Cook This: Three recipes from A Very Prairie Christmas Bakebook

Make Karlynn Johnston’s khrustyky (Ukrainian angel wing cookies), puffed wheat squares and homemade peppermint patties

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Our cookbook of the week is A Very Prairie Christmas Bakebook by Karlynn Johnston.

Jump to the recipes: khrustyky (Ukrainian angel wing cookies), puffed wheat squares and homemade peppermint patties.

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The day after Remembrance Day, Karlynn Johnston transforms her Edmonton home into a winter wonderland decked with vintage blow mould decorations and no fewer than three faux Christmas trees (two of which are aluminum models from the 1960s). This year, the festivities started even earlier to coincide with the launch of her third cookbook, A Very Prairie Christmas Bakebook (Appetite by Random House, 2023). It’s been “full Christmas” since Nov. 1.

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“This is the book I’ve always wanted to write,” says the author and creator of The Kitchen Magpie website. “I love Christmas.”

Johnston opens A Very Prairie Christmas Bakebook with four of her family’s favourite festive Ukrainian traditions: kutia, a sweet wheat berry porridge; Saskatoon berry dessert perogies; pampushky, prune-filled yeasted doughnuts; and khrustyky, deep-fried angel wing cookies. She follows these Ukrainian treats with two chapters of cookies (shortbread and sugar cookies, gingerbread and filled cookies), candies, confections, dainties, bars and slices, cakes, dessert salads and puddings, icings, frostings, sauces and garnishes, cocktails and punches.

Long a collector of blow moulds (hollow plastic light-up figurines, large and small), Johnston bought her first vintage tree in 2016 to celebrate her cookbook debut, Flapper Pie and a Blue Prairie Sky. “Then I needed the vintage ornaments,” she says with a laugh. “It just spiralled. That’s why my nickname is ‘Magpie’. I like sparkly things — I come by it honestly.”

She found almost every decoration pictured in A Very Prairie Christmas Bakebook at a garage sale or thrift store — and her penchant for vintage doesn’t just apply to decor. As with Flapper Pie and a Blue Prairie Sky and her 2019 follow-up, The Prairie Table, many of the book’s more than 120 recipes look to the past.

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A Very Prairie Christmas Bakebook by Karlynn Johnston
A Very Prairie Christmas Bakebook is Edmonton-based author Karlynn Johnston’s third book. Photo by Appetite by Random House

Some she had forgotten, such as peanut butterscotch cereal clusters, which she loved as a child and remembered while writing the book. “There’s something so perfect about them.” Others are family recipes she considers mandatory for her celebrations.

When they were little, Johnston’s kids left out whipped shortbread for Santa, which always reminded her of her grandmother Marion, who made the pressed cookies every year. Firmly in the fruitcake-lover’s camp, Johnston features her late grandma’s light version, which her mom took to holiday farmers’ markets (selling out every time) and her late Aunt Darlene’s dark whisky-spiked rendition.

“Recipes really do bring you together with all the people who are here and who aren’t here with us anymore. And you always end up talking about them, too. You always end up talking about the people you used to bake things with, which brings back good memories. And it’s more-so baking than meals and dinners, I find, too — other than perogies. That’s an exception.”

Johnston is drawn to the simplicity of old-fashioned recipes. The ingredients are readily available, and the steps are often straightforward. Even young kids can help make many of the recipes in the book. “Christmas is not a time to complicate things because everyone’s so busy. You don’t need a 30-ingredient cake. You need something simple and pretty that you’ll enjoy making and not be stressed with all the million events that especially parents have to go to during the holidays.”

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Christmas can be a busy time of year, but Johnston believes it should be an opportunity to relax, connect, bake and share homemade goodies with others. To that end, the book includes Christmas cookie exchange tips to help people host their own.

