Versions vary. But it doesn’t really matter whether they travel by boat or by sleigh, or whether the castle was made of jelly beans or marzipan.
When Clara and her prince arrive in the magical Land of the Sweets and the Sugar Plum Fairy comes to greet them, the real fun begins.
Dancers celebrate delicacies from around the world – chocolate from Spain, coffee from Arabia, tea from China, candy canes from Russia. Mother Ginger’s children – bonbons personified as polichinelle, or little clowns – emerge from under her gigantic hoop skirt.
They’re so cute, we could eat them up.
We could eat them all up – the chocolate, candy canes, marzipan and more.
The enchanting Land of the Sweets needn’t be just a dream within a dance. Home cooks can carry the whimsy of “The Nutcracker” off of the stage and into their kitchens with sweets inspired by the story.
The Spokane Symphony presents the popular, two-act ballet Thursday through Sunday. And these treats could help prolong the magic and memory of the performance.
Dance of the Mirlitons – and a crumb of history
Classic marzipan, with just three ingredients, is particularly easy to prepare. It’s also one of the first sweets pastry chef and Spokane Community College culinary instructor Bob Lombardi learned to make in pastry school more than 30 years ago.
“It is so simple,” he said. “Marzipan comes together in five minutes.”
The almond confection, a traditional Christmastime treat in Europe, can be shaped into anything from fruits, flowers and figurines to an elaborate castle for the Sugar Plum Fairy. Home cooks can use small cookie cutters to make marzipan even easier to mold. Lombardi, who specializes in sugar artistry, recently used a tear-drop design, dipping the pieces into tempered chocolate then topping them with slivered almonds or decorating them with cocoa butter transfer sheets.
He prefers almond paste to almond flour for its intense flavor, but either one works. Paste tends to be more expensive. Almond extract can be added to help boost flavor.
In the ballet, which debuted in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Dec. 5, 1892, marzipan is celebrated by the Dance of the Reed Pipes, which features dancers dressed as shepherdesses, known for playing flutes for their flocks. The dance is also known as the Dance of the Mirlitons, which are flutes as well as French pastries that are rolled into a tube, filled with chocolate-praline mousse and resemble flutes.
The story is older. E.T.A Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” was first published in 1816. It turns 200 years old this year.
Alexander Dumas reworked it in 1847, changing the heroine’s name from Marie to Clara and sweetening the plot. Scene One of Act Two is where the goodies are.
The Russian dance
Unlike classic marzipan, candy canes – which come to life in a Russian-inspired dance in “The Nutcracker” – might be more difficult for home cooks to conquer. Lombardi recommends working the sugar under a heat lamp to help keep it pliable. Reheating it in the microwave would also work.
A must: latex gloves. Don’t pull sugar with bare hands. Perspiration and the skin’s natural oils can cause the sugar to crystallize, “then it doesn’t stretch anymore,” Lombardi said. Don’t use oil on gloves, either – for the same reason.
More musts: a heavy-bottomed pot and candy thermometer. Timing and temperature are keys to working with sugar, Lombardi said. So, “have everything in place before you start cooking.”
That includes a silicone mat on a marble, granite or stainless steel work surface. He doesn’t recommend wood unless it’s at least 2 inches thick.
The surface will heat up – “The sugar’s going to be 320 degrees,” Lombardi noted – so he also recommends moving the mixture around the work surface.
Once the sugar’s poured and beginning to cool, it’s time to fold it, starting at the edges and working in. Continue folding and stretching to trap tiny air bubbles. “That’s the funnest part,” Lombardi said.
Mother Ginger’s bonbons
Bonbons – filled with butter cream, nougat, candied fruit or liqueur – are traditionally molded chocolates with a hard shell.
But truffles are generally easier for home cooks to make. Named for their likeness to the highly prized fungi, the ganache spheres are typically dipped or rolled in chocolate. No special equipment, such as polycarbonate molds, nor techniques, such as tempering chocolate, are needed.
“They’re more accessible,” said Taylor Siok, the pastry chef at Luna who created this recipe for ginger truffles inspired by Mother Ginger’s bonbons.
It’s a two-day process; the ganache needs to set up overnight. And, it helps to have a scale.
“I do everything by grams,” Siok said. Other than that, “I tried to keep it easy.”
Siok simmers and steeps fresh ginger in heavy cream before straining the mixture and combining the infused cream with white chocolate and ginger liqueur. The next day, he rolls the ginger ganache in micro-planed chocolate shavings.
If that still sounds too complicated or time-consuming, note Luna’s selling his confection – while supplies last – this week for $2 each.
Waltz of the Snowflakes
Before arriving in the Land of the Sweets, at the end of Act One, there’s the swirling, twirling Waltz of the Snowflakes. With snowflake-shaped cookie cutters and classic sugar cookie dough, this scene translates well for baking.
Catherine Shipley of Spokane has been making snowflake cookies for five or six years, inspired – she thinks – by photos she first saw in a Dancing Deer Baking Co. catalog.
