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How to host a socially distanced cookie swap with truffles, brownies, miso-salted caramels

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
These chocolate snickerdoodles are from "The Chocolate Addict's Baking Book" by Sabine Venier.

In the year of the coronavirus, a traditional cookie swap might not be safe, but that doesn’t mean we have to cancel holiday baking. 

I’ve enjoyed many cookie swaps over the years, including an over-the-top affair in Elgin that featured more than 4,000 cookies, but those packed-house gatherings won’t (or at least shouldn’t) be happening during this socially distanced holiday season. 

Does that mean we have to give up swapping sweet treats altogether? After so many months of finding safe ways to share food with our friends and neighbors, this seems like the perfect year to go ahead and bake those cookies, truffles, biscotti, caramels, bonbons and bars and package them up to make deliveries to people you love. 

Making a simple delivery of one or two treats is enough to make anyone’s day. If your sweet tooth craves a whole tin’s worth of goodies, consider arranging a socially distanced cookie swap. Reach out to the bakers in your life who might want to participate by baking one or two sweets. Coordinate who is going to bake what, maybe via a group text or a private Facebook group, and designate one person to be in charge of packaging up all the sweets. (This is a great job for the friend who doesn’t really love baking or is particularly good at wrapping presents.)

Each of the bakers can drop off their goods on one day and then the assembler can divide them up into individual boxes (maybe reusing the container they were dropped off in) and then deliver a mixed tray of sweets back to each baker’s house. Cake boxes from craft supply stores are a good option for disposable containers, and you can line them with holiday-themed tissue paper to make them a little more festive.

You could do this among neighbors or with your church group or your kids’ friends’ parents (and then get your kids involved with the baking). Dropping off treats isn’t the same as sharing eggnog and Christmas music and warm conversations while eating those cookies, but getting to see your loved ones from afar during the drop off will surely boost your spirits, and nibbling on their homemade treats in the days that follow can provide a reminder of human connection when you need it the most.

These almond biscotti from "Petite Patisserie" only require one round of baking in the oven.

Almond Biscotti

In this faux-but-simple biscotti recipe, the cookies are baked only once.

— Christophe Felder

Unsalted butter for brushing

1 3/4 cup cake flour, plus more for dusting

3 medium eggs

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

3 to 4 cardamom seeds, crushed

1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean powder

1 cup almonds

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

1 cup sliced almonds

Heat oven to 350 degrees on the convection setting or 375 degrees if you are using a non-convection oven. Brush 2 baking sheets with butter and dust with flour. In a medium bowl, using an electric beater, whisk the eggs with the sugar for 20 minutes. Whisk in the orange zest, cardamom and vanilla.

Using a large knife, roughly chop the natural almonds. Stir the chopped almonds and walnuts into the egg-sugar mixture, then fold in the flour. The batter should be fairly thick.

Pipe or spoon the batter into 1 1/4-inch wide strips on the baking sheets, spacing well apart.

Sprinkle the strips with the sliced almonds and remove any excess. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden. Immediately cut the strips into 1/2-inch slices on the diagonal and let cool. Makes about 40 cookies. 

— From “Petite Patisserie: 180 Easy Recipes for Elegant French Treats” by Christophe Felder and Camille Lesecq ($45, Rizzoli)

Chocolate truffles are the perfect holiday gift for anyone who loves chocolates.

Chocolate Truffles

When I was pastry chef at San Francisco’s Range restaurant, every guest would get one of these sweet confections at the end of their meal. For special occasions like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, the truffles would be piped, rolled into balls, and then coated in tempered chocolate. For everyday truffles, we simply poured the ganache onto a sheet pan lined with plastic wrap, and when it was set, cut it into little cubes and dusted them with cocoa powder. Either way, they are delicious.

Plain chocolate truffles are great, but once you master the basic recipe, you can play around: Infuse your cream with herbs, spices, tea, or citrus zest, or even replace a small amount of the cream with pureed fruit.

— Michelle Polzine

8 ounces 72% cacao chocolate, such as Valrhona Araguani, chopped

3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons heavy cream

Pinch of kosher salt

Cocoa powder for dusting

Line an 8 1/2-inch-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pan with parchment, leaving some overhang on the long sides of the pan.

Put the chopped chocolate in the bottom of a cocktail shaker or in a medium bowl.

In a small saucepan, heat the cream over medium heat until bubbles form at the edges. Pour the cream over the chocolate and let stand for 3 minutes.

Blend with an immersion blender until smooth, then transfer to the prepared pan and use a small offset spatula to spread the ganache in a smooth, even layer. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill until firm, at least 2 hours, or up to overnight.

