Seasons greetings, my friends, and welcome back to The Great British Baking Show: Walton Edition! This week our bakers turn their talents to tiny tidings of Tenenbaums and tinsel. Don your coziest Christmas sweater, pour yourself a mug of cocoa, and join us for Christmas Tins Week!
When I envision a Christmas tin, the image in my mind’s eye is always a round, deep blue tin, lined with fluted paper cups, each stacked with perfectly formed shortbread or butter cookies. But that is only my own perception. In truth, Christmas tins vary in appearance and content as wildly as do the people who celebrate Christmas. So when Mandy announced that we would be making Christmas tins, she very wisely gave us a few guidelines.
First, and most importantly, chocolate chip cookies were forbidden. I was happy to hear Mandy announce this. Here in America, any time cookies are mentioned people seem by default to assume that chocolate chip cookies are the standard. Quite frankly, chocolate chip cookies are overdone, and this rule would guarantee some variety in our Christmas tins. I applauded her decision.
Secondly, we were not restricted to cookies. Any sort of shelf-stable confection normally found in tins would be allowable. As I discussed in our last episode, my mother is a skilled amateur’s candy maker, and her talents are put on full display every Christmas. From dark chocolate peanut clusters to white chocolate pretzels, my family doesn’t consider it Christmastime without enjoying Mom’s Christmas candies. So I felt fairly confident going into this bake that I could pull of something tasty.
What I couldn’t pull off, unfortunately, was an actual Christmas tin. I assumed it would be a cinch to find one, but in the three stores I went to, literally every single Christmas tin was not only dented, but crushed. It was astounding that there were so many severely damaged tins, and that they still put them on the shelves. These things were smashed so badly that most of the lids no longer fit, and some had even been wrapped with packing tape to contain the crushed cookies inside. They should have been thrown away. There was no way I was going to pay money for any of that garbage, so used my chip and dip platter for my tin.
I already had a number of decorative fluted paper and foil liners in Christmas colors, but I needed to make the cookies fit the papers. To that end, I picked myself up a set of stainless steel pastry cutters/ring molds. My God, if you don’t have any of these, stop reading this article right now and go get yourself some. I cooked extra cookies just in case some turned out overcooked or underdone. I knew I wouldn’t use nearly as many as I was making. But after I started cutting with this, the second smallest of the bunch, I couldn’t stop. I cut all the cookies with it, even the ones I knew I wouldn’t use, then I started on some bread and tortillas I had in the fridge. Cutting with this little thing isn’t just fun, it’s damned near addictive. I should have bought some of these years ago. They make perfect little discs out of any pastry they encounter. Or lunch meats. Or fruits. Or cardboard. Or… you know what? Just buy some. You’ll thank me.
If you enlarge the pic of the full tray in the the gallery above, starting at 11 o’clock and going clockwise my entries were Oatmeal Raisin Sandwich Cookies With Cranberry Jam, Lemon Sandwich Cookies With Mango Jam, Ginger Spice Sandwich Cookies With Mango Jam, Dark Chocolate Covered Toasted Marshmallows, and Pumpkin Snickerdoodles in the center.
I used a number of different sprinkles and colored sugars to decorate these miniature cookies, but I really should have skipped using the sugar on the lemon cookies. As you can see from the close-up, the sugar melted in the mango jam and formed a very unfortunate snot-like gel. It tasted great, but its appearance would have been better suited for Halloween. With no time to remake them, I packed them up as they were and headed to the competition.
Mark was out of town this week, and I arrived at La Maison Mizer to find that Dan and Mandy had also decided to forego the tins. A Christmas miracle! I was afraid not having a tin might cost me the competition, but this put us all on an even footing.
As she sometimes does, Dan and Mandy’s daughter Evey decided to participate and make treats for us. This time she made a batch of M&M cookies, which were quite delicious. Additionally, Evey used candies and some of Mandy’s leftover cookie dough to make some festively decorated gingerbread cookies, once again earning herself the title of Junior Star Baker!
If we were judging on appearance alone, Dan’s bakes would have soundly won. Dan’s entries this week were Peanut Butter Blossoms, Accidental Lemon Bars, and Chocolate Crinkle Cookies, and as you can see, they are all gorgeous. Dan explained that he was trying to make lemon shortbread but something went wrong , so he turned them into lemon bars. Whatever he did, however he did it, his Accidental Lemon Bars turned out better than any shortbread I’ve had since I was in Scotland. The Peanut Butter Blossoms, which I’m normally not crazy about, were excellent, and his Chocolate Crinkle Cookies were perfect. I had zero complaints.