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Though she’s a fan of all things vintage, Johnston highlights some newer additions to the home baker’s repertoire as well, such as peppermint bark, which Williams-Sonoma popularized in 1998, and the homemade peppermint patties her sister Karami makes year-round to keep in the freezer. The recipe is Johnston’s homage to Neilson’s Pep, which she hopes someone will resurrect. “The chocolate bar I miss the most is a Pep,” she says. “I craved them when I was pregnant with both of my kids. And my sister and I are both crazy about peppermint patties.”

As the titles of all three of Johnston’s books make clear, the Prairies have greatly influenced her baking and cooking. She’s happy to see her home region getting more attention with the recent release of books such as Dan Clapson and Twyla Campbell’s Prairie (Appetite by Random House, 2023).

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“Our seasons come into play so much when it comes to the way we cook. And that’s not even just the ingredients. It’s the weather. It sometimes feels like we have cold weather for eight or nine months of the year, so we have more time to bake and settle in. Christmas is right in the middle of some of our coldest weather. So being indoors also gives us more time to make these recipes.”

Puffed wheat squares are a Prairie classic. Johnston featured her version and Karami’s for “the ultimate battle of the sisters.” Karami’s calls for instant coffee, which gives her squares a darker colour and toasty flavour. Johnston’s are chewier and sweeter, with a sliding scale of mini marshmallows (“1 cup = chewy, 2 cups = even chewier”).

“I think it’s just funny to have a baking battle with my sister,” says Johnston, laughing. “But don’t tell me if you choose hers.”

KHRUSTYKY

Khrustyky (Ukrainian angel wing cookies)
“Across different Eastern European cultures, the word ‘khrustyky’ takes on various spellings, but these cookies are also commonly known as angel wings,” Karlynn Johnston writes of one of her family’s Ukrainian Christmas favourites. Photo by Karlynn Johnston

Makes: 4 dozen cookies
Prep time: 40 minutes | Total time: 1 hour

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
6 egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 cups canola oil, for frying
1 cup icing sugar, for dusting

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Step 1

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Set aside.

Step 2

In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, beat the egg yolks on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the granulated sugar, beating constantly until the mixture is light and fluffy. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the sour cream and vanilla until fully incorporated.

Step 3

Replace the mixer’s paddle attachment or beaters with the dough hook. Add the flour mixture and knead on medium speed or by hand for about 5 minutes or until the dough no longer sticks to your fingers when you pull it off the hook.

Step 4

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough until extremely thin. The thinner the dough, the lighter and crispier the cookies will be. Cut the dough into strips that are 4 to 5 inches long and 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide.

Step 5

To make a loop or bow, cut a lengthwise 1-inch (2.5-cm) slit in the centre of a dough strip. Thread one end through the hole, gently pulling it through until the dough has twisted into a bowtie shape. (This takes practice.) Repeat with the remaining dough strips.

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Step 6

In a deep fryer or a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the oil until it reaches 360F on an instant-read thermometer. Line two large baking sheets with paper towels.

Step 7

Using a slotted spoon, place 1 cookie at a time in the oil, in batches of 5 or 6. Fry for 30 to 45 seconds, turning once to brown both sides. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet to drain. Repeat until you have fried all the cookies.

Step 8

While the cookies are still hot, dust the cookies with the icing sugar, using a sifter or sieve. Store in an airtight container in layers, with parchment or waxed paper between each layer, at room temperature for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

BATTLE OF THE PUFFED WHEAT SQUARES

Puffed wheat squares
“When it comes to this Canadian Prairie classic, it’s the ultimate battle of the sisters,” Karlynn Johnston writes of puffed wheat squares. Try her version, right, and her sister, Karami’s, and choose your favourite. Photo by Karlynn Johnston

Makes: 20 squares
Prep time: 10 minutes | Total time: 10 minutes plus setting

KARAMI’S PUFFED WHEAT SQUARES

1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup salted butter
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp instant coffee granules
8 cups puffed wheat cereal

Step 1

Butter a 13×9-inch pan.

Step 2

In a medium saucepan, combine the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, cocoa, vanilla and coffee. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Stop stirring and boil for 30 seconds.

