of friends for a book swap, hoping it would serve as a foundation to launch a book club. To sweeten the deal, I plied my guests with wine and desserts.

After perusing recipes for days, I finally decided to make a sour cream banana cake with peanut butter buttercream frosting, and chocolate fudge macarons with marshmallow filling.

the spread

The cake was easy to make and turned out to be moist and fantastic. The peanut butter frosting was delicious, too, a sinful concoction of butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar and creamy Jif that I couldn’t stop eating by the spoonful. It was almost too sweet, but a good complement to the banana flavor. (I ate another big slice for breakfast this morning when no one was looking.)

Sour cream banana cake with peanut butter buttercream frosting

I seriously toyed with the idea of topping the whole thing with some crumbled brown sugar bacon and calling it an “Elvis Cake,” but time got away from me. Mainly because, for whatever reason, I lost my macaron mojo.

After four or five great first efforts, I could not make a decent macaron yesterday to save my life. I don’t know if the batter was too stiff, the house was too dry or what, but the first batch of cookies cracked and completely dried out. Figuring it must have been a fluke, I whipped up another batch. Same story, different cookie sheet. Edible and appropriately chocolaty, mind you, but not the right texture or appearance at all. They were way too crunchy, more like a little meringue button than a crusty-chewy macaron. By this point, I was getting the process down to a science. Figuring the third time had to be the charm, I made one last-ditch attempt. My last effort turned out the closest to correct macarons, but still not perfect. Sigh. I gave up, schmeared them with marshmallow fluff and served them anyway. No one seemed to mind.

a semi-successful macaron

By the way, I had totally forgotten what a wonderful thing marshmallow fluff is. O.M.G. I predict several fluffer-nutter sandwiches showing up in this week’s lunch menus…

If at first you don’t succeed, keep on baking.

Double whammy

Still trying to perfect my techniques, I whipped up a fairly labor-intensive dinner last night of homemade pasta AND more macarons. Glutton for punishment? Nah. I’m feeling more and more comfortable with both endeavors and won’t rest until I’ve nailed them.

First up, more macarons. Chocolate, to be exact. A pretty easy adaptation; you merely add a little cocoa powder to the powdered sugar and almonds. Trying to streamline, I decided to experiment by cutting a few corners to see if they’d make a difference. First of all, I decided not to sweat the sifting. I just stirred the almonds, powdered sugar and cocoa together as thoroughly as I could and hoped for the best. Next, I used a Baggie for my piping as opposed to my pastry bag (which is a bitch to clean after use). When I was done, I just popped the Baggie in the trash can and that was that. Two big time-savers right off the bat!

Recipes I’ve consulted offer varying opinions about how long to bake macarons and at what temperature. My last lemon batch was tasty, but almost a little too chewy, so I left my chocolate macarons in the oven a little longer than I have my prior two attempts. Around 16-17 minutes instead of the usual 12-13. In the meantime, I simply melted chocolate chips with Half and Half in the microwave and stirred in a tiny bit of butter to make a quick ganache filling.

Final results? The cookies looked great. They smelled great. They tasted great, EXCEPT, they were overbaked. Way too crunchy without a hint of their trademark chewiness. Hmph. Apparently 16-17 minutes is too long – live and learn. If it wasn’t for that minor flaw, this might have been my best batch yet! The other shortcuts I took didn’t seem to affect the outcome at all. Good to know. One more time, and I think I’ll have it sorted.

overbaked chocolate macarons

For our entree, I pulled out the new pasta machine again and rolled out a couple mounds of dough. It still boggles my mind that all you have to do is knead a few eggs into some flour and bam – noodles. I rolled through the dough into long, fragile sheets and laid them out to dry while hubby helped me concoct a quick bolognese sauce with Italian sausage (the Marsh butcher counter is the best place in town for bulk Italian sausage, IMHO). I’m more a sweet sausage fan, but hubby likes it spicy, so we blended a pound of each. The results – delicious, with a nice but not overpowering kick of heat.

We boiled the pasta briefly to soften. In retrospect, it might have been smart to cut the pasta to size before boiling it – the pasta expanded as it cooked, and we had a hell of time trying to fish the sheets out of the scalding water without ripping them and/or hard-boiling our fingers in the process.

