As Christmas draws near, precious memories come flooding back: Randy’s and my first Christmas in Houston the year we married; Christmas in Paris gathered with our tiny sons around a tree that was already dropping needles when we purchased it in an outdoor market; all the magical Christmas mornings in our University Park home; and our first Christmas at Swan’s Nest, when we hauled breakfast and gifts from our tiny Colorado mountain condo to our 1898 historic house that was undergoing massive restoration, and sat on porch chairs in the living room, wearing heavy jackets, boots, hats, and gloves, with four propane heaters going full-blast. It was minus 17 degrees outside, and not much warmer in the house.
No matter where we’ve celebrated Christmas over the years, the spirit of love for family and friends has always been at the forefront. Perhaps that’s why I associate hearts with this beautiful holiday.
On a recent Rhine River cruise to Strasbourg and a follow-up Alsace wine country tour by car, I discovered the heart is a prominent decorative theme. In cities, towns, and tiny French villages, hearts were hung on doors and in windows, and nearly every gift shop and patisserie featured displays of heart-shaped goods.
The experience made me completely rethink this year’s Christmas decorating theme, for if there were ever a year to focus on love and the heart, this is it.
Rather than decorating our front door with fir and pine garland festooned with white lights, and large, red-and-white candy canes, this year our door will be surrounded with fragrant boughs intertwined with lights and hearts. A tablecloth embellished with heart appliques that Randy purchased for me in Alsace will grace our breakfast-room table throughout the Christmas season, and as I write this column, I’m on the hunt for heart-shaped ornaments for the tree.
One of the photographs I most love from our trip through this charming French region, renown for its vineyards and centuries-old half-timbered houses, is of a large, heart-shaped cookie displayed in the window of a Kaysersberg patisserie. It’s made of pain d’epices, a dense, spicy cake bread typical of the region, and decorated along the edge with flourishes of white frosting. In its center is the word Alsace. That simple cookie inspired me to create my own recipe for pain d’epices heart cookies. Using an oversized heart-shaped cookie cutter purchased in a Dallas kitchen shop, I’ll tuck these traditional Alsatian spice cookies into clear cellophane bags, tie them with red ribbon, and share them with family and friends. It’s a sweet gift from the heart. Merry Christmas with love!
Christy Rost is a lifestyle authority, author of three cookbooks, public television chef on PBS stations nationwide, and longtime resident of the Park Cities and Preston Hollow. For additional recipes and entertaining tips, please visit her website at [email protected] or follow her on Facebook and Twitter @ChristyRost.
Pain d’Epices Hearts
• 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 1/4 cups dark rye flour
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ginger
• 3/4 teaspoon allspice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
• 1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
• 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
• 1 egg
• 1/4 cup honey
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 5-inch heart-shaped cookie cutter
Early in the day, stir together the flours, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar together until the mixture is light. Add egg, honey, and vanilla, and beat until well mixed. Gradually stir the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture with a large spoon to form a stiff dough. Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and chill 6 hours or overnight to allow the flavors to develop.
Preheat oven to 350 F with oven rack adjusted to the center position. On a floured pastry cloth or countertop, roll half the cookie dough to ¼-inch thickness. Cut with a large heart-shaped cookie cutter and transfer them to lightly-greased cookie sheets. Repeat with the remaining cookie dough, gather and chill scraps, and re-roll. Bake 13 to 15 minutes until the cookies are done, but before the edges brown. Remove them from the oven, cool 1 minute, and, using a large metal spatula, carefully transfer them to wire racks to cool completely. Garnish with Decorator Frosting.
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
• 3 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
• 2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons milk
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, gradually cream the butter with the confectioners’ sugar, adding milk a little at a time. Stir in vanilla. Transfer the frosting to a decorator bag fitted with a Wilton No. 18 star tube. Starting at the top of the hearts, pipe the edges with shell-shaped flourishes. Change to a Wilton No. 5 round tube to write Christmas, Noel, or other messages in the center of cookies.
Yield: 16 5-inch hearts