Bake the perfect finish

Having a few sweets tucked away in the fridge or freezer at this time of year is a smart idea for those occasions when the grandkids are dropped off for the afternoon or it’s your turn to have the bridge club for dessert and coffee. Christmas falls on a weekend, too, so if the family is coming to stay, this selection of scrumptious cakes, bars and cookies is wonderful to have on hand to serve with coffee as the last gifts go under the tree on Christmas Eve or for a holiday brunch — not to mention to endear grandkids forever in your favour!

Spiced Banana Bread with Coconut Brown Sugar Topping
This is a variation of my mother’s banana bread that I’ve been making since I was five years old! Made with vegetable oil (low in saturated fat), it has a lasting moistness, making it better the second day and equally as delicious the third. The topping comes via a remarkable woman, Mrs. Sosnokowski, who used to take care of my two sisters and me when my parents were away. If unsweetened coconut is unavailable, substitute sweetened. With or without the topping, this batter also makes terrific muffins.

Banana Bread:
2 cup (125 ml) granulated sugar   
1/4 cup (50 ml) vegetable oil   
2 eggs
1 cup (250 ml) mashed bananas  
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla    
2 cups (500 ml) all-purpose flour  
2 tsp (10 ml) baking powder 
1 tsp (5 ml) cinnamon
1/2 tsp (2 ml) baking soda 
1/2 tsp (2 ml) salt 
1/4 tsp (1 ml) nutmeg
Pinch allspice
1/2 cup (125 ml) buttermilk

1 cup (250 ml) shredded unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup (125 ml) packed brown sugar 
1 tbsp (15 ml) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp (2 ml) nutmeg 
2 tbsp (25 ml) butter, melted

Topping: In small bowl, stir together coconut, brown sugar, flour and nutmeg. Drizzle butter over, stirring until well moistened. Set aside.

Banana Bread: In bowl, whisk together sugar and oil. Whisk in eggs, one at a time, whisking well after each addition. Stir in bananas and vanilla.

In separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and allspice. Stir flour mixture into banana mixture alternately with buttermilk, making three additions of flour and two of buttermilk.

Pour batter into greased 8- x 4-inch (1.5 l) loaf pan. Scatter topping over. Place on rimmed baking sheet and bake in centre of 350 F (180 C) oven for about 1 hour or until cake tester inserted in centre comes out clean. Let cool completely in pan on rack. Remove from pan. (Bread can be wrapped in plastic wrap and overwrapped in foil and frozen for up to 2 weeks. Thaw at room temperature for 8 hours.) Makes 12 slices.

PER-SERVING NUTRITIONAL INFORMATION: calories: 282; protein: 4 g; fat: 12 g; saturated fat: 6 g; carbohydrate: 41 g; dietary fibre: 2 g; sodium: 234   mg.

Gingered Chocolate Chunk Coffee Cake
Your family and guests will never guess the secret to this sublime cake’s moistness — apple juice! With only 3 tbsp (45 ml) of oil in it, it’s low in fat but positively not low in flavour. The ginger in the cake takes it out of the ordinary while the hint of cocoa and the chocolate in the topping satisfies the craving for something sweet late in the afternoon or after a meal.

2 cups (500 ml) all-purpose flour  
3/4 cup (175 ml) granulated sugar  
1 tbsp (15 ml) unsweetened cocoa powder 
1 tbsp (15 ml) ground ginger 
1-1/2 tsp (7 ml) baking soda   
3/4 tsp (4 ml) cinnamon   
1/4 tsp (1 ml) salt    
1 cup (250 ml) apple juice   
3 tbsp (45 ml) vegetable oil      
1 tbsp (15 ml) cider vinegar   
2 oz (30 g) bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup (125 ml) chopped pecans  
1/4 cup (50 ml) packed brown sugar  
1/4 tsp (1 ml) cinnamon   

Topping: In small bowl, stir together chocolate, pecans, brown sugar and cinnamon, making sure there are no lumps of sugar; set aside.

