What I Made This Christmas: Save these recipes

This chocolate cake, made in an angel food cake pan, is perfect for any time of year, but looks extra festive at Christmas.

This chocolate cake, made in an angel food cake pan, is perfect for any time of year, but looks extra festive at Christmas.

The Wichita Eagle

I was off work last week, and I spent about 75% of that time in the kitchen.

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Cooking is one of the main ways I relax, and I live for the oohs, ahhs and gratitude of the people who enjoy my creations.

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Over the past few years, I’ve developed a love of “food art” — creating dishes meant to look like other things or arranging food in eye-catching ways. Some of my masterpieces have included a snack-adium, a snack-arena, a dozen bacon roses and a few eight-foot-long charcuterie boards.

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This Christmas, I mastered a couple of pieces of food art that I’d spotted on social media and had to try, including an ashtray full of pretzel cigarettes and a Boursin cheese Christmas tree.

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I also whipped up several of the dishes I make every year, including the world’s best sugar cookies and ham and beans for my husband.

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And I had to take on the challenge of making my friend Katie Grover’s Croatian povitica, which I wrote about last week. I also baked two rather beautiful holiday desserts.

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Following is a guide to what I cooked this Christmas along with the recipes I used. Save these for next year and thank me later.

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This amazing chocolate cake also works for birthdays.
This amazing chocolate cake also works for birthdays. Dennis Neal The Wichita Eagle

Glassy Christmas Cake

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My daughter, Alexis, asked me a few years ago to make a cake that looked like one she coveted “The Great British Bake Off.” Their recipe was listed in grams, so I found an American version on The New York Times website. I’ve made it several times since then, and people are always impressed. I took the one pictured as a contribution to a dinner we were treated to at the home of some new friends. (And then I made it again for a Christmas Day party, where it doubled as a birthday cake for a special 12-year-old.)

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It’s actually quite easy to make, and the frosting always cools with a glassy-smooth look. I added the raspberries to cover up my frosting messiness along the base and to make it look more like the cake Alexis requested. I’m growing rosemary indoors this winter so I always have it on hand for garnish.

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The recipe I use is titled The Silver Palate’s Chocolate Cake and can be found at cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/8753-the-silver-palates-chocolate-cake?smid=ck-recipe-iOS-share

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I was asked to make a Christmas cheesecake so I made my trusty cheesecake recipe and found a recipe for candied blueberries to top it with.
I was asked to make a Christmas cheesecake so I made my trusty cheesecake recipe and found a recipe for candied blueberries to top it with. Dennis Neal The Wichita Eagle

Frosted cranberry cheesecake

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The only dessert my husband, Travis, likes is cheesecake. Plain cheesecake. So when I was tasked with making a Christmas-y cheesecake for a friend’s party, I used the recipe I use every year on his birthday, then found a recipe online for frosted cranberries to top it with. Of course, my rosemary plant came in handy again for garnishing this beauty. (Oops, I overcooked the cake a little, which caused the cracks on the top. But it still looked pretty and tasted great.)

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Here’s the cheesecake recipe I always use: sugarspunrun.com/best-cheesecake-recipe/

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And I made the cranberry topping using the directions on this recipe: www.delish.com/cooking/recipe-ideas/recipes/a56996/sparkling-cranberry-cheesecake-recipe/

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My daughters and their friends are masters at decorating Christmas cookies, which we make every year using my friend Kim's perfect sugar cookie recipe.
My daughters and their friends are masters at decorating Christmas cookies, which we make every year using my friend Kim’s perfect sugar cookie recipe. Dennis Neal The Wichita Eagle

Kim’s Best Sugar Cookies

Ever since my daughter was little, we have been decorating sugar cookies right before Christmas. We always invite her best friends, who are quite artistic, and in the last few years my stepdaughter Helen and my best friend Jaime Green’s son, Cameron, have also started participating.

We always stock up on lots of food coloring and pretty sprinkles. But the key to our day is this sugar cookie recipe, given to me a decade ago by my friend, Kim. You will never find one better. Divide the also-perfect frosting into various dishes then, using food coloring, make lots of colors to share. Tip: If you want a white-white for snowmen, leave the vanilla out of the frosting.

