There's no more apt ingredient for December than confectioners' sugar, the sweetener that, like snow, transforms whatever it touches - be that lightly or in heaps.
Its wintry aesthetics and seemingly magical properties make it symbolic of the small joys of Christmas and all manner of year-end celebrations.
It is impossibly white, more so than freshly fallen snow or an angel's wing.
It is so silky and light that if a baker isn't careful shoveling it into a mixing bowl, tiny blizzards cloud the kitchen.
Confectioners' sugar, also known as powdered sugar, is merely finely pulverized granulated sugar mixed with cornstarch (about 3 percent) to prevent clumping.
It is steps beyond superfine, also known as castor, sugar. Named for its use in candymaking, confectioners' sugar is produced in grades from XX to the most commonly available 10X - the more X's, the finer the product.
But, although ethereal and delicate, powdered sugar is a mystically hearty drinker. For example, 2 full cups of it combined with only 3 tablespoons of juice are needed to create a thin lemon cake glaze.
It is essential in making Royal Icing, which is a thick, quickly hardening mixture with an even higher ratio of powdered sugar to liquid - in this case, egg whites.
Royal Icing is to a baker what mortar is to a bricklayer, what paint was to Picasso. It is so named because it was long ago used to decorate the fruitcake once featured at weddings of English royalty.
This time of year, Royal Icing stars as the mortar that holds gingerbread houses together. (It also forms the buttons and eyes of many of the cookie people who live in them.)
Confectioners' sugar takes on color from edible dyes excellently, making it essential as a base for vibrant and non-gritty frostings and cookie and cake decorations during this season when few baked goods escape decoration of some sort.
Restaurant chefs lately love dusting dessert plates with it to signal that something special has arrived at the table. Similarly, home cooks can make "snowdrifts" of powdered sugar to create serving-platter habitats for reindeer or pine-tree cookies (around that gingerbread house), or powdered sugar "clouds" on which to display star-shaped treats.
The mouth-feel of confectioners' sugar is surprisingly different from that of granulated sugar. It imparts an almost cooling, melt-in-the-mouth effect to humdrum cookies or doughnuts that have been bathed or rolled in it after baking.
Its effect changes to being decorative, for example, if cookie dough is rolled in the sugar before going into the oven, as is specified for Fractured Chocolate Cookies.
Texture is the mission when confectioners' sugar is stirred into a batter, as in Melanie Bernard's unusual Tuscan Rosemary and Pine Nut Shortbread, where it surpasses granulated in creating a product that is tender and has a fine crumb.
Other examples of desserts that lean on confectioners' sugar, either as-is for its cooling taste and wintry look or for its solubility in glazes and icings, include: spicy German pfeffernussen, Mexican wedding cookies, the Italian hazelnut meringues called Pasticcini Alle Nocciole (below) and, of course, beignets (ben-YAYS), the fried dough that's a signature treat in New Orleans.
David Guas uses powdered sugar in shortbread cookies, short pastry, and in any baked good that benefits from its ability to dissolve quickly, leaving no graininess behind.
Guas, who owns a Washington dessert-menu consulting company called DamGoodSweet, also connects confectioners' sugar with hi-jinks and beignets, which would make a perfect holiday breakfast or brunch by the fire.
As a child, Guas engaged in a food fight common to kids growing up in New Orleans. This occurred every time he and his sister sat in their church finery at a table in the legendary Café Du Monde, where only coffee and the city's signature beignets are served.
When the beignets were delivered - always hot, in sets of three, and heaped thrillingly deep with powdered sugar - the siblings would compete to see who would be first to blow the snowy mounds onto each other's clothing.
Although Guas says this was not parent-approved, he encourages his own children to carry on the tradition every time he makes his Buttermilk Beignets, for which a recipe appears in his recently published DamGoodSweet (and below).
As pretty and playful as the beignets' "garnish" is, the sugar atop them serves a higher purpose - taste.
"Beignet dough, by itself, is not very sweet. It contains barely enough sugar to feed the yeast," Guas says.
That's yet another reason - as if one is needed - to get out the confectioners' sugar and let it snow.
Makes 36 cookies
1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the confectioners' sugar in a brown paper bag.
2. In a bowl, combine flour, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and baking soda.
3. Place butter, brown sugar, and molasses in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until fluffy, about three minutes. Beat in egg and vanilla. With mixer on low speed, add flour mixture; beat until just combined. Pinch off tablespoons of dough; roll into 11/4-inch balls. Arrange balls 11/2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets (dough can be frozen at this point, covered tightly with plastic wrap, up to one month).
4. Bake until golden and firm to the touch with slight cracking, about 15 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Transfer sheets to a wire rack to cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Working in batches, place cookies in paper bag; shake until well-coated. Let cool completely on wire rack. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature up to one week.
