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Winter wonderland fare

Spiced cocoa and black pepper-chocolate cookies

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I'm always a little slow waking up to the holidays. If it weren't for Rudolph, Cindy Lou Who and Winter Warlock, my cartoon friends for more than 30 years, I'd still be taking my Thanksgiving nap. Last week, while making dinner, I could hear the musical stylings of Burl Ives as Sam the singing snowman in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." I left my pot of curried chickpeas at the stove and walked into the other room, greeted by the red-bearded Yukon Cornelius, Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist, and the pathetic group of misfit toys left to rot on an Arctic island. ("Nobody wants a Charlie-in-the-box!")

It was a Christmas miracle, one filled with snow-monster intrigue and wintry weather that makes Santa nervous, a land of sugar and spice and everything nice, where in the end, good conquers evil, and Santa doesn't cancel Christmas after all because Rudolph's got the goods. Forty-one years old, I'm still hooked to the stuff, and suddenly my dinner no longer seems interesting. What I want, to go with my serving of winter wonderland, is a cup of hot cocoa and a plate of cookies – with a few reserved for Santa, of course.

Spiced Hot Chocolate

From the March 2004 issue of Bon Appétit magazine

6 cups whole milk

3/4 cup brown sugar

15 whole cardamom pods, smashed

12 whole cloves

2 cinnamon sticks

2 star anise pods

3/4 teaspoon coriander seeds

3/4 teaspoon grated or ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

3/4 teaspoon vanilla

Pour milk into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add sugar, all spices and red pepper flakes. Cook over low heat, at a simmer, and stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat; cover and let mixture steep for about 20 minutes.

Add cocoa powder and vanilla and bring back to a simmer, whisking until blended. Strain through a sieve, leaving behind spices, and pour into mugs. Makes 6 servings. Recipe may be doubled.

Chocolate Pepper Cookies

Adapted from Where Flavor Was Born by Andreas Viestad

8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2/3 cup fine brown sugar (pulsed in the food processor)

2 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper (or to taste)

4 ounces chopped chocolate (or semisweet chocolate chips or cocoa nibs)

Granulated sugar for rolling

Place 1-2 inches of water in a small saucepan, and place a heatproof bowl that fits snugly on top to make a double boiler. Add chopped chocolate and melt over low heat. Remove chocolate from heat and allow to cool, to about 100 degrees.

Using a hand mixer or a food processor, cream butter until light and airy. Add sugar and beat until completely incorporated. Add eggs, one by one, until well-combined.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon and black pepper, and gradually incorporate into wet ingredients until combined.

Make sure chocolate is not too hot, or it will melt butter in the dough. Slowly add melted chocolate, and stir in remaining chocolate (or chips/cocoa nibs).

Place dough into a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until dough is cool and firm, at least 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a teaspoon, scoop batter, roll in granulated sugar and drop onto baking sheets, about 1 1/2 inches apart. Bake for 12-15 minutes. Cookies should be somewhat soft.

Cool on a wire rack. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

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