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Jazz up your holiday table with ease and elegance

Cranberry Snowballs. David Samson / Forum News Service1 / 3
Pine Cut Cheese Crisps. David Samson / Forum News Service2 / 3
The cheese stacks are transformed into a crispy party snack after 8-10 minutes in the oven. David Samson / Forum News Service3 / 3

FARGO — We love holiday entertaining, but can often find ourselves overwhelmed amidst all of the hustle and bustle that accompanies this merry season. In times like this, it's good to have a couple of tricks up your culinary sleeve that are simple and easy to make and big on holiday appeal. This week's Cranberry Snowballs and Savory Cheese Crisps hit both marks and will dazzle your guests with their bold flavors and holiday flair.

Fresh cranberries are only available at this time of year, and I love finding new ways to showcase them throughout the season. With their gorgeous ruby red color and whimsical appearance, these cranberry snowballs are both charming and delicious. They take very little time to prepare and can be served alone or as a garnish for cocktails, cakes, ice cream and even cheese platters.

The berries are soaked overnight in maple syrup, which infuses them with sweetness and mellows their sharp tartness. Once drained, the cranberries are tossed in sugar until evenly coated so that they appear to be snow-frosted. You can use regular granulated sugar for this step, but I find that using superfine sugar makes them extra sparkly, and you can make it yourself by blitzing the sugar for 30 seconds in a food processor.

Once frosted, I let the berries sit at room temperature until the sugar coating crystallizes into a hard shell. The cranberries will stay hardened for at least 24 hours before their natural juices start to seep out, and should be stored at room temperature on an open, or lightly covered, baking sheet, for best results.

For something on the salty side, we are always delighted by the response we receive whenever we serve our savory cheese crisps. Featuring just three ingredients — asiago cheese, pine nuts and fresh sage — these thin, elegant crackers boast an impressive punch of flavor and are so simple to make.

We've chosen asiago cheese for this recipe because we love its tangy saltiness and nutty flavor, but nearly any hard cheese will work. In a pinch, I've used pre-shredded asiago cheese with great results so feel free to do the same.

Sage has a wonderfully warm and fragrant profile that complements the sharpness of the asiago, and fresh thyme or basil would also work well. Pine nuts bring a hint of buttery richness to these crisps and provide a welcome contrast in texture. If chopped too finely, the pine nuts will burn as the crisps bake, so give the nuts just a few coarse chops before adding them to the crisps.

For the perfect start to your next holiday gathering, serve these cheese crisps with a glass of bubbly prosecco garnished with a cranberry snowball, and then bask in the glow of a great party.

Cranberry Snowballs

Makes: 2 cups

Ingredients

1 cup pure maple syrup

2 cups fresh cranberries

1 cup sugar, superfine for extra sparkle

Parchment paper

Optional flavor add-ins

2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest, add to the sugar

2 tablespoons orange liqueur, added to the syrup before cooking (for adults only)

Directions

Pour syrup into a medium saucepan and cook over medium-low heat for 2 minutes, just until bubbles start to form around the edges. If using orange liqueur for extra flavor, add it at the same time as the syrup.

Remove pan from heat and stir in cranberries. Cover pan and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, or overnight. Place a colander over a medium bowl and drain cranberries for 20 minutes; save the syrup for another use.

Meanwhile, place sugar in a shallow baking dish and shake until it is one, even layer. If using orange zest for extra flavor, toss with the sugar until evenly distributed.

In small batches (about 5 to 6 cranberries), gently toss berries in sugar until evenly coated. Use tongs or a fork to remove from sugar and place berries in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Let stand at room temperature until completely dry, at least one hour.

Store the sugar-coated cranberries at room temperature on an open or loosely covered baking sheet or dish, in single layers separated by parchment. Frosted berries will keep for at least 24 hours. For best results, do not refrigerate.

Serve cranberry snowballs alone or as garnish for desserts, ice cream, cheese platters and cocktails.

Savory Cheese Crisps

Makes: about 24 crackers

Ingredients

1 pound asiago cheese, shredded (pre-packaged from store works great)

½ cup pine nuts, coarsely chopped

¼ cup fresh sage, coarsely chopped (thyme or basil may be used as a substitute)

Freshly ground black pepper, optional

Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Working in batches of 6 crisps per sheet, place tablespoon-sized mounds of cheese on the baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between each crisp. Sprinkle the mounds with a generous pinch each of chopped pine nuts and sage, in that order. Top with a light dusting of freshly ground black pepper, if desired.

Bake at 425 degrees until the cheese is golden brown and the edges appear crispy, about 8 to 10 minutes. Repeat steps for each batch. If your oven becomes too hot after the first couple batches, adjust temperature to 400 degrees.

Use a spatula to quickly remove crisps from baking sheet and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. For a curved presentation, remove crisps from sheet and immediately curl gently around a rolling pin or cylinder. Store in airtight container for at least 2 to 3 days; for best results, use a metal/tin container.

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