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Cooking 101: Connecting with cookies: Marking a holiday tradition with cherry bars and peppermint mocha brownies

Cooking 101: Connecting with cookies: Marking a holiday tradition with cherry bars and peppermint mocha brownies

Our family bakes cookies. A lot of cookies. Not so much in number as in variety. Most years we craft more than two dozen varieties. We broke a record in 2018 with 35 different types of cookies on display Christmas morning.

We do a lot of this baking together in my kitchen. For about eight hours every year, the house is filled with my siblings and their millennial offspring mixing, rolling, manning the oven, decorating and cleaning up the sugar. My sisters haul baking sheets, bags of flour, cookie cutters and tins from their house to mine. We were blessed to have our father photographing (and taste testing) all the activity for many years.

Natasha keeps count and frequently bakes a batch or two just to break records. Joseph, a talented baker, outshines us all in making the most intricate cookies. Glen and Marty read, then reread their recipes dozens of times. For Henry, it’s all about the decorating — his sugar cookies look like edible art. Claire delicately sandwiches her pecan lace cookies with orange cream. We count Erika’s buttery caramels as a cookie. Everyone bakes their favorites.

Each year we add new cookies to the repertoire. Ten years ago, my dad painstakingly gathered many of the recipes, typed them into uniformity and put them into binders. He gave us each a copy. The “Kaiser Kristmas Kookie Kookbook” definitely contains a sweet chunk of our family history.

Dozens of the 50-plus recipes are made every year for as long as the oldest of us can remember. Christmas would not be Christmas without kolacky, oatmeal thins, blond brownies, shortbread logs and molasses cookies.

We argue about favorites. Dad’s was never in doubt: Cherry bars. I cannot remember a holiday without this bright red cherry, oat and coconut bar cookie. Mom thinks the recipe originally came from a package of coconut — no one knows for sure. Last year was the first year I made the cookie instead of mom. I was tempted to swap out the maraschino cherries for something fancier. Nope. I’ll always make the recipe the way Dad enjoyed them.

Peppermint says holidays better than any other flavor. No longer content to hang candy canes on the tree, we crush them and add the shards to everything from coffee drinks to cocktails and desserts. The Doyles bake chocolate peppermint stars, the Hansens make peppermint bark. This year, I’m transforming the family’s favorite chocolate brownie into a holiday delight.

Reminiscent of coffeehouse peppermint mocha drinks and candy shop peppermint bark, these are the brownies to make for this season. Rich and chocolatey, with a touch of coffee flavor, the brownies get topped with red and white bits of peppermint candy and a swirl of creamy white glaze.

Crushed peppermint candy is sold already crushed in small bags in the baking aisle (near the chocolate chips) in large supermarkets during the holiday season. Otherwise, put unwrapped candy canes or round peppermint candies into a small bag. Close the bag, and then tap the candy with a rolling pin or mallet to crush it to small attractive bits.

The Spice House sells a delicious, very fine, espresso powder that simply melts into your baked treats. Instant espresso coffee or Starbucks Via packets work nicely too.

These brownies are best served the day they are made, but they can be frozen. I remove them from the pan and discard the foil used for baking. Then, before cutting into squares, wrap the brownies in plastic wrap and foil. Freeze solid, thaw at room temperature and cut into serving pieces.

Families grow. Some move away to follow their dreams. Fathers leave us legacies. While we’ll have to make some modifications this year, the cookie tradition keeps us all connected. Forever.

Cherry Bars

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes


  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 cup uncooked old-fashioned oats
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted


  • 2 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup roughly chopped, well-drained, maraschino cherries
  • 1/2 cup flaked sweetened shredded coconut
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Have a 9-inch square baking pan ready.

For base, mix flour, baking soda and salt in medium bowl. Stir in brown sugar, oats and melted butter until well mixed. Press the mixture over the bottom of the pan into a compact, even layer.

For topping, beat the eggs in the now-empty bowl. Add sugar and mix well. Add remaining ingredients. Mix well. Spread topping in an even layer over the base in the pan. Bake until top is golden and edges have pulled away from the sides of the pan, about 30 minutes. Cool on wire rack. Cut into small squares. Store in a covered tin.

Makes 36 small bar cookies.

Nutrition information per bar: 95 calories, 5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 17 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 9 g sugar, 1 g protein, 48 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Peppermint Mocha Brownies

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Baking time: 35 minutes

  • 8 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 bag (11 ounces) white baking chips, such as Ghirardelli
  • 1/2 cup roughly crushed peppermint candy or candy canes
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • About 2 tablespoons half-and-half or milk

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line the inside of a 13-by-9-inch metal baking pan with heavy-duty foil. Lightly grease the foil.

Put the chopped chocolate and butter into a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Melt over very low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until smooth. Remove from heat.

Stir in granulated sugar until incorporated. Then stir in eggs, espresso powder, vanilla and salt until smooth. Stir in flour just until incorporated. Gently fold in white baking chips.

Spread batter in prepared pan. Bake until center is just set, but not at all dry, about 30 minutes. Sprinkle with the crushed peppermint candy and gently pat it into the top of the brownies. Bake until candy just starts to soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.

Pour powdered sugar into a small bowl and drizzle in just enough half-and-half to make a smooth, pourable glaze about the thickness of honey. Use a fork to swirl the sugar glaze over the brownies in an interesting pattern. Let stand until glaze sets, at least 1 hour.

To cut, use the foil to lift brownies out of the pan. Set on a large cutting board, then carefully pull the foil away from the brownies. Cut with a large knife into small squares. Store in an airtight container for several days.

Makes 3 dozen small brownies.

Nutrition information per bar: 194 calories, 10 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 31 mg cholesterol, 24 g carbohydrates, 20 g sugar, 3 g protein, 27 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Dinner at Home is a Tribune News Service column from JeanMarie Brownson, a former Tribune test kitchen director and current culinary director for Frontera Foods and Frontera Media Productions. She has co-authored three cookbooks with Rick Bayless, including “Mexico — One Plate at a Time,” winner of the James Beard Foundation’s International Cookbook Award.

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