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Step 3

Place the cereal in a very large bowl. Pour in the sugar mixture and stir until the cereal is coated.

Step 4

Press the cereal mixture firmly into the prepared pan. Let stand for 30 minutes at room temperature, then slice into 20 squares.

Step 5

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days. Do not refrigerate. These will go rock hard after freezing, so it’s best just to eat the whole panful within the 5 days and skip the freezer.

KARLYNN’S PUFFED WHEAT SQUARES

1/2 cup salted butter
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
6 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1-2 cups mini marshmallows (1 cup = chewy, 2 cups = even chewier)
1 tsp vanilla extract
10 cups puffed wheat cereal

Step 1

Butter a 13-×9-inch pan.

Step 2

In a medium saucepan, combine the butter, corn syrup, granulated sugar, brown sugar and cocoa. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Stop stirring and boil for 1 minute.

Step 3

Remove from the heat and stir in the marshmallows all at once, followed by the vanilla, stirring until the marshmallows are melted in completely.

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Step 4

Place the cereal in a very large bowl. Pour in the marshmallow mixture and stir until the cereal is coated.

Step 5

Press the cereal mixture firmly into the prepared pan. Let stand for 30 minutes at room temperature, then slice into 20 squares.

Step 6

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days. Do not refrigerate. These will go rock hard after freezing, so it’s best just to eat the whole panful within the 5 days and skip the freezer.

HOMEMADE PEPPERMINT PATTIES

Homemade peppermint patties
“Although they’re a little fiddly to make, nothing beats homemade peppermint patties when it comes to Christmastime treat-making (bonus: no baking needed)!” writes Karlynn Johnston. Photo by Karlynn Johnston

Makes: 6 dozen patties
Prep time: 30 minutes | Total time: 30 minutes plus chilling

1-inch (2.5-cm) round cookie cutter

1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup evaporated milk
4 tbsp salted butter, softened, divided
1 tsp peppermint extract
5-6 cups sifted icing sugar, plus extra for sprinkling (see tip)
16 oz (454 g) semisweet baking chocolate, coarsely chopped
Crushed candy canes or Christmas sprinkles, for topping (optional)

Step 1

In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, beat the corn syrup, milk, 2 tablespoons of the butter and the peppermint extract on low speed until combined. With the mixer on low speed, add the icing sugar, 1 cup at a time, adding just enough to form a stiff dough.

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Step 2

Divide the dough in half and shape each into a disk. Wrap each disk tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Step 3

Line two large baking sheets with parchment or waxed paper.

Step 4

Sprinkle icing sugar onto your work surface. Unwrap 1 disk and place on the work surface (keeping the second disk in the fridge). Sprinkle icing sugar over top, then roll out the dough to 1/4-inch (6-mm) thickness. Using the cookie cutter, cut into circles. Place on a prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough. Place the baking sheets in the freezer for 1 hour.

Step 5

Place the chocolate and the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a large microwave-safe glass measuring cup. Microwave in 20-second increments, stirring after each, until the chocolate has almost completely melted (a few lumps are OK). Stir until fully melted, combined and smooth.

Step 6

Place each frozen patty flat on a fork (do not pierce) and dip into the melted chocolate, coating completely. Let the excess drip off, then return to the baking sheet. Work quickly before the dough dissolves! Immediately sprinkle with crushed candy canes or sprinkles (if using). Repeat with the patties on the second sheet. Refrigerate for 20 minutes or until the chocolate has set.

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Step 7

Store in an airtight container in layers, with parchment or waxed paper between each layer, in the fridge for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Baking tip: The amount of icing sugar required will vary depending on the humidity, the butter used … those kinds of things. Simply add enough to get a stiff dough that can be rolled out after chilling.

Recipes and images excerpted from A Very Prairie Christmas Bakebook by Karlynn Johnston. Copyright ©2023 Karlynn Johnston. Photographs by Karlynn Johnston. Additional photography by Luminarie Creative. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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