Holiday Entertaining: Sweet Treats

Photos by Signe Birck

I’m a healthy eater most of the year–with plenty of green smoothies and quinoa salads and lentil-filled soups–but during the holidays, my sweet tooth always gets the best of me. When the tree is lit and the Christmas tunes are playing, all I want to do is bake. Whether I’m making chocolate chip cookies, Nutella shortbread brownies, or mini loaves of cranberry orange bread, it doesn’t feel like Christmas until I’ve covered my kitchen in flour, sugar, and spices.

Recently I created a bunch of bite-size goodies for an upcoming New Year’s Eve post (stay tuned!) and I wanted to share a few of my favorite sweet treats with you all. I’m a sucker for sweet/salty combos, and these two recipes do the trick. I’ve been making pecan shortbread squares for years. Based on a recipe from Epicurious, these layered bars have a salted shortbread base and a gooey caramel pecan topping. I recently created these truffles when I had a craving for dark chocolate, Grand Marnier, and toasted pistachios. Turns out these three things are a match made in heaven.

These desserts are perfect for a holiday party, wrapped as gifts in a pretty box, or served after dinner with a glass of port (something we did a few nights ago with friends in Traverse City!). Or, give Santa an extra special surprise, and leave these out with a glass of milk on Christmas Eve. Either way, you’re in for a treat.


Makes about 25 truffles

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
1 teaspoon grated orange zest (optional)
1 cup finely chopped toasted, salted pistachios

Place the chocolate in a small, heatproof bowl. Place the cream, Grand Marnier, and zest in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to combine. Pour the hot cream mixture over the chocolate and let sit for 2 minutes and then whisk until smooth.

Pour the melted chocolate mixture into an 8×8-inch baking dish and let cool in the refrigerator for half an hour or so until completely chilled.

Place the pistachios on a plate. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Scrape out one spoonful of chocolate and roll into a ball. Roll the chocolate balls in the chopped pistachios and place on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat until all the chocolate and pistachios are used up. (NOTE: Your hands will get pretty messy as the chocolate softens – you will probably have to stop and wash your hands a few times during the process. Also, if the chocolate gets too soft, pop it back in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes to harden a bit.)

Store the truffles in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to eat.


Make about 48 squares

Shortbread Base:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) salted butter, cut into cubes

Pecan Topping:
8 ounces pecans (about 2 cups)
1 stick (1/2 cup) salted butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup honey
2 tablespoons heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

For the shortbread base, combine the flour, brown sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the consistency of bread crumbs.

Pour the mixture into a 9x12x2-inch metal baking pan and spread evenly, pressing down gently with your hands or a spatula. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly while you prepare the topping.

Pulse the pecans in a food processor until roughly chopped. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar, honey, and cream and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Let simmer for 1 minute and stir in pecans. Remove from the heat and pour the mixture over the shortbread, spreading evenly.

Bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes, until bubbling. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Loosen the sides with a knife and turn the entire pan out onto a cutting board. (This makes cutting much easier, and won’t destroy your pan!) Using a sharp knife, cut into 1-inch squares.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

My name is Anna Watson Carl. In a word, I love food, I love France, and I love throwing dinner parties. Over the years, I've worked as a personal chef, taught cooking classes, edited cookbooks, written for magazines, tested and styled recipes, and traveled whenever opportunity has arisen. But at heart, there's nothing I love more than sharing a meal with friends around the yellow table.

For me, cooking has always been a way of life. As a (mildly precocious) ten-year old, I planned and prepared a four-course Valentine's dinner for my parents, birthing a lifelong passion for dinner parties. That was just the beginning. I've been cooking ever since, whipping up souffles at a chateau in Burgundy, searing filet mignon for a wealthy client's dog (bizarre, but true), butchering ducks for confit de canard in Paris, baking the night shift in Nashville, and bathing the floor of my NYC apartment in turkey brine...the story continues.


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