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Kim’s Sugar Cookies

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2 cups butter

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3 cups powdered sugar

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2 eggs

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2 tsp. vanilla

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5 cups flour (preferred: Hudson Cream flour, unbleached, enriched)

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2 teaspoons baking soda

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2 teaspoons cream of tartar

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Cream butter. Add sugar. Beat until light. Add egg and vanilla. Beat until fluffy. Add dry ingredients. Stir just until mixed. Roll, but and bake for 6 minutes at 350 degrees on parchment lined cookie sheets.

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Buttercream frosting:

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1 lb. confectioner’s sugar

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1/2 cup butter

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1 teaspoon vanilla

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3 tablespoons milk

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Food coloring

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Beat first 4 ingredients. If necessary, add more milk. Add food coloring, stir to blend.

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I just had to.  Here are my festival edible cigarettes.  Ashtray from Goodwill.
I just had to. Here are my festival edible cigarettes. Ashtray from Goodwill. Dennis Neal The Wichita Eagle

Festive cigarettes

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This is a little tacky — and my cigarette-hating husband was not amused — but when I saw the recipe for these realistic looking pretzel cigarettes online, I had to try it. I even went to Goodwill to track down the perfect ash tray, as I certainly don’t own one. My friends, minus Travis, loved them, and they were tasty.

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I couldn’t find black sugar crystals nor black food coloring, so I just used some silver sugar crystals I found at Wal-Mart for the ash, and that worked fine.

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Here are the directions: thecakegirls.com/edible-chocolate-cigarette-ashes-how-to.html

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This Christmas Tree Cheese Ball was fun to make and brought joy to all three parties I made it for.
This Christmas Tree Cheese Ball was fun to make and brought joy to all three parties I made it for. Dennis Neal The Wichita Eagle

Christmas tree cheese ball

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I also saw this one on social media. I made three of these trees this season, and they’re easy and fun to assemble. The only trouble is that Boursin cheese is pretty expensive, and this requires two packages for each tree. Fortunately, I found the cheese at Aldi for far less than its competitors wanted. (You could probably also make this with cream cheese.)

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You’ll need:

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2 5.2-oz packages Boursin cheese, any flavor

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1 bunch Italian parsley

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Pine nuts

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Red and yellow pepper

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Directions

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Chop parsley fine. Chop red and yellow peppers into tiny squares. Cut a star out of one of the yellow peppers. (I used a tiny cookie cutter, or you can freehand it with a sharp knife.)

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Place one hunk of Boursin on top of the other. With your hands, mush them together and mold them into the shape of a tree. Roll in chopped parsley.

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Go around the cheese tree with pine nuts to create garland. Use red and yellow pepper squares for ornaments. Place pepper star at the top of the tree. use remaining red and yellow pepper squares for a colorful tree skirt. Serve with crackers.

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My husband, Travis, gets his favorite ham and beans once a year: on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
My husband, Travis, gets his favorite ham and beans once a year: on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Dennis Neal The Wichita Eagle

Christmas day ham and beans

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I make this dish once a year and once a year only. Travis loves it, but a ham is pretty pricey, and beans are, well, an occasional treat. I always use this recipe, which requires no long bean soak and always turns out perfectly.

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allrecipes.com/recipe/40203/southern-ham-and-brown-beans/

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I did it!  My blanket wasn't as pretty as my friend Katie's, but it turned out pretty well.
I did it! My blanket wasn’t as pretty as my friend Katie’s, but it turned out pretty well. Dennis Neal The Wichita Eagle

Grandma Slack’s Povitica

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I wrote about my friend, Katie’s, annual Christmas baking of this involved recipe, passed down by her Croatian great grandmother. I had to try it, and it was so satisfying. I needed to buy a meat grinder, but then I was ready to go. Mine turned out great, and I had to share a picture of the finished product.

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In case you missed it, here’s the story about the povitica tradition in Katie’s family, complete with the how-to: www.kansas.com/entertainment/restaurants/dining-with-denise-neil/article283189773.html

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Sausage tortellini soup

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I didn’t get a photo, but I made this amazing sausage tortellini soup — one of the best soup’s I’ve ever made — for an ailing friend. It’s comfort food at its finest, and we also ate this on Christmas Eve. My friend, John, gets credit for introducing this to my life:

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Find it at: pinchofyum.com/tortellini-soup

Denise Neal has covered restaurants and entertainment since 1997. Her Dining with Denise Facebook page is a favorite place for diners to get information about local restaurants. She is a regular judge at local food competitions and speaks to groups throughout Wichita about food.

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