Use the parchment to help lift the sheet of ganache from the pan. With a sharp paring knife, cut it into 1/2-­inch cubes, running the knife against the edge of a ruler to keep the cuts straight and cutting quickly to keep the ganache from sticking to the knife.

Line a sheet pan with parchment. Pour some cocoa powder into a shallow dish. Working with a few truffles at a time, gently toss in the cocoa powder to coat, then transfer to the prepared pan.

Transfer the coated truffles to an airtight container. They will keep, refrigerated, for 2 weeks; let them come to room temperature before eating. Makes about 128 truffles.

— From “Iconic European Desserts from Linzer Torte to Honey Cake” by Michelle Polzine (Artisan Books, $35)

These brownies from "The Artisanal Kitchen: Gluten-Free Holiday Cookies" by Alice Medrich have a peanut butter bar layer on the bottom.

Peanut Crunch Brownies

These very rich, very decadent brownies with a not-quite-grown-up flavor appeal to most grown-ups. As a variation, you can make hazelnut crunch brownies by substituting 2 cups hazelnut meal plus 1/2 teaspoon salt for the peanut butter. 

— Alice Medrich 

For the chocolate layer:

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

4 ounces 66% to 72% cacao dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon white rice flour

For the peanut crunch layer:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons salted crunchy natural peanut butter

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon white rice flour

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Position a rack in the lower 1/3 of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom and sides of a 9-inch square metal baking pan with foil or parchment paper.

To make the chocolate layer, place the butter and chocolate in a medium stainless steel bowl set directly in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir frequently until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth and quite hot to the touch. Stir in the sugar and remove from the heat. Use a large spoon to beat in the eggs, vanilla and salt. The mixture should be very smooth; if it is not, place the bowl back in the water bath over very low heat for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add the flour and beat with a spoon until the batter comes away from the sides of the bowl, about 1 minute. Set aside.

To make the peanut crunch layer, in a separate bowl, use a large spoon or spatula to mix all the ingredients until completely blended. Press the mixture evenly in the bottom of the pan. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the batter is slightly darker at the edges.

Remove the pan from the oven and spoon dollops of chocolate batter all over the hot crust. Spread gently to make an even layer. Return the pan to the oven and bake for 20 to 22 minutes, until the surface is dry and pulls away slightly from the sides of the pan. Cool completely in the pan on a rack. Lift the edges of the pan liner and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 25 squares. The brownies will keep in an airtight container for 3 to 4 days. Makes 25 small brownies.

— From “The Artisanal Kitchen: Gluten-Free Holiday Cookies: More Than 30 Recipes to Sweeten the Season” by Alice Medrich (Artisan Books, $12.95)

Super Chewy Chocolate Snickerdoodles

Make sure that you mix the cookie dough as little as possible, to achieve super chewy chocolate snickerdoodles. Overmixing is a common reason that cookies end up unintentionally cakey instead.

— Sabine Venier

For the coating:

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon unsweetened natural cocoa powder

For the cookies:

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled

1/2 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder, spooned and leveled

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Make the coating: In a small bowl, whisk together the granulated sugar, cinnamon and cocoa powder and set aside.

Make the cookie dough: In a large bowl, using an electric mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, mix the butter and both sugars on medium speed just until combined, about 1 minute. Then, add the egg and vanilla and mix for about 30 seconds, or just until combined. Add the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt and mix until incorporated, about 1 minute.

Scoop 12 equal-sized balls (about 2 to 3 tablespoons each) of cookie dough and roll in the coating mixture to cover them entirely. Place 6 cookies, about 3 inches apart, on each prepared baking sheet. Bake one sheet at a time for 8 to 9 minutes, or until the cookies look puffy and dry.

Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes, or until firm enough to move. Then, transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely. The cookies will stay fresh in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days or freeze for up to 2 months. Makes 12 cookies.

— From "The Chocolate Addict's Baking Book" by Sabine Venier (Page Street Publishing, $22.99)

These miso caramels are from “Tin Can Magic” by Jessica Elliott Dennison.

Miso-Salted Caramel

Aware that most households have a forgotten jar of miso sat at the back of their refrigerator, I wanted to create a recipe that celebrates the soybean paste in a new way. Along with sea salt, here miso adds a touch of umami earthiness to this simple condensed milk caramel, making it a pretty addictive combination. 

I’ve given you two ways to take the caramel: first, as a sauce for pouring over ice cream, seasonal fruit or even meringues. The second way is to reduce the sauce even further, giving you a toffee-like texture to roll into individual sweets. These are ideal as a pick-me-up with coffee or for taking along to a dinner with friends when you’ve forgotten to buy a present.

