The bustling holiday season is upon us and with it comes the packed lineup of festivities and seemingly endless parade of decadent sweets and treats. A cookie exchange is the perfect way to combine those two holiday staples: parties and desserts. I was fortunate enough to be invited to such a soiree this past weekend. Here’s the basic idea in case the concept escapes you — each guest brings a batch or two of homemade cookies, you chat, mingle, drink wine and eat delicious food. Then the exchanging of the cookies begins.
I had never seen such a beautiful spread of scrumptious cookies — some crispy and golden, others rich and chocolatey, all completely delicious. You end up leaving the party with a bag full of a smattering of different cookies, a plethora of recipe ideas to
steal try, and a new appreciation for ice cold milk.
The instant I found out about this party I started wracking my brain for ingenious new cookie ideas. Naturally I wanted to wow my fellow exchange attendees and the pressure to deliver was definitely on. But baking makes me so blissfully happy that I was thrilled to have a reason to share treats with people whose confectionery enthusiasm matched my own. The great thing about a party like this (besides all the cookies, duh) is that everyone involved gets to share a pieces of themselves. It gets you into the kitchen to try something new or revisit an old favorite. Despite my many baking-related meltdowns that ultimately follow my attempts to create a masterpiece to present at a gathering, I decided to try out new recipes for the cookie exchange. I flipped through Martha’s Holiday Cookies issue of her magazine and settled on Dark Chocolate Espresso Cookies and what can only be described as Toffee Nut Bark. At least that’s what I’m calling it.
This toffee concoction was definitely a sleeper hit. It’s similar to a recipe that’s been a tradition in my family for years — mystery brickle. News flash: the mystery part refers to the presence of saltines as the base of the chocolate-toffee treat. This recipe was different in that graham crackers took the place of the mysterious saltines.
The crackers are topped with a mixture of chopped nuts (it calls for almonds, but I made a second batch with pecans that were amazing) and toffee bits. These tasty crumbs adhere to the graham crackers once a boiling hot mixture of butter and sugar is poured on top. A quick trip to the oven makes the sticky topping bubble and get even gooier, thus creating the perfect resting place for bittersweet chocolate and even more nuts. The chocolate begins to melt as soon as it’s sprinkled on top and the extra nuts lodge into the warm chocolate. The final touch is a sprinkling of sea salt. The salt contrasts so utterly well with the sweetness of the toffee and richness of the chocolate. It’s worth it here to splurge on high quality sea salt which has a consistency more akin to a flake than a grain. The delicate salty crystals dissolve into the warm chocolate like falling snowflakes caught on an outstretched tongue.
Once everything’s assembled all you really need to do is wait for it to set — no further oven time required. This toffee-bark hybrid really is ridiculously easy to make and it’s ultra satisfying to peel off the foil and reveal the massive sugary slab that has formed. It’s best to put the whole thing in the fridge for a bit just so everything solidifies and you don’t get covered in chocolate when trying to slice it into bars…not that it happened to me. The flavor combinations here are can vary depending on what kind of nuts or chocolate you prefer. Just be prepared to eat a lot of it because you will NOT be able to stop. It’s best to take this to a party just so you’re not tempted to sit and inhale all of it. It’s a legitimate risk.
Chocolate and coffee being one of the ultimate duos, the Dark Chocolate Espresso cookies were also a success. Coffee is often added to chocolate desserts to enhance their chocolatiness. These cookies were more of an even balance of coffee to chocolate, but they were definitely richer and full of a more powerful taste because of the complementary nature of these two flavors. Espresso powder is stirred into the chocolate as it melts over a double boiler and instantly infuses the batter with a deep coffee aroma.
With the cookies baked and toffee sliced the only thing left to do is pack up your treats in cute little holiday boxes bundled with colorful tissue paper. Both of these sweets transport really well, so they make great gifts or contributions to cookie exchanges. I can’t think of a better way to gather with people during this most magical time of year than over a table full of freshly baked cookies.