I was raised to always be a polite guest, but I'm going to start this guest post out on a note that could ruffle some feathers. I'm a mug of spiked hot mulled cider in and I'm feeling a little daring, so here goes nothing: I don't much like Christmas cookies. Blasphemous, I know. Especially for a food blogger. Writing a holiday guest post. Mere days before Christmas.
In my defense, I do love the ritual of making Christmas cookies. I comb through recipes, leaning heavily on veteran favorites, but also scouring for a few rookie recipes to audition. I dutifully stockpile pound after pound of butter, I amass dozens of eggs, I stock sacks of flour and sugar in the cupboard until they sit three-deep. I preheat the oven, line the cookie sheets with silpats, fire up the mixer, and scoop/stamp out/roll/twist/press/slice. And then, of course, I bake — sliding in a tray dotted with dough, letting the oven door snap shut, shuttling the piping hot baked cookies from oven to cooling rack. It goes on like this for hours-long stretches of December afternoons, until I've got dozens of cookies lined up on my kitchen counter.
By this time, I've had just about enough of Christmas cookies, so I slip the cookies into glassine bags or tuck them into tin canisters. And then I give those bags and tins away at very single chance I get. I'd like to think it's goodwill or the giving spirit or some such altruistic aim, but really I'm just trying to get rid of the things — and fast.
Of course, this leaves me Christmas-cookied-out at the exact moment that Christmas arrives. Just when I can't bear the sight of another crinkle or cut-out cookie, trays of the specimens lurk around every turn. Faced with this conundrum, I scour the cookie trays for the odd piece of candy — little cubes of fudge, cocoa-dusted truffles, powdery marshmallows or, most of all, brittle.
At my parents' house during the holidays, I can always rest assured that a little bowl full of my grandpa's peanut brittle will sit alongside the plates of cookies. Year in and year out, it's my favorite Christmas treat of all. His brittle is light in color — a blonde caramel, nearly translucent, thin, and studded with cocktail peanuts. The brittle pictured in this post was inspired by my grandpa's brittle, but, in the end, it's much different. This one is thicker and darker, spotted with green-skinned pistachios rather than peanuts. It skirts the razor's-edge between burnt and not and it benefits from a sparkle of flaky fleur del sel. Really, the only thing it has in common with Grandpa's recipe is the name: brittle. Oh, and I absolutely love them both.
As luck would have it, the brittle is just as fun to make as the cookies (and a nice break from the oven-to-cooling-rack merry-go-round). You start by coaxing a potful of butter, sugar, water and corn syrup into a dark bubbling caramel. Into that goes barely more than a pinch of baking soda, which causes the caramel to foam and froth. This is when the toffee is ready to accept those pistachios and then spill onto a baking sheet, where it hardens into a big sheet of brittle. Best of all, when the brittle is set, have at it: break the sheet into shards, sending splinters of toffee flying in every direction.
The result is a haphazard pile of shiny chips that remind me a little of stained glass. You know, if stained glass were made of butter and sugar and could be melted upon the tongue. It's gorgeous — and delicious, too. So delicious, in fact, that you won't miss the cookies a bit.
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 stick unsalted butter
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
12 ounces shelled pistachios
Fleur de sel or crushed Maldon sea salt
In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, water, butter and corn syrup and bring to a boil. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until the caramel is deep amber and has the very first hints of a lightly burnt aroma (about 10 minutes). Remove from the heat and carefully stir in the baking soda. The mixture will bubble. Stir in the pistachios, then immediately scrape the brittle onto a large rimmed, nonstick baking sheet. Using the back of a large spoon or an offset spatula (oil it lightly if it sticks), spread the brittle into a thin, even layer. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Let cool completely, about 30 minutes. Break the brittle into large shards.