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.

Watch and learn

I think I’m addicted to television cooking shows. For a long, long time, the Food Network was my go-to channel. I’d simply flip on the TV and leave it going in the background for hours, picking up a tip or two by osmosis as I’d go about my day. I got very used to the voices of celebrity chefs infiltrating my consciousness. However, thanks to the proliferation of reality TV cooking competitions, I hardly ever watch it anymore. Namely, my must-see TV now consists of Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen and Next Food Network Star.

Random thoughts about each series: Next Food Network Star would be the competition I’d be most likely to enter if I could. The challenges seem to be the most up my alley, although I have absolutely no desire to host my own television cooking show. The contestants seem to be fairly normal people and there’s not nearly as much of the high drama you find in some of the other series.

This past season’s winner, Melissa D’Arabian, was my top pick all along. The network promoted that runner-up guy as some kind of Zen food yogi, but he always just seemed half-stoned to me. Come to think of it “Let’s Get Baked” wouldn’t be a bad name for a cooking show… but I digress. Although she seemed a little hyper at first, I liked Melissa’s French-inspired food best; it looked the tastiest and the dishes she cooked often seemed like things I could see myself making at home. She’s already busted out several little cooking tips and hints that I have found extremely useful and am likely to remember forever. Plus, the woman has four little girls, all under the age of 5 (including 1-year-old twins!). Anyone who has time to deal with that AND cook gourmet dinners complete with do-it-yourself French pastry is my hero.

Hubby and I taped one of Melissa’s first shows on the DVR and were very impressed with it. On the season finale, part of her show demo meal was an individual potato gratin made in muffin tins. I downloaded the recipe and hubby and I have made it twice within the past week. It is ridiculously easy, and super tasty. Tonight, we’re going to give her crispy-skinned chicken breast a l’orange a whirl.

I like Hell’s Kitchen, but sometimes the drama gets to be a little much to bear. It’s like the American Idol of cooking shows with Gordon Ramsey cast as a foul-mouthed, hot-tempered Simon Cowell. I know it’s all about ratings, but seriously. I’ve worked in a handful of restaurant kitchens with all different kinds of culinary personalities, and I’ve never seen anyone act that way. I’d certainly never want to work for someone who’d get in my face and call me an effing donkey, and I have to question the mental stability and sanity of anyone who does. Then again, some of the HK contestants are complete whack-jobs anyway.

Gordon Ramsey is obviously a good chef and has made a career out of being an uncompromising perfectionist. I suppose it’s a bit like playing basketball for Bobby Knight. I know he’s a good coach, (my fellow IU alumni are probably going to bust my balls for even making this comment at all) but aren’t there just-as-effective leadership techniques that don’t rely on fear, intimidation and masochism? I’ll watch Hell’s Kitchen, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t take it seriously.

Top Chef is perhaps my favorite cooking competition to watch. There’s no golden post or television show prize waiting, the winner simply gets a buttload of money to use to further their own culinary dreams and aspirations. In my book, that’s awesome.

These are hardcore, serious chefs and it’s fun to see what kinds of dishes they manage to produce. I don’t kid myself that I could hang with this level of crowd for a second; they cook using products and techniques I’ve never seen, hear of, or know how to spell. Last season, though, it was cool to see caterer Carla give fly-under-the-radar Hosea and snooty Stefan a run for their money in the finale by staying true to herself and her simple, cooking-with-love style. That’s the approach I’d take; I was sorry to see her lose it in the end by letting her sous-chef rattle her self-confidence.

Some of these chefs show off creativity that is truly stellar. In each episode, at least one contestant makes something that leaves me seething with envy and renews my interest in going to culinary school. For example, in this week’s episode, two of the top-rated appetizer dishes included a savory macaroon filled with avocado guacamole, and an apple sorbet in a little shot glass with a goat cheese cracker/cookie. YUM.

As an added bonus, I love, love, love the judging panel. Gail Simmons is like your best girlfriend, Tom Colicchio knows his shit but conveys criticism in a way that’s not soul-destroying, and Padma Lakshmi is a tasty visual treat that whets the appetite anytime she appears onscreen. (How in the world do these people eat all of that food without making themselves completely sick or gaining 200 pounds?)

Too early to make a prediction yet about this season, but I seem to think it’s going to be one of the two brothers.

Fellow foodies, leave me a comment! Your favorite cooking show and why????