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If you’re in search of inspiration for special occasion treats to make for Christmas or whatever winter holidays you celebrate, here is a collection of some of my favorites.
Most of these are desserts that require some effort, but all of them are worth it if you have the time and energy for it.
(No shame if you don’t. Here’s my 15-minute cashew brittle and some of my favorite Christmas cookies if you want some lower-effort fare. And I have some holiday drinks for you, too.)
Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Happy New Year! Merry Everything!
Here's a collection of some of my favorite Christmas-worthy desserts. These are the show-stopping sort of cakes, tarts, and custardy things that can be big projects but are worth it for a special occasion when you feel like pulling out all of the stops.
If you're scaling things down, know that you can halve any of these Bundt cake recipes and bake it in a loaf pan. And the pots de creme and mousse recipes can be easily halved. And the mini chocolate chip skillet cookies are great if you're making something for two.
This marbled chocolate orange olive oil Bundt cake has bright citrus flavor from the zest of two oranges.
There's some almond meal for bit of nutty richness, and espresso powder deepens the chocolate flavor. You can use either natural or Dutch process cocoa powder here. It's worth it to splurge on the cocoa powder if you have the budget—it makes a difference.
Use an olive oil that's on the milder side for this.
If you don't have Bundt pan you can bake this in two standard loaf pans.
This cranberry curd tart uses a press-in shortbread crust inspired by one Alice Medrich uses in everything. This one has a bit of orange zest and powdered sugar to keep it tender. The cranberry curd itself is a riff on one I've been making for years that's rounded out with a generous splash of vanilla, some freshly squeezed orange juice from the orange you just zested, and an optional splash of any orange liqueur you like (but don't bother going out to buy Grand Marnier or Dry Curacao just for this). The tart crust can be made and baked up to two days ahead, and the curd can be cooked and chilled up to a week in advance, you can then assemble and bake the tart on the day (or day before) you want to eat it. The meringue is totally optional, but because the tart leaves you with extra egg whites from the curd, it's easy to go that extra step and add the meringue. The amount of meringue isn't as much what you would typically do for a towering lemon meringue pie, but it's plenty for piping decoratively on the top (and enough to cover the whole top with dots like you see pictured if you wanted to do that). You'll need a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom for this recipe.
Browning butter with a vanilla bean is a trick I learned from Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life, and it’s a technique I use all the time for making simple desserts extra special. You could certainly make these without the vanilla bean and add a splash of vanilla extract along with the rum, but this is one of those places where a vanilla bean really makes a difference. You could absolutely use dark brown sugar in place of the muscovado. The muscovado has a more complex flavor, but you’ll get the important dark molasses notes with the dark brown sugar as well. These are nice topped with whipped cream and some crisp cookies on the side, but they’re very nice on their own too.
This dessert is incredibly simple: just carefully layered slices of apples brushed with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar arranged in a dome that looks a bit like a beehive. But the flavor is incredibly complex. I couldn't resist tweaking Prueitt's version a little. I browned the butter because apples and brown butter are delightful together, but you can skip that step and just use melted butter if you prefer. I also reduced the sugar a bit--from 3/4 of a cup to 2/3 of a cup--because that felt like plenty. You'll want to use an apple that doesn't turn to mush in the oven. Prueitt calls for Granny Smith's; I like it with Empires. I used an apple corer like the one linked below to remove the cores, and my favorite peelers are also linked below. If you don't have a corer, feel free to peel and slice the apples in any way that preserves their lovely round edges. The apple jelly gives the beehive its lovely shine, but you could leave it off if you don't want to bother--the flavor won't suffer.
This gingerbread Bundt cake is generously spiced with a noticeable ginger kick from the combination of fresh ginger and ground ginger. The mixing of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and black pepper round out the spice profile.
If you're shy when it comes to spices, omit the fresh ginger and black pepper. The cake will still be delicious, just milder.
You can use either light or dark brown sugar in this. Dark brown sugar leans into the molasses flavor while the light stuff pulls back on it.
Be sure to generously butter and flour your Bundt pan or use a baking spray formulated with flour to ensure that the cake releases cleany.
This method for making mousse is very simple. It just involves folding Meyer lemon ginger curd into freshly whipped cream. The curd takes about 20 minutes to make and needs to chill for at least an hour before you make the mousse (it can be made up to 2 weeks in advance). The resulting mousse is light with bright lemon and ginger flavor. If you don't want to make your own Meyer lemon ginger curd you can start with any prepared lemon curd (you won't get the lovely subtlety from the Meyer lemons, which are sweeter and more fragrant than Eureka lemons and the extra kick from ginger, but you'll still have a lovely lemon mousse). Because this is so rich, I like to serve it in tiny cups. A bit of chopped candied ginger is a nice garnish, but it's optional.
This caramel pumpkin tart is a spin on a traditional pumpkin pie. The caramel makes the flavor fuller and the texture lighter than the traditional version.
Don't be afraid of making caramel. Just keep an eye on it once you get started and be swift and decisive when it's time to remove it from the heat.
Don't be tempted to skip the step of straining the filling. It's essential to the lush, smooth texture of the filling.
I like to serve it with whipped cream.