If you don’t have any miso paste, just follow the recipe as is and you’ll get a lovely salted caramel. Stored in sealed jars, the caramel sauce will keep for up to 3 weeks. You could also use granulated sugar or light brown sugar; the caramels will still be delicious, just not as dark and rich in color. Please take care and don’t be tempted to taste the caramel until it has cooled for at least 10 to 15 minutes as it will be incredibly hot and, as I’ve learned, will burn the roof of your mouth.

— Jessica Elliott Dennison

These miso caramels are from “Tin Can Magic” by Jessica Elliott Dennison.

1 (14-ounce) can of condensed milk

7 ounces (14 tablespoons or 7/8 cup) salted or unsalted butter, cut into cubes

Generous 1 cup dark brown sugar

3 tablespoons miso paste

2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt flakes

First, you’ll need to make the caramel sauce base. Combine all the ingredients in a wide-bottomed pot over a medium heat. Using a whisk or wooden spoon, stir occasionally until everything has melted, then increase the heat to high and stir continuously for 8 to 10 minutes until you have a nice, glossy, pourable consistency. Once slightly cooled, transfer the caramel to a couple of jars. Allow to cool before serving. This recipe will make two jars of caramel sauce.

To turn the sauce into a toffee-like caramel, first, fill a large glass with cold water and line a large baking pan with parchment paper.

Next, follow the steps above to make the caramel sauce, then stir continuously for a further 15 minutes until thickened to a toffee-like consistency. Test the caramel is ready by dropping a teaspoonful of the mixture in the glass of cold water. Leave for 30 seconds then using your fingers, check how pliable it is – if it’s easily rolled into a chewy toffee, then remove the caramel from the heat. If the caramel is still too thin, reduce for a further few minutes.

Transfer the caramel to the lined baking tray and allow to cool completely (this takes around half an hour).

Once cool enough to handle, cut a few more sheets of baking parchment into 40 square wrappers around (3 inches by 3 inches). Pinch a small piece of caramel then roll into a long, thin cylinder and wrap in the paper like a small Christmas cracker. Or, if you prefer, a square or round shape – whatever takes your fancy. Repeat until you have roughly 40 caramels.

Stored in an airtight container, the caramels will keep for up to 3 weeks.

— From “Tin Can Magic: Easy, Delicious Recipes Using Pantry Staples” by Jessica Elliott Dennison (Hardie Grant Books, $22.99)

These miso caramels are from “Tin Can Magic” by Jessica Elliott Dennison.
These rice treats are from "101 Greatest Cookies on the Planet" by Erin Mylroie.

Sea Salt Brown Butter Deluxe Crispy Rice Treats

These are the big, fat, chunky rice cereal treats that you see for sale at bakeries and coffee shops, only these are so much better because they are fresh, buttery and full of both swirls of melted marshmallow and pockets of marshmallow pieces. Take your time with the brown butter to make sure you get the deepest flavor, but don’t take a phone call or multitask because browned butter goes from perfect to burnt in a matter of seconds. I also like a little hit of maple extract here to complement the browned butter, but it’s optional. Don’t skip the bit of sea salt on top for an elegant finish. Also, this might seem a little fussy, but I do think the best treats come from an unopened box of cereal and very fresh marshmallows that aren’t sticking together in the package. I know, I know, it’s fussy, but I think you’ll be pleased if you make them just right.

— Erin Mylroie

Makes 24 crispy rice treats

1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan

2 (10-ounce) bags miniature marshmallows, divided

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon maple extract, optional

1/2 teaspoon salt

9 cups crispy rice cereal

Sea salt, for finishing

You have two choices for pan size. You can use a jelly roll pan for a thinner treat, or you can use a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan, preferably one that has straight sides and not rounded corners. Whichever one you decide to use, grease it lightly with butter. Place 1 bag of marshmallows in the freezer while you’re preparing the treats. It’ll be less than 10 minutes.

In a large pot over low heat, melt the butter. Increase the heat to medium and, using a wooden spoon, stir the butter as it cooks, scraping up any brown bits. The butter will melt, then foam, then start to create little brown specks at the bottom. You want the butter to turn a medium golden brown with brown specks. 

Watch it carefully because you don’t want any burned black specks. Turn off the heat and add the room temperature bag of marshmallows to the pot. Stir until the marshmallows are smooth. Add the vanilla extract and maple extract, if using. Stir in the salt. Quickly add the rice cereal and stir until well blended. Remove the marshmallows from the freezer and quickly stir them into the mixture. You want them to melt just a little but remain mostly intact.

Using slightly damp hands, press the treats into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the top with a little sea salt. Let the treats rest for at least 90 minutes at room temperature so they have a chance to firm up. Spray your knife with cooking spray before cutting the treats into squares.

— From “101 Greatest Cookies on the Planet” by Erin Mylroie (Page Street Publishing, $22.99)