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Peppermint gets in the holiday spirit

| Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008

Peppermint is a flavor for all seasons.

In the summer herb garden, a brush of hands against the leaves releases its heady aroma. Say "mint" on a balmy evening, and it's a cue to start cracking ice for mojitos or mint juleps.

But peppermint doubles as a Christmas-y flavor, too. Instead of those fresh green leaves, it's suddenly dressed up in its holiday formal wear of red and white stripes.

The cool, refreshing flavor enlivens the mouth with Arctic-like breath.

Its holiday appeal goes beyond candy canes. Peppermint matches well with chocolate, and is a star in seasonal ice cream and as meltaway mints.

Here are some ways to enjoy it.

Peppermint Meltaways

These delicate peppermint morsels look truly special with their pink glaze. The recipe is from Land O'Lakes.

For the cookies:

• 1 cup butter, softened

• 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

• 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract

• 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

• 1/2 cup cornstarch

For the glaze:

• 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar

• 2 tablespoons butter, softened

• 1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract

• 1 to 2 tablespoons milk

• 2 to 3 drops red food color

Hard peppermint candy or candy canes, crushed

To make the cookies: Combine 1 cup butter, 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar and 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract in a large bowl. Beat at medium speed, scraping the bowl often, until creamy. Reduce the speed to low, and add the flour and cornstarch. Beat until well mixed. Cover and refrigerate until firm, for about 30 to 60 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Shape rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into 1-inch balls. Place the balls 2 inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned. Let stand for 1 minute; remove from the cookie sheets, and let cool completely.

To make the glaze: Combine 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, 2 tablespoons butter, 1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract and enough milk for the desired glazing consistency in a small bowl. Stir in the food color.

Drizzle the glaze over the cooled cookies. Immediately sprinkle with crushed candy.

Makes 4 dozen cookies.

Devil's Food Layer Cake with Peppermint Frosting

The cake is layered with dark chocolate ganache and white chocolate cream, then topped with marshmallowy peppermint frosting.

The cake and the dark chocolate ganache can be made one day ahead. Wrap the cake in foil and store at room temperature, and refrigerate the ganache. Before using, let the ganache stand at room temperature until soft enough to spread, for about 30 minutes.

The recipe is from the December issue of Bon Appetit magazine.

For the cake:

• 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting cake pans

• 1 tablespoon baking powder

• 1 teaspoon baking soda

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar

• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

• 3 large eggs

• 1 large egg yolk

• 1 1/4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted

• 2 cups ice water

For the dark chocolate ganache:

• 1 1/3 cups heavy whipping cream

• 2 tablespoons light corn syrup

• 14 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

For the white chocolate cream:

• 12 ounces premium white chocolate, finely chopped

• 3 cups chilled heavy whipping cream, divided

• 1 1/2 teaspoons pure peppermint extract

For the peppermint frosting:

• 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar

• 1/2 cup water

• 3 large egg whites

• 1 tablespoon light corn syrup

• 1/2 teaspoon pure peppermint extract

• Bittersweet chocolate curls

To make the cake: Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat to 350 degrees.

Butter 2 9-inch cake pans with 2-inch-high sides. Dust the pans with flour; tap out the excess flour.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl to blend. Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar and butter in a large bowl until well blended. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each egg. Beat in the yolk. Add the cocoa and beat until well blended. Add the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the ice water in 2 additions, beginning and ending with flour mixture and beating until just blended and smooth after each addition.

Divide the batter between the prepared pans, and smooth the tops.

Bake the cakes until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, for about 40 minutes. Cool the cakes in the pans on racks for 15 minutes. Invert the cakes onto the racks and let cool completely.

To make the ganache: Bring the cream and corn syrup to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Remove from the heat; add the chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth. Transfer to a small bowl. Chill until firm enough to spread, for about 1 hour.

To make the white chocolate cream: Place the white chocolate in a large, heatproof bowl. Bring 1 cup cream to a simmer in a saucepan. Pour the hot cream over the white chocolate. Let stand for 1 minute; whisk until smooth.

Whisk in the peppermint extract. Cover; chill until the mixture thickens and is cold, for at least 4 hours. (This part can be made a day ahead.)

Add 2 cups chilled cream to the white chocolate cream and beat until smooth peaks form.

Putting it together: Using a long, serrated knife, cut each cake in half horizontally. Place 1 cake layer on a platter, cut side up. Spread 1/3 of the dark chocolate ganache over the cake. Spoon 2 cups white chocolate cream in dollops over the cake; spread evenly to the edges.

Top with the second cake layer, cut side down. Spread 1/3 of the ganache, then 2 cups white chocolate cream. Repeat with the third layer, cut side up, the remaining ganache and the remaining cream. Cover with the fourth layer, cut side down. Chill while preparing the frosting.

To make the peppermint frosting: Combine the sugar, water, egg whites and corn syrup in the large bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer. Whisk by hand to blend well. Set the bowl with the mixture over a saucepan of gently simmering water; whisk constantly with a hand whisk until the mixture resembles marshmallow creme and ribbons form when the whisk is lifted, for 8 to 9 minutes. Whisk in the peppermint extract.