This chocolate peanut butter tart is like a giant peanut butter cup with a crisp chocolate shortbread crust, a light peanut butter mousse filling with whipped cream and crème fraîche (that I could eat with a spoon on it's own). I like to use Skippy (or a similar style) creamy peanut butter rather than an all natural peanut butter because I find it blends better. I recommend using a high quality cocoa powder in the crust like Valrhona or Droste rather than the really cheap stuff (it's a place where splurging a little makes a big difference). I go for a chocolate in the 60-60% cacao range in the ganache, but it will work with any percentage of milk or dark chocolate you like (but I'd avoid chocolate chips which are made with additives that prevent melting smoothly). This tart is rich, so I like to serve it in small slices (10-12 slices per tart) but you do you.
Pots de creme are wonderfully rich and silky custards that are baked in a water bath. They aren’t difficult, but making caramel requires some close attention because it can go from done to a burnt blackened mess very quickly. You can find frozen passion fruit puree in most Mexican grocery stores. I use Goya brand, but anything that is pure passion fruit pulp or puree is fine.
These cakes are lemony and tender and moist. They can be made in a standard Bundt pan (in which case bake for an hour), in mini Bundt cake molds, or even a muffin pan. I used a 12-cavity pan, which makes mini cakes about the size of standard muffins. The curd topping is optional, but please don’t skip the glaze. It really completes these cakes. If you only have small lemons, you can use two of them in place of one large one in these recipes. If you don’t feel like making your own Meyer lemon ginger curd, you could use a high quality prepared lemon or passion fruit curd (such as those made in Oak Park by Rare Bird Preserves).
This passion fruit tart is one of my all-time favorite desserts. It's like a lemon tart (or lemon meringue pie) but better. The tart crust has a lighter, airier texture than most because of the long creaming time. This makes it more delicate and rustic than some might prefer, but I love it. That said, if you have go-to tart crust or pâte sucrée, feel free to use it. I tend to use frozen passion fruit puree for this. It's often available at Mexican grocery stores and at some big chains. I usually use Goya brand, but I'd recommend sticking to a brand that lists passion fruit as the only ingredient. (You can also order it online.) If you have fresh passion fruit, though, you can absolutely use them. Just slice open the fruit, scoop out the pulp and remove the seeds and use it here.
This tart doesn't need any adornment, really, but I like to top it with some lightly sweetened whipped cream.
You'll need a 9.5-in tart pan and a half sheet pan for this recipe.
This is my take on a Momofuku Milk Bar cake. The cake and the method are Tosi’s (she’s really the genius here), but the fillings and flavor combinations are mine. This is a big project and needs to be started at least a day before you want to serve it, but all of the components except for the frosting can be made a few days ahead of time, and the fully assembled cake keeps in the freezer for up to two weeks. So you have plenty of flexibility in getting it ready for a special occasion. I had leftover orange cardamom crumbs, but I would layer them on even more densely if I made it again. I love this cranberry curd and think it’s special enough to consider doubling just to have leftovers. This method of making curd without tempering the eggs is unorthodox, but again, the method comes from Tosi, and I’ve started making all of my fruit curds this way. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, you should really think about getting one. Grams are so much more precise than cups and tablespoons. I’ve provided measurements for both weights and volume, but you’ll get more consistent results if you weigh everything.
This cake sounds decadent, but when you eat it, it feels incredibly light.
It’s a project. It needs to be started at least two days before you want to serve it. It’s totally worth all of the work. I think this is one of the best desserts I’ve ever made.
The coffee flavor is very mild in the finished cake. It serves to deepen the chocolate flavor rather than stand out on its own. This makes a big cake. If you aren’t feeding a crowd, you can cut the frozen cake in two and store half of it, well wrapped, in the freezer for another time.
These skillet cookies are rich with brown sugar, an extra splash of vanilla, and studded with chunks of bittersweet chocolate. You can use chocolate chips or chop your own for little flecks of chocolate spread throughout the dough.
The tops are sprinkled with flaky sea salt before they go into the oven to give them a salty edge to cut through the sweetness.
It's worth noting that there are two common sizes of mini cast iron skillets. These are shown in 5-inch skillets. This makes six skillet cookies of that size.
You can also make them in 3.5-inch cast iron skillets. In that case, divide the dough into 8 portions and proceed as directed.
You can make these all at once if you have enough skillets, but you can also bake one or two of them and portion and freeze the dough to bake later.
To bake from frozen, add an additional 2 minutes to the bake time. (Don't thaw first.)
In this banana custard tart, bananas are steeped in a cream and sugar mixture to infuse the banana flavor, and then the bananas are strained out to make a silky smooth custard.
This tart uses my favorite easy chocolate shortbread crust, which is a cinch to make.
It also gets topped with brown sugar Italian meringue, which conveniently uses up the egg whites left over from the custard filling. It's easier to separate eggs when they are cold, so separate these straight out of the refrigerator.
I like to use dark brown sugar here for the extra molasses flavor. The nutmeg helps bring out the banana flavor. Freshly grated nutmeg is worth the trouble if you have a microplane.
You can make the crust up to a day ahead of time. You can make the meringue while the tart is chilling.
This works with a 9- or 9.5-inch tart pan.