Finally, I got the lasagna assembled and threw it in the oven for about 30 minutes. Our lovely neighbors agreed to join us as taste testers. At long last, the oven buzzer rang and I delivered the steaming dish of bubbly cheesy goodness to the table, along with a bowl of quick-boiled green beans and slices of the French bread our neighbors had contributed.

homemade lasagna with fresh noodles

The lasagna was, well, it was fantastic. The fresh noodles are labor intensive to create, but they make such a HUGE difference – the texture was light and simply melted in my mouth, not a trace of the chewiness that I hate. And the sauce was awesome. I have to admit, hubby made a great call with adding in a bit of the hot sausage for punch. It was excellent. (AND he washed the entire mountain of dishes my efforts produced. Bless him. He’s a keeper.) Even the toddler scarfed down some of the leftover noodle “rags” with a little bit of sauce and some cheese on top.

All in all, a great meal shared with great friends. What more could a person want?

Visions of sugarplums

The newly minted Top Chef Just Desserts season has kicked my sweet tooth into overdrive. (What’s with all the drama, by the way? An open plea to Top Chef producers – PLEASE just stick to the food. Leave the whining, bitching and bipolar episodes to Hell’s Kitchen. I expected more a little more from you. Here’s hoping you’ll redeem yourself with Top Chef All Stars…)

The holidays demand sweets. That’s just all there is to it. When I was growing up, one of the events I most looked forward to was our church’s annual holiday tasting party. Each year on the first Sunday evening of advent, the church played host to a huge seasonal program. Following the big show, the tasting party would take over the basement to offer table upon table laden with every imaginative use of sugar one could fathom. All created by the loving hands of the church ladies and you know as well as I do, no one cooks like a church lady.

Here how’s it worked:  you’d grab a paper plate and troll the aisles, loading up with anything that struck your fancy. Cookies, brownies, buckeyes, cupcakes, Rice Krispies treats, bars, chocolate-covered whatever, sweet Chex mix, corn flake wreaths, peanut butter fudge, butterscotch chow mein noodle haystacks… good grief. It’s enough to send me into sugar shock just thinking about it. Looking back, I’m not sure how it was successfully managed, but it was. I don’t think actual fights broke out over the last item on any given plate, but the potential was definitely there. I do seem to remember an awful lot of hyper children running around that basement.

Every year around the first of December, I start sorting through my cookie recipes, intending to recreate some old favorites and maybe try a few new ones. I even picked up a jar of red and green holiday sanding sugar at Michael’s the other day in anticipation of this year’s baking extravaganza.

I’d like to try my hand at sugar cookies and gingerbread men, but I’ve traditionally not had good luck with these kinds of dough. In fact, the last time I attempted to make gingerbread men, I recall spending an entire afternoon painstakingly mixing, rolling, cutting, decorating and baking them, only to bite into one and discover that it tasted like nothing but straight-up flour. Bleh.

To me, nothing says Christmas like the winning combination of chocolate and mint. (It even brings back fond memories of mixing up mugs of peppermint schnapps-spiked hot chocolate in my IU dorm freshman year.) I’ve got a wickedly decadent recipe for crème de menthe brownies, and another for double chocolate chip cookies with crushed candy canes that I plan on dusting off within the next week or so.

Creme de menthe brownies

I’m all for collecting other ideas and suggestions. If you’ve got a favorite cookie recipe, holiday or otherwise, feel free to post as a comment below. In the meantime, here’s a recipe I made several times last year to much acclaim. It’s super easy, doesn’t require many ingredients to fuss with, and is consistently delicious. Enjoy – and bring on the sweet eats!

Cookies ‘n creme fudge

3 (6 ounce) packages white chocolate baking squares

1 (14 ounce) can EAGLE BRAND® Sweetened Condensed Milk

1/8 teaspoon salt

3 cups crushed Oreos (it could be fun to experiment with other cookies as well)

In a heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the white chocolate squares, sweetened condensed milk and salt. Remove from heat and stir in crushed cookies.

Spread evenly into a wax paper-lined 8-inch square pan. Chill 2 hours or until firm.

Turn fudge out onto a cutting board; peel off the wax paper and cut into squares. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.