“Now, it’s a Christmas tradition,” said Shipley, who grew up doing a lot of baking, especially around Christmastime.
Grandma’s shortbread was a staple, and she still makes it. “It’s super easy,” Shipley said – although Grandma’s recipe suggested beating the butter with a wooden spoon. “I use a mixer. Sorry, Grandma.”
She likes the “Once Upon a Tart …” recipe for Crispy Sugar Cookies because “it’s so straightforward” and uses light blue icing like she saw in the catalog. Sometimes, her 3 1/2-year-old son Rowan helps decorate them, shaking on the sprinkles.
Shipley gives cookies to friends, family and members of the Spokane Symphony, where she’s worked for 15 years. She’s chair five in the second violin section. And, this year she said she’s played in “The Nutcracker” since the performance moved to the Fox from the INB Performing Arts Center in 2011. “Usually in the pit, at least where I’ve always sat, you can’t really see what’s going on on stage.”
However, she has many memories of watching the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” while growing up in Seattle and the show still featured its famous set by Maurice Sendak. Shipley, who’s been playing violin since she was 10 and did ballet as a girl, loved how the tree would grow bigger and bigger in the first act. She also imagined herself as one of the snowflake ballerinas.
“I really do like the snowflakes, not just because we make snowflake cookies,” she said. “I enjoy it all, I think. There’s just something about it that’s really magical.”
From Bob Lombardi of Spokane Community College
1 pound almond flour or blanched almonds
4 ounces water
4 ounces corn syrup
Tempered chocolate (recipe below)
Process all ingredients through corn syrup in food processor until smooth.
On a work surface dusted with powdered sugar, knead the marzipan. (“Treat it like pie dough,” Lombardi said.) Then, roll the marzipan to ½ inch or desired thickness, and cut portions with small cookie cutters.
Set marzipan pieces in freezer for 20 minutes, then dip in tempered chocolate.
Note: Store in an air-tight container. Marzipan is best enjoyed at room temperature.
Yield: 32 pieces
From J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of The Food Lab at Serious Eats
For more detailed instructions, visit www.seriouseats.com.
At least 1/2 pound chocolate, plus more for cooling
Melt at least ½ pound chocolate by stirring it in a bowl set over a pot of simmering water or by microwaving it in a bowl at 30-second intervals, stirring between each stint in the microwave.
Once it hits 115 degrees, drop in chunks of unmelted fresh chocolate a few at a time, stirring vigorously after each addition until the chocolate drops back down to 81 degrees.
Finally, reheat the chocolate to between 88 and 90 degrees, making sure that it never rises above 92 degrees. Dip or pour as desired.
From Bob Lombardi
1 pound almond flour or blanched almonds
2 ounces water
2 ounces cherry brandy
4 ounces corn syrup
2 ounces dried cherries
Tempered chocolate (recipe above)
Process all ingredients through cherries in food processor until smooth. Then follow the instructions for classic marzipan.
Almond Paste Marzipan
From Bob Lombardi
If you plan on making marzipan figurines, this is the recipe Lombardi recommends.
1 pound almond paste
3 ounces corn syrup
1 pound powdered sugar
Process all ingredients in food processor until smooth. Then follow instructions for classic marzipan. After kneading marzipan, form into figurines as desired.
Adapted by Bob Lombardi from the sixth edition of Wayne Gisslen’s “Professional Baking”
2 pounds sugar
9.5 ounces water
6.5 ounces corn syrup
Food coloring, as desired
8 drops tartaric or citric acid or lemon juice
Peppermint oil, as desired
To make the candy: In a heavy-bottomed pot over high heat, cook sugar, water and syrup to a rolling boil and keep it there. When the mixture hits 225 degrees, add the desired food coloring, if using. At 275 degrees, add the tartaric or citric acid or lemon juice and flavoring, if using. Pull from heat when the mixture reaches 320 degrees. Pour onto silicone mat on a marble, granite or stainless work surface and begin pulling.
To pull the candy: Start by folding in the edges, then rolling the candy into a log. Hold one end in each hand and pull each outward, as if tugging on a rope, to the length of about 10-12 inches. Bring ends together, folding the rope in half, then twisting it together. Pull each end out again, repeating the pulling and twisting until the candy looks glossy and opaque and is becoming difficult to pull. Shape into a 2-inch thick roll, about 10-12 inches long, and place in a warm oven or under a heat lamp while you work the other one or two batches, depending on how many colors you want in your candy canes.
Assemble the candy canes: Place the (2 or 3) ropes side by side. Twist pieces together, working quickly and starting at one end and pulling and twisting until the rope is about ½-inch thick. Use scissors to cut 6-inch strips, immediately bending one end of each into a hook-shape.
Notes: Hot sugar is dangerous; it can easily burn you. Heat-resistant gloves are required. Work fast to aerate the sugar before it cools too much and becomes brittle. If this happens, place the candy in a warm oven to make it malleable again.
