Freaks & Foodies #9: The Holiday Dessert Edition

Butter tarts. Image courtesy of


Happy holidays!


Weather you observe Christmas, Solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Yule, or Eid or Festivus, there is one thing all these celebrations have in common: large quantities of food. The days leading up to the new year are filled with big meals consisting of the tastiest, starchy, calorie-filled mashed potatoes and gravy, bread stuffing, multiple cheese covered baked side dishes, turkey or a nice fatty prime rib roast – Tofurkey for you vegetarians. But the best part is always, ALWAYS, the sweets. This is the time of year when we get to stuff our faces with pies of all sorts, tarts, and cookies until they are coming out your ears, fudge and chocolates from grandma and fistfuls of hard candy at your weird aunt’s house. In this installment of Freaks and Foodies, I am going to share some of my favorite family recipes to satisfy that sweet tooth.


We will start with a zesty chocolate treat my mother came up with a few years ago. They are always a big hit at the dessert table.



Chocolate Orange Squares


Prep time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 2 hrs
Yield: 9 1” Squares




8 ounces semi-sweet baker’s chocolate
3 ounces bitter-sweet bakers chocolate
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1tsp. vanilla extract
1 egg
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup softened butter
1/3 cup chilled butter
3 Tbsp. custard powder
3 cups confectioner’s sugar
4 tsp. orange juice
1 Tbsp. orange zest


Using a double boiler, melt 8 squares (4 ounces) of semi-sweet baker’s chocolate. Stir in sugar, vanilla, and egg. Cook until the mixture resembles custard, then stir in graham wafer crumbs, walnuts, and coconut. Remove from heat and press mixture firmly into 9″ x 9″ pan. Chill until cold, about 15- 20 minutes.


In a large mixing bowl, mix together softened butter, custard powder, confectioner’s sugar, orange juice and zest. Spread mixture over chilled chocolate in pan and chill until firm about 15-20 minutes.


In top of double boiler, melt together remaining chocolate and butter and spread on top of chilled orange mixture. Place back in refrigerator chill until cold about 15 minutes, then cut into 1” squares. Place pan back in refrigerator until firm.




Next we have classic Scottish shortbread recipe from my father’s aunt, Izzie. This recipe seems simple, and it is. But it is one of those recipes that take a couple tries to get it just right.




Aunt Izzie’s Shortbread


Prep time: 40 mins
Cook time : 6-8 mins




1 cup butter
1/3 cup  sugar
2 cups flour ( or more )


Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream butter, add sugar gradually, and cream together thoroughly. Add  flour slowly.  When stiff dough is formed, turn it out on to a floured board or pastry mat. Gradually knead in flour until the dough begins to crack. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.


Roll dough out 1/4 inch thick using as little flour as possible. Place dough in a 13” x 9” rectangle pan lined with wax paper. Poke dough with a fork in parallel lines about 1” apart. Place in oven and bake until very light brown. Once cooled cut shortbread into ½” x 3” sticks. Serve with a nice cup of earl grey.




Finally, we have what is my absolute favorite must-have at the holidays. I can forgo any other food or sweet treat as long as I have these. When I die it will be in my will that at least a dozen of these little gems are in my coffin. I know you are thinking: “What are these mysterious treats of ultimate perfection that this guy is babbling on about?” I am talking about butter tarts. This is a popular English recipe and it has been passed from my great grandmother, to my grandma and on to my mother and sister. Now I will share it with you.




Butter Tarts


Prep time: 10 mins, 1 hr if making crust from scratch
Cook time: 10 mins
Yield: 2 dozen 2” round tarts






6 Tbsp. butter
1 cup corn syrup
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 eggs (well beaten)
3 tsp. white vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups raisins
Pinch of salt


Tart crust:


Either use store-bought pie crust or make your own from scratch. Use the appropriate size round cookie cutter or drinking glass to cut circles large enough* to line the cups of a 2” round tart pan. I prefer my own pie crust to store-bought. Below is my recipe for a perfectly flaky but not crumbly pie crust.


*Hint- use a drinking glass with a mouth about three times the size of the bottom of the tart cups so you can completely line the bottom and sides of tart cups.


2 1/2 cups white pastry flour
1/2 stick of cold salted butter, cut in 1/2” cubes
2 eggs – 1 slightly beaten, the other set aside for coating your pie crust later
1/4 cup ice cold ginger ale


Preparation: Crust


Pie crust can be tricky, so take your time. The recipe is for 1 pie crust, so you will have to do this twice to make a bottom crust for your pie. Start by putting 2 cups of the white pastry flour in your mixer. Gently mix to break up any clumps. Add in 1 slightly beaten egg and mix until well combined with the flour, then add in half of the butter cubes and mix. Add the remaining butter cubes and mix. Once the butter, egg and flour mix is completely combined, add the ice cold ginger ale a little bit at a time until the pastry starts to form a ball. Adding the ginger ale slowly helps you gauge your pastry dough. Too wet or to dry can lead to issues later when rolling out your crusts. The ginger ale is a trick my mom taught me. It helps make it nice and flakey and adds a slight zing to the pastry. Take the pastry dough out of the mix and roll it between your hands to make a ball, then flatten it into a disc roughly 1” thick and 5” in diameter. Place dough disc in a ziplock bag and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hr. Repeat process for second crust. Cut discs of crust with cookie cutter or drinking glass, making 24 discs. Place discs in lightly buttered tart cup pans.




Preheat oven to 385 degrees. Melt the butter in a heavy sauce pan over medium heat. Stir in all remaining ingredients and reduce heat to low. Melt mixture together until raisins are plump and soft, about 10 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat and fill tart crusts 2/3rds full with raisin and sugar mixture. Place tarts in oven and bake for 10 – 12 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand and cool until filling firms up to a gooey consistency. You can serve these chilled or warmed.


The tarts will keep in the refrigerator if in a sealed container for up to 10 days, but chances are that they will not stick around that long because they’re so good. I like to warm up a butter tart and top it with a little high quality vanilla ice cream. Freaking good stuff here people!





Well, now that I have your sweet tooth salivating, get in the kitchen and start making some butter tarts, you will thank me when you taste them, and probably hate me when you realize the you gained 15 pounds eating them.

Until next time, be safe and have a happy holiday. Let’s see what 2013 will bring us.





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