In large bowl, combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In separate bowl, whisk together juice, oil and vinegar. Pour wet ingredients over dry ingredients; whisk just until thoroughly moistened.

Scrape batter into greased 8-1/2-inch (2 l) springform pan. Sprinkle topping over. With handle of fork or spoon, lightly swirl topping into batter two or three times, taking care not to overly disturb batter. Bake in 350 F (180 C) oven for about 40 minutes or until cake tester inserted in centre comes out clean. Let cool in pan on rack for 30 minutes. Unmold and serve at room temperature. (Cake can be wrapped well in plastic wrap and overwrapped in foil and frozen for up to 2 weeks. Thaw at room temperature for about 6 hours.) Makes 12 to 16 slices.

PER EACH OF 16 SLICES NUTRITIONAL INFORMATION: calories: 183; protein: 2 g; fat: 6 g; saturated fat: 1 g; carbohydrate: 30 g; dietary fibre: 1 g; sodium: 157 mg.

Chocolate Chip Toffee Cookies 
I adore making these cookies. First, you don’t have to remember to soften the butter, which implies cookie premeditation, plus I can bake as many cookies as I want when I want. They keep well unbaked in the fridge for up to five days and freeze for up to a month just in case you’re expecting a slew of guests or grandkids. They’re deliciously chewy with just enough crispness around the edges to satisfy. Feel free to add nuts or butterscotch chips but for a purist like myself, chocolate chips and chopped-up milk chocolate-covered caramel are a to die for combination.

1 cup (250 ml) unsalted butter, in pieces
3/4 cup (175 ml) packed brown sugar 
2/3 cup (150 ml) granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla    
2-1/4 cups (300 ml) all-purpose flour  
1 tsp (5 ml) baking soda
1 tsp (5 ml) salt
2 cups (500 ml) semisweet chocolate chips  
2 (39g each) Skor Bars, coarsely chopped

In heavy saucepan, melt butter. Remove pan from heat; whisk in brown and granulated sugars until smooth. Whisk in eggs one at a time, whisking thoroughly before adding the second one. Whisk in vanilla.

In separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt; stir into butter mixture. Let mixture cool slightly. Stir in chocolate chips and chopped candy bars. Cover pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours or for up to 5 days.

Scoop rounded tablespoons of dough and place on parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in 375 F (190 C) oven for about 12 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. Let cool on pan on rack for 3 minutes. Using cookie spatula, transfer to racks to cool completely.

(Alternatively, scoop heaping tablespoons of dough into large freezer bag, squeezing out as much air as possible. Store in refrigerator for up to five days or freeze for up to 1 month. Place frozen clumps of dough on parchment paper lined-baking sheets. Bake in 375 F (190 C) oven for 14 to 16 minutes or until golden brown around the edges.) Makes 48 cookies.

PER-COOKIE NUTRITIONAL INFORMATION: calories: 125; protein: 1 g; fat: 7 g; saturated fat: 4 g; carbohydrate: 16 g; dietary fibre: 1 g; sodium: 84 mg.

Gingered Lemon Bars
The best way to freeze bars is to cut the whole square into quarters and then freeze each quarter individually. This way, there’s minimum exposure of the edges to the freezer, and the bars will keep fresher longer. For ease of cutting, line the baking pan with a long piece of parchment paper that extends two inches (10 cm) beyond the rim of two edges. Then when you’re ready, you don’t have to struggle getting that first bar cut. Simply lift the entire piece out by lifting out the parchment paper. Of course, the cook’s morsel, the first cut bar that invariably gets mangled and just has to be eaten right away, gets lost with this kind of culinary efficiency.