Per cookie: 96 calories, 1 gram protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 13 milligrams cholesterol, 14 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Fractured Chocolate Cookies
Makes about 61/2 dozen cookies
2 cups granulated sugar
6 ounces semisweet baking chocolate, melted
1/4 cup butter, melted
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
2. Combine sugar, melted chocolate, and melted butter in a large bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
3. In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Add dry ingredients to chocolate mixture; stir until a soft dough forms. Cover dough and chill 1 hour.
4. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place confectioners' sugar in a small bowl. Roll balls in confectioners' sugar, and place 2 inches apart on parchment paper-lined baking sheets.
5. Bake at 300 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes or until tops are cracked. Cool cookies on baking sheets 3 minutes; transfer to wire racks to cool.
Per cookie: 56 calories, 1 gram protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 1 gram fat, 12 milligrams cholesterol, 29 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Tuscan Rosemary and Pine Nut Shortbread
Makes 16 squares
1/4 cup pine nuts
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or 2 teaspoons dried
1 cup all-purpose flour
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and set a rack in the middle level.
2. Spread the pine nuts on a baking sheet and place in the oven. Toast, stirring once or twice to prevent burning, until they are a shade darker and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Watch carefully; pine nuts can burn easily. Remove from the sheet and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Remove from the heat, and stir in the confectioners' sugar, rosemary, and pine nuts. Then stir in the flour to make a stiff dough.
4. Spread and pat the dough evenly into an ungreased 8-inch-square baking pan. Bake until the bars are golden and firm at the edges, about 20 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 2 minutes, and then use a sharp knife to cut into 16 squares. Let cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes before removing the bars with a small spatula. The bars can be stored, tightly covered, for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 1 month.
Per square: 112 calories, 1 gram protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 16 milligrams cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium, trace dietary fiber.
David Guas' Buttermilk Beignets
Makes about 48 beignets
3/4 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3 1/2 cups bread flour plus extra for flouring work surface
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
Peanut oil for frying
Confectioners' sugar for serving, as much as you think you'll need - then double that!
1. Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until small bubbles form at the surface. Remove from the heat, add the buttermilk, and then pour into a stand-mixer bowl. Whisk in the yeast and the sugar, and set aside for 5 minutes. Add the flour, baking soda, and salt. Mix on low speed, using a dough hook, until the dry ingredients are moistened, 3 to 4 minutes. Increase the mixer speed to medium, and continue mixing until the dough forms a loose ball and is still quite wet and tacky, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and set the dough aside in a draft-free spot for 1 hour.
2. Pour enough peanut oil into a large pot to fill it to a depth of 3 inches, and bring to a temperature of 375 degrees over medium heat (this will take about 20 minutes). Line a plate with paper towels and set aside.
3. Lightly flour your work surface and turn the dough out on it. Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour, gently press to flatten, fold it in half, and gently tuck the ends under to create a rough-shaped round. Dust again and roll the dough out into a circle 1/3- to 1/2-inch thick. Let the dough rest for 1 minute before using a chef's knife, a bench knife, or a pizza wheel to cut the dough into
1½-inch squares (you should get about 48).
4. Gently stretch a beignet lengthwise and carefully drop it into the oil. Add a few beignets (don't overcrowd them, otherwise the oil will cool down, and the beignets will soak up oil and be greasy) and fry until puffed and golden brown, turning them often with a slotted spoon, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to the prepared plate to drain while you cook the rest. Serve while still warm, buried under a mound of confectioners' sugar, with hot coffee on the side.
Note: The beignet dough can be made up in advance of frying. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spray it with nonstick cooking spray. After cutting the dough, place the beignets on the paper and place another greased sheet of parchment paper, sprayed-side down, on top. Seal the entire baking sheet with plastic wrap and refrigerate. At this point, the beignets can be refrigerated overnight and fried straight from the refrigerator.
Per beignet: 60 calories, 2 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 1 gram fat, trace cholesterol, 35 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Pasticcini Alle Nocciole (Hazelnut Cookies)
Makes about 48 cookies
4 egg whites
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted, peeled, and coarsely ground
Oil for baking sheets
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line several baking sheets with foil, and brush with oil.
2. Place the egg whites in a clean, dry bowl, and whip until firm but not dry. Add the sugar; beat in a little at a time until incorporated. Mix in the hazelnuts. Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan over low heat, and mix with a wooden spoon until the egg-white mixture pulls away from the bottom and sides of the pan, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from heat, and let the egg-white mixture rest for 10 minutes.
3. Place 1/2-tablespoon mounds of the hazelnut mixture on a baking sheet, leaving about 1 inch between each mound. Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Using a metal spatula, carefully transfer cookies to a rack. Cool.
Per cookie: 34 calories, 1 gram protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, no cholesterol, 5 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.