Mandy’s bakes were equally impressive: No-Bake Oatmeal Cookies, Puppy Chow, and Baby Yoda Gingerbread Cookies. No-bake oatmeal cookies and puppy chow are fairly common holiday fare, so I’ll leave it up to you to look online if you want those recipes. What I really want to focus on is Mandy’s gingerbread.
First, let’s talk design. Mandy came across some helpful holiday hints that none of us had seen before, the first of which was this: as I have attempted to illustrate above, if you decapitate an angel cookie with a gently curved arc, you get a very passable Baby Yoda shape. It works so well that I did not recognize the headless angel for what it was. Mandy’s little Grogus were so uniform I assumed she had bought a Mandalorian cookie cutter set. And while this impressive yuletide hack appealed to the sci-fi lover in all of us, her second shortcut was even more impressive. She didn’t really make the cookie dough at all. She bought it. But only kind of.
Mandy’s gingerbread was made from a tube of standard, store bought sugar cookie dough to which Mandy added the ingredients necessary to turn it into gingerbread. While this may sound like a bit of a cheat for a cooking competition, it was impossible to fault her once I had tasted the results. Store bought gingerbread is, at best, just edible. Often it doesn’t even taste like food, and it is usually so hard that I sincerely worry about breaking a tooth. Homemade gingerbread is superior in nearly every way, but tends toward cakiness, lacking the snap of manufactured goods. But Mandy’s gingerbread, which was not quite homemade and not quite manufactured, managed to capture the best of both. Her cookies were redolent with Christmas spices, had the sharp ginger tang I crave, and were firm enough to provide a good snap, but yielding enough to have a pleasantly stiff chewiness. I don’t know how she did it, but her sugar cookie dough base made for a better gingerbread than actual gingerbread. I’m not being hyperbolic when I tell you this was the best gingerbread I have ever tasted.
This is usually where I would reveal the week’s Star Baker, but we encountered something that doesn’t normally happen because, well, it can’t normally happen. Unlike our typical bakes, by the nature of this week’s challenge each baker had more than one entry. And as we went around the table judging the tins, it became apparent that each tin contained a standout bake.
I have a confession to make: I made my oatmeal raisin cookies for myself alone. I honestly thought both Dan and Mandy disliked oatmeal raisin. As they would be the sole judges of my bakes, it may seem odd to give them something I knew could cost me the win, but I was craving the earthy taste of oats and the nostalgia of those cookies. My mom makes excellent oatmeal raisin cookies, but only ever at Christmastime. And so it is that the spice and texture of oatmeal cookies, through Pavlovian conditioning, equals Christmastime to me. If I am to further bare my soul, I have to admit that I have become particularly proud of my cinnamon cranberry jam/glaze/sauce, and I all but knew that the complimentary flavors of oatmeal raisin cookies would be a perfect showcase for it. More than anything, though, I wanted to taste the combination for myself. I needed put my culinary intuition to the test, for better or worse. What I would never have expected was that Dan and Mandy would not only enjoy these cookies, but would choose them as the standout bake of my Christmas tin. It was quite the compliment.
It has been so long since our competition that I have forgotten what Dan’s standout bake was. In truth, it could have been anything in his tin. There wasn’t a bad batch in the bunch. I remember being particularly impressed by his Peanut Butter Blossoms. Usually I don’t care for a big hunk of chocolate – or anything else – interfering with my peanut butter cookie experience, but Dan had baked these until the kiss was perfectly soft. I can’t remember if Mandy and I agreed on these as his standout bake but they were excellent.
Despite how her gingerbread impressed me, Dan and I agreed that Mandy’s standout bake was her No-Bake Oatmeal Cookies. It has been my experience that no-bake oatmeal cookies are easy to make, but deceptively difficult to perfect. Either they set up too dry and they crumble, or they don’t set up at all, leaving you with a tasty but messy semi-solid. As for the flavor, they often are lacking in chocolate or heavy with the flavor of par-cooked oats, either of which makes them taste weak and stale, even when freshly made. Mandy’s cookies had none of these issues. Dan and I agreed that her cookies were set to perfection, there was no raw grain flavor, and the chocolate was deep and rich like gourmet cocoa.
Because we each had a standout bake we decided that, in the spirit of the holidays, this week there would not be one but THREE Star Bakers! Dan, Mandy, and myself shared this week’s top spot! Congratulations to my fellow bakers, and thank you, our loyal readers, for your continued enthusiasm for our bakes. We’ll be back soon with another episode of The Great British Baking Show: Walton Edition! Happy holidays, one and all, and as always, until next time, bon appétit!