BY EMMA SLONINA, Staff Columnist

As the holiday season quickly approaches, everyone is looking for cookies to exchange, treats to give as gifts, and desserts to bring to all of those holiday parties. Whether you’re looking to buy something on the fly, or need a handful of good recipes to use throughout the season and the rest of the year, I’ve had huge successes with these favorite picks of mine.

They are suited to all skill levels (and budgets), fit for every need. Enjoy your holiday treats!

Spending money? Check these out:

Astoria Bakery – Anything from Astoria is fantastic. I’m completely hung up on the chocolate cannoli and can’t resist getting it every time I go, but I have sampled many of their sweets and pastries (my friends understand that they need to share so I can do “research”…).

Their chocolate strawberries are particularly good, though I foolishly thought they’d be a good movie snack on a recent trip to the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak…they are extremely juicy, so perhaps a stack of napkins to go with them would be a good idea.

Cherry Republic – Tasty gifts perfect for the cherry fanatic. Made in Michigan, they’re perfect for the “locally-made” fanatic as well. They sell a variety of cherry products, both savory and sweet. Salsas, sauces, dried cherries, chocolate-covered cherries, trail mixes, pastries – you name it, they have it. My favorite, of course, is a big bag of chocolate-covered cherries for just the right combination of tart and sweet.

Just Baked Cupcakes – A local favorite, located in several different cities across the metro Detroit area. Make sure you go early to get them fresh; the frosting is much better when you buy your cupcakes early in the morning rather than at the end of the day. They have daily specials and quirky flavors, in keeping with the current cupcake craze.

In addition to their bakeries, they also distribute their special Faygo cupcakes through local grocery stores like Hiller’s. It’s the perfect match – Faygo started out as a bakery but started making pop using their icing flavorings. Coming full circle, Just Baked has put the flavors back into the cakes. Delicious!

Agar fruit jellies – A specialty gift for the adventurous eater or Japanophile in your life. Made with the gelling agent, agar-agar, these jellies are like nothing you’ve ever tasted. They’re wrapped in rice paper and then plastic, slightly confusing me the first time I tried them. Trying to peel the rice paper off the jellies is a herculean task.

When I realized that you eat them with the rice paper on them, they were much more enjoyable. Imagine a much more solid Jell-o and you’re getting close to their interesting texture.

You can find them at specialty Japanese stores, like One World Market in Novi or Koyama Shoten in Livonia.

Spending time? Check these out:

These recipes take a little patience, but really pay off.

Peanut Butter Cup & Banana Tartlets
Ingredients:

  • 2 bananas, sliced
  • 1 large package mini Reese’s peanut butter cups
  • Package of frozen filo dough
  • Melted butter

Directions:
Grease a mini muffin tin and preheat the oven according to the directions on the filo dough box.
Slice banana, unwrap Reese’s cups, and prepare eight layers of filo dough by buttering and layering the sheets.
Cut circular pieces out of the prepared filo using a drinking glass.
Tuck the circles into the muffin tin cups, folding the edges so they lay flat against the tin walls.
Place a banana slice, peanut butter cup, and another banana slice into each cup.
Bake until the filo is crisp and golden brown and the banana is slightly caramelized.

White Chocolate Truffles
Ingredients (for 3 dozen):

  • 8 oz of high-quality white chocolate
  • ¼ cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 4 oz high-quality melted dark or milk chocolate (for drizzling)

Directions:
Melt white chocolate with the heavy cream and vanilla extract in a double boiler (place a large bowl on the top of a pot of boiling water, so the bowl doesn’t fall in and you don’t burn the chocolate).

Place the melted chocolate in the fridge until it chills to the consistency of modeling clay.
In the meantime, melt the milk or dark chocolate and place it in a sandwich bag with the corner cut off or a piping bag with a small tip. Careful – it will be hot.

Form your truffles into bite-size rounds, then drizzle the melted chocolate over them in the desired pattern. Thin, consistent lines look best.