12/09/2013 08:15 EST | Updated 02/08/2014 05:59 EST

Tuck sparkle cookies and homemade butterscotch sauce into gift baskets

Chef Michael Smith likes to tuck a few of his favourite creations into Christmas gift baskets presented to family and friends. Here are recipes for two treats that recipients look forward to each year — Sparkle Cookies and Butterscotch Sundae Sauce.

Sparkle Cookies

Every now and then you stumble onto a bit of perfection, Smith writes in his seventh cookbook, "Back to Basics."

"Years ago my buddy, renowned Vancouver pastry chef Thomas Haas, introduced me to these cookies. I promptly introduced them to everyone I know — they've been a staple in my holiday gift baskets ever since — and now I'm proudly telling the world: these are the best cookies I've ever baked. Thanks, Thomas, for sharing them!"

500 g (1 lb) bittersweet chocolate, chopped

125 ml (1/2 cup) butter, room temperature

5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract

5 ml (1 tsp) pure orange extract

4 eggs

250 ml (1 cup) sugar, plus more for rolling

500 ml (2 cups) ground almonds

30 ml (2 tbsp) cocoa powder

Set up a double boiler to melt chocolate while insulating it from direct, damaging heat by placing a large heatproof bowl over a smaller pot of barely simmering water. Place chocolate and butter in bowl and gently stir until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is smooth and shiny. Stir in vanilla and orange extracts, then remove bowl from over water.

Into a large bowl, toss eggs and sugar and beat with an electric mixer on the highest speed until sugar is smoothly dissolved and mixture thickens dramatically into smooth ribbons that fall from beater, no more than 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl, whisk together ground almonds and cocoa powder.

Pour egg mixture over chocolate mixture, then sprinkle with almond mixture. Fold together with a rubber spatula until everything is evenly combined. Cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled and firm, several hours or even overnight.

Heat oven to 160 C (325 F) and turn on convection fan if you have one. Line a baking sheet or two with parchment paper or a non-stick liner.

Pour a little sugar into a shallow dish. Scoop out tablespoonfuls of dough and roll them into 2.5-cm (1-inch) balls. Toss balls in sugar, evenly coating with sparkly bits. Arrange 2.5 cm (1 inch) apart on baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. They'll slump a bit and crisp on the outside, but the inside will stay delightfully fudgy. Transfer to racks to cool. As soon as they're cool enough to handle, cram a few in — strictly for quality-control purposes — then serve and share.

Makes about 60 cookies.

Source: "Back to Basics: 100 Simple Classic Recipes with a Twist" by Michael Smith (Penguin Books, 2013).


Butterscotch Sundae Sauce

This delicious homemade treat is a great way to elevate a simple dessert into something extra special when it's poured over vanilla ice cream.

250 ml (1 cup) water

250 ml (1 cup) sugar

125 ml (1/2 cup) butter, cut into small pieces

250 ml (1 cup) whipping cream

2 ml (1/2 tsp) vanilla

Into a saucepan over medium-high heat, pour water. Add sugar in a small, tight pile in the centre of the water. Don't stir! The water and sugar will quickly dissolve together and form simple syrup. Stirring would cause small bits of sugar to splash on the sides of the pot, where they can dry, fall back into the syrup, crystallize and turn the whole syrup gritty.

As the heat increases, the syrup will begin simmering and steaming and the water will gradually evaporate. Once the water's gone, the steam will die down, but the temperature will begin to rise past the boiling point of the water, leaving behind a pure melted sugar syrup. As the heat rises further, the syrup will eventually start to turn golden.

When you see the first hint of golden brown, begin gently swirling the pan, helping the caramel to colour evenly. When the caramel is deep golden brown — as brown as you dare — add butter and carefully whisk it in until sauce is smooth. The butter will quickly drop the sauce's temperature and prevent it from over-browning.

Add cream and vanilla and whisk until smooth. Pour into a jar and refrigerate until thickened. Serve over scoops of smooth, creamy vanilla ice cream with nuts, cherries, sprinkles or your favourite topping.

Butterscotch sauce will keep for weeks in the fridge.

Makes about 500 ml (2 cups).

Source: "Fast Flavours: 110 Simple Speedy Recipes" by Michael Smith (Penguin, 2012).