1 cup (250 ml) all-purpose flour  
1/4 cup (50 ml) icing sugar   
1/4 cup (50 ml) finely chopped crystallized  
2 tsp (10 ml) grated lemon rind
Pinch salt
1/2 cup (125 ml) cold unsalted butter, in pieces 

2 eggs
3/4 cup (175 ml) granulated sugar  
1 tbsp (15 ml) grated lemon rind  
1/4 cup (50 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice 
1 tbsp (15 ml) all-purpose flour  
1/2 tsp (2 ml) baking powder   
1/4 tsp (1 ml) ground ginger   
Pinch salt

Crust: In food processor or bowl, mix together flour, icing sugar, ginger, lemon rind, and salt. Pulse or cut in butter with pastry blender until mixture resembles fine crumbs with a few larger pieces.

With fingertips, gently work dough together. Press dough evenly onto bottom of parchment paper-lined 8-inch (2 l) square baking pan. Bake in 350 F (180 C) oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden. Let cool on rack.

Filling: Meanwhile, with electric mixer or hand-held beater, beat eggs with sugar until very pale and thickened. On low speed, beat in lemon rind and juice, flour, baking powder, ginger and salt. Pour over crust.

Bake in 350 F (180 C) oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until set and springy in centre and golden brown around edges. Let cool completely. Cut into bars. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 days, or cut square in half and cover with plastic wrap; overwrap in foil and freeze for up to2 weeks. Thaw in refrigerator for 8 hours. Makes 16 squares.

PER-SERVING NUTRITIONAL INFORMATION: calories: 140; protein: 2 g; fat: 6 g; saturated fat: 4 g; carbohydrate: 19 g; dietary fibre: less than 1 g; sodium: 46 mg.

Mocha Chip Cupcakes with Chocolate-Sour Cream Frosting
With the minute amount of coffee in these cupcakes, young and old are sure to love them. The icing is super easy to make, and little hands will enjoy icing each cupcake. Have some sprinkles on hand for extra flourish. Since they can be frozen with the icing already on, these treats will come in especially handy during the holiday season since they defrost so quickly at room temperature.

1 tsp (5 ml) instant coffee granules 
1/2 cup (125 ml) unsalted butter, softened 
1 cup (250 ml) granulated sugar  
2 eggs
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla 
1 cup (250 ml) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp (2 ml) baking soda   
Pinch salt
1 oz (30 g) grated bittersweet chocolate (or 1/4cup (50 ml) mini chocolate chips)

Chocolate-Sour Cream Frosting:
2/3 cup (150 ml) regular sour cream
2 oz (60 g) bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1/3 cup (75 ml) icing sugar
Pinch salt

Dissolve coffee granules in 1/4 cup (50 ml) warm water; set aside to cool.

In stand-up mixer or with electric beaters, beat butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. ADD VANILLA HERE?

In separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt and bittersweet chocolate. Fold dry ingredients into butter mixture, alternating with the coffee mixture, making two additions of coffee and three additions of the flour mixture.

Divide batter evenly among 12 greased or paper lined muffin cups.

Bake in 350 f (180 C) oven for about 25 minutes or until cupcakes spring back when lightly pressed in the centre. Let cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes. Remove to rack to cool completely.

Chocolate-Sour Cream Frosting: With whisk, beat sour cream for 1 minute to lighten. Whisk in melted chocolate until smooth. Whisk in icing sugar and salt. With small palette knife, ice each cupcake. Serve the same day or freeze on tray, covered lightly with plastic wrap. Once frozen, transfer to freezer storage container with tight-fitting lid. Freeze for up to 2 weeks. Thaw at room temperature for 4 hours. Makes 12 cupcakes.

TIP: If you have a three-tiered dessert plate, a stacked presentation looks especially inviting and beautiful on a dessert buffet.

TIP: If you are just freezing the cupcakes without the frosting, an alternative but equally delicious icing can be made by draining 2 cups (500 ml) non-fat yogurt, then folding in some melted and cooled bittersweet chocolate with a little icing sigar.

PER-SERVING NUTRITIONAL INFORMATION: calories: 257; protein: 3 g; fat: 13 g; saturated fat: 8 g; carbohydrate: 33 g; dietary fibre: less than 1 g; sodium: 121 mg.