From Taylor Siok of Luna in Spokane
55 grams fresh ginger, minced
100 grams heavy cream
20 grams honey
350 grams white chocolate, finely chopped, reserved in a wide, shallow bowl
25 grams ginger liqueur
Shaved dark chocolate, as needed
Combine ginger, cream and honey in a pot, and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, cover and let steep for 10 minutes.
Return pot to heat and bring cream mixture to a full boil, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve into the white chocolate.
Mix vigorously until all white chocolate is melted, then add the liqueur and mix until smooth. (If you need to reheat the mixture to fully incorporate it, do so in a double boiler, taking care to not keep it on the heat too long – it will separate – nor splash any water into the chocolate; this will seize the chocolate.) Spread the mixture flat on a baking sheet, and place plastic wrap directly on top. Leave overnight at room temperature.
Once firm, roll truffles in the palms of your hands, one at a time, into desired size, about 3/4 inch or 10 grams, then immediately roll them in the shaved dark chocolate. Let rest for about an hour to set.
Note: The truffles, Siok said, “can be rolled in anything you want.” It doesn’t have to be dark chocolate. Cocoa powder, coconut flakes and finely chopped candied ginger are all options. The truffles can also be dipped in tempered chocolate.
Crispy Sugar Cookies
From “Once Upon a Tart …” by Frank Mentesana and Jerome Audureau
This is the recipe Catherine Shipley uses for her sugar cookies.
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Cream the butter and sugar in a big bowl, using the whisk attachment of an electric mixer on high speed (or a sturdy wire whisk), until they are fluffy and light lemon-yellow in color, about 5 minutes. With the mixer switched to low speed, beat in the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla.
In a separate, medium-size bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together. Add these dry ingredients to the wet, using the paddle attachment of your mixer on low speed (or stirring with a wooden spoon) until the dough forms a ball.
The dough will be a bit sticky, but it should clean itself off the sides of the bowl once all the flour is incorporated. If the dough is too wet and sticky to form a ball, add a tiny bit more flour. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap, and chill 1 to 2 hours before rolling it out. When you are ready to make your cookies, position your oven racks so one is in the center, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
To roll out your dough, clear a large, flat surface and dust it with a generous amount of flour. Cut the dough ball into quarters. Starting with one chunk of the dough, roll it into a ball and set it in the center of your work area. Dust your rolling pin with flour and set it on top of the dough. Gently press on the pin and begin rolling out the dough to ¼-inch thick, working from the center out toward the edges, and dusting more flour over your work surface, your dough and your pin whenever the dough gets too sticky.
The goal when cutting the dough with your cookies cutters is to get the most cookies out of each sheet of rolled-out dough. So cut your cookies as close to one another as you can, like pieces of a puzzle.
Gently lift the cut dough onto your prepared baking sheet with a metal spatula. Arrange same-size cookies on the same baking sheet, so that they require the same amount of baking time, leaving a 1-inch space between the cookies.
Place the baking sheet on the center rack of the oven, and bake cookies until the edges are a very light golden-brown, 10 to 12 minutes for 2- to 3-inch cookies (baking time will vary significantly depending on the size you cut the cookies).
You do not want the entire cookie golden brown. The cookies will crisp up when they cool, but they’ll be hard if you overbake them. A couple of minutes of baking time can mean the difference between an undercooked, too-soft sugar cookie and a perfectly crisp, sweet, buttery-tasting one.
Lift it up; if the underside is light golden-brown, the cookies are done. If it’s almost as pale as raw dough, they need more time.
Remove the baking sheet from the oven and place it on a wire rack to let the cookies cool slightly.
Lift the baking sheet off the rack and slide the parchment paper off the baking sheet and onto the rack, being careful not to break the cookies.
Let the cookies cool completely before icing them or sprinkling them with sugar.
Yield: 4 dozen cookies
Glaze for Holiday Cookies
From America’s Test Kitchen
Catherine Shipley doctors this recipe with additional powdered sugar until it reaches the consistency she’s after. She also adds almond or vanilla extract, to taste.
“And, I add a tiny bit of blue food coloring to get a very light blue icing,” she said.
Shipley drizzles on the icing, then sprinkles the cookies with white snowflake sprinkles and/or sparkling sugar and/or silver dragees.
3 tablespoons whole milk
1 tablespoon cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
Whisk 2 tablespoons of the milk and the cream cheese together until smooth.
Add the sugar and whisk until smooth, adding the remaining milk as needed until the glaze is the desired consistency.
Grandma Frost’s Rice Flour Shortbread
From Catherine Shipley
1 cup butter
2 cups pastry flour
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons rice flour
Beat butter with spoon until very creamy. Add flour and work in well.
Add mixed sugar and rice flour. Roll on board to 1/4-inch thickness and cut shapes.
Bake at 275 degrees until golden brown, about 40-50 minutes.
“The Nutcracker,” presented by the Spokane Symphony and the State Street Ballet, runs Thursday through Sunday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.Visit www.spokanesymphony.org or call (509) 624-1200 for tickets or more information.
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