Remove the bowl from over the water and attach it to the stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until the mixture is barely warm to the touch and very thick, for 7 to 8 minutes.

Using an offset spatula and working quickly, spread the frosting over the top and sides of the cake. Sprinkle chocolate curls over the top and sides.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Peppermint Bark

This seasonal candy favorite comes from Martha Stewart Holiday. It uses peppermint oil, which is available at specialty food stores and the pharmacy counter.

• 2 pounds premium white chocolate, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces

• Water

• 12 large candy canes

• 1/2 teaspoon peppermint oil

Line an 11- by 17-inch baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Put the white chocolate into a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of simmering water. Stir constantly until the chocolate is melted.

With a chef's knife or kitchen mallet, cut or pound the candy into 1/4-inch pieces.

Stir the candy and peppermint oil into the melted chocolate. Remove from the heat, and pour the mixture onto a prepared baking sheet. Spread evenly with a spatula.

Refrigerate until firm, for 25 to 30 minutes. Break into pieces before serving or packaging.

Refrigerate in an airtight container for as long as 1 week.

Makes about 21/2) pounds.

Peppermint Sandwich Cookies

These mini chocolate sandwich cookies are filled with a pink peppermint frosting. The recipe comes from Land O'Lakes.

For the cookies:

• 1 cup granulated sugar

• 1 cup butter, softened

• 1 large egg

• 1 teaspoon vanilla

• 2 cups all-purpose flour

• 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa

• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

• 1/4 teaspoon salt

• 1/2 cup crushed peppermint or spearmint candies

• Flour, for dusting work surface

For the frosting:

• 2 cups confectioners' sugar

• 1/4 cup butter, softened

• 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract

• 1 to 2 tablespoons milk

• 1/4 cup crushed peppermint or spearmint candies

To make the cookies: Combine the granulated sugar, 1 cup butter, egg and vanilla in a large mixer bowl. Beat at medium speed, scraping the bowl often, until creamy, for 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to low; add the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Beat until well mixed, for 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the candies by hand.

Divide the dough in half. Shape each half into a round; flatten to 1/2-inch thickness. Wrap each round in plastic food wrap. Refrigerate until firm, for 1 to 2 hours.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Roll out 1/2 of the dough at a time on a lightly floured surface -- keep the remaining dough refrigerated -- to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut with a 1-inch round cookie cutter. Place the cookies 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes or until set. Cool completely.

To make the frosting: Combine the confectioners' sugar, 1/4 cup butter and the peppermint extract in a small mixer bowl. Beat at medium speed, scraping the bowl often and gradually adding enough milk for the desired spreading consistency. Stir in the crushed candies.

Spread about 1/2 teaspoon frosting onto the flat side of 1 cookie; top with a second cookie, flat side down. Squeeze together gently. Repeat with the remaining cookies.

Makes 6 dozen cookies.

Peppermint Ice Cream Espresso

This recipe comes from Edy's. The company's Slow Churned Peppermint Ice Cream is a limited edition that is offered seasonally. Grab it while you can.

• 2 servings brewed espresso, about 1/4 cup each

• 2 tablespoons Kahlua or amaretto

• Peppermint ice cream

• Whipped cream

Pour 1/4 cup hot or cool espresso into a demitasse cup or aperitif glass. Add 1 tablespoon Kahlua or amaretto. Add a small scoop of peppermint ice cream. Pipe whipped cream on top.

Repeat with a second glass, and serve.

Makes 2 servings.

Candy Cane Swirl Cheesecake

• 3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened

• 3/4 cup granulated sugar

• 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

• 3 large eggs

• Cookie Crumb Crust ( recipe follows )

• 42 Hershey's Kisses Candy Cane Mint Candies, divided

• 1 tablespoon milk

• Sweetened whipped cream

• Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the cream cheese, sugar and vanilla in large bowl until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Set aside 1/4 cup batter; spread the remaining batter in the prepared Cookie Crumb Crust.

Remove the wrappers from the candies. Place 30 candies and the milk in a medium-size, microwave-safe bowl. Microwave at medium (50 percent power) for 1 minute. Stir. If necessary, microwave for another 15 seconds at a time on medium power, stirring after each heating, until the candies are melted and the mixture is well blended. Gradually blend the reserved cheesecake batter into the candy mixture.

Drop the candy batter into the cheesecake by tablespoons. Gently swirl with a knife for a marbled effect.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until the center is almost set. Remove from the oven to a wire rack. With a knife, loosen the cake from the side of the pan. Let cool completely; remove the side of the pan.

Cover and refrigerate until chilled.

Garnish with whipped cream and the remaining candies.

Cover and refrigerate leftovers.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Cookie Crumb Crust

• 1 1/2 cups vanilla wafer cookie crumbs (about 45 cookies)

• 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

• 1/4 cup butter ( 1/2 stick), melted

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Stir together the cookie crumbs and the sugar. Blend in the butter.

Press the mixture onto the bottom and 1/2 inch up the side of a 9-inch springform pan.

Bake for 8 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let cool.

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