Merry Cookiemas!

I asked my kids if it would be okay if I didn’t do a bunch of cookie baking this Christmas. They were horrified.

“But Mom! It wouldn’t be Christmas without your cookies!”

Naturally, I couldn’t bear to ruin their Christmas. So, as usual, I spent day after day wrapped in an apron, measuring, mixing, shaping, and baking. Then a few more days melting, dipping, drizzling, and sprinkling. And voila! Christmas = made. This year’s cookie menu? The usual iced sugar cookies, some maple-glazed pumpkin cookies, cranberry-orange-white chocolate cookies (the trick is to use fresh cranberries, not dried); chocolate mint-chip cookies, peppermint cookies & cream balls, and as always, the Best Cookie Ever – alfajores. Which, in case you don’t know, are an Argentine specialty consisting of two complex shortbread cookies sandwiched together with sweet dulce de leche, then coated in powdered sugar. *Drool*

The Christmas baking is both my favorite and least favorite baking of the year. Least favorite, because it is soooo time-consuming. Not to mention messy. And exhausting. These are not the easiest cookies to prepare – especially the four-step alfajores. But also my favorite, because I adore giving away my cookies. They are delicious. And festive. Bite after bite of sweet, chewy, homemade Christmas Spirit.

I do wish that I had a few good friends to share my Christmas cookies with. Years ago, I had a fun tradition of leaving containers of cookies on my friends’ doorsteps on Christmas Eve. Of course, they always knew who had delivered them, but it was still fun, in a magical St. Nick sort of way. I miss that, a lot. Instead, I will bring these babies to the office, to share with a couple dozen coworkers who probably still don’t even know my name. And I will distribute some to family members, who rarely acknowledge my existence, but will enjoy the treats anyway. But best of all, I get to share them with my kids, as we enjoy these Christmas days together. And hopefully, one day, they will take on the tradition in their own kitchens.

Cake Intolerant (aka: Mother Nature is a Comedienne)

Snow White CakeI’ve finally come to accept the old adage, You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Yes, I know, this saying wasn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s supposed to mean that you can’t have two things that you desire if having one will cancel out the other. However, in my case, I literally can’t have my cake and eat it, too.

I used to love cake. When I was a kid, it was my favorite dessert. Spongy, angel-white birthday cake with creamy whipped icing. Thick, sweet slices of soft, butter-yellow cake topped with thick, gooey chocolate frosting – aahhhh! Cake was something to look forward to. Better than ice cream. Better than anything.

But then, Mother Nature decided to play a little joke. I can picture her now, hunched over in a grove of trees in a forest somewhere, rubbing her wicked hands together. “I know,” she says, her eyes flashing with mischief. “I’ll curse Tiare’s body and make her unable to enjoy this delectable treat.” There is a flash of lightning, and Boom! The curse is set.

Around a decade ago, I learned that cake had become my enemy. You know how some people are lactose intolerant? Well, apparently, I am now cake intolerant. Wait a minute, you say. That is so not a thing! There’s no such thing as cake intolerance. Anyone can enjoy a slice of cake. Surely, there is a pill, or a psychological treatment, or an alternative recipe that will allow you to eat cake like everyone else.

First of all, alternative cake recipes are just…grody. If it isn’t made with butter, sugar, flour with actual gluten, and fresh eggs, well then, I am not interested. Second of all, there is no cure, because cake intolerance is not a real disease. I am not allergic to anything in the cake – just the cake itself.

Sadly, my sweet tooth has not fully caught up with my inability to eat this dessert. For example, I decided to bake a carrot cake for my kids and me to eat after Easter dinner. It turned out perfectly – brown sugar-sweet, filled with pecans and cinnamon, spread with a smooth, thick cream-cheese frosting. Just the aroma alone was enough to make my mouth water. I didn’t go crazy – only helped myself to one delicious slice after a small dinner.

Mistake. Big mistake. My poor stomach gave quite a protest in the middle of the night, as though yelling, “Stupid, stupid, stupid – remember Mother Nature? You can’t eat cake, idiot!”

Me after eating cake

So the next day, I decided to eat another slice. Because hey – there’s no such thing as cake intolerance, right? Surely it was just a fluke. Plus, that cake was just soooo good. Stomachache amnesia fogged my memories as I happily indulged in that second slice. But then…

Trust me, you do not want the gory details. Let’s just say that Montezuma himself couldn’t have plotted a more vicious revenge.

rich chocolate cakeI’m done. No more cake. No carrot, no old-fashioned butter yellow, no birthday white, no angel’s or devil’s food. No cake. You win, Mother Nature, you win. I will return to the days of baking lovely, homemade cakes for everyone else while never eating a single bite. I concede.

And somewhere in her forest grove, Mother Nature cackles with glee. “That was too easy,” she says. “You might even say…that was a piece of cake.”

The Bread of Life (aka: The Joy of Baking Bread)

So here I was, baking fresh sweet rolls to go with dinner, and totally thinking about writing something profound and creative about the way yeast causes bread dough to rise could be a metaphor for life. But instead, I was overwhelmed with hunger pangs as the smell of baking bread began to drift throughout the house. So if this post is a little lacking in depth, well, blame it on the bread. 😉

Bad Bad Baking Bread

Okay, I’ll admit it. I cheat. I’m a big cheatery-cheater-head. I use a bread machine.

I know — shocking. Right about now, all the purists out there are judging me, because surely homemade food should be prepared without relying on modern aids and shortcuts. Well, I don’t care. My trusty bread machine has been faithfully helping my dough to rise since 1997, and I am not ashamed.

Baking Bread

I adore baking bread. Hot, buttery rolls; flaky croissants, and crusty French baguettes. Challah bread beside a bowl of winter stew, and sweet, spicy Finnish Pulla bread with Christmas dinner every year. I can think of no baked item quite as special as fresh, home-baked bread. Now you can talk science all you want, but to me, there is something almost magical about the process, and the way a plain, gooey blob of dough undergoes a metamorphosis, growing, rising, and changing during each step.

Christmas bread

After I have punched, pushed, and twisted the dough into submission, it at last goes into the oven to bake. And then comes my favorite part — the aroma. That delicious, mouth-watering aroma of fresh bread baking. That amazing fragrance that fills the kitchen and wafts into every corner of your home, until at last, you are so overwhelmed with hunger, that you rush to pull those shining, golden-brown loaves from the oven. In your mad impatience, you tear into the hot crust to expose the soft, white interior. Although it is still steaming, you pop your first bite of fresh bread into your mouth.

You burn your tongue of course. But it is worth it. It is always worth the burn to get that first taste of bread while it is still piping hot and perfect. Just as I am going to do right now.

 

 

My Favorite Challah Recipe (Makes 2 Loaves)

Challah bread recipe

2 (.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast

6 cups bread flour

5 eggs

1 cup warm water (110 degrees)

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon salt

Instructions (without bread machine):

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add 4 of the eggs and beat well. Mix in oil, sugar, and salt. Beat in flour to make a firm dough. (You may not need at 6 cups). Turn out onto floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic (between 5-10 minutes should do it). Place dough in greased bowl and turn once. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place 1 hr. or until double in size.

Punch down dough and turn onto floured surface. Divide into two portions (each will make a loaf). Divide each portion into three. Roll each section into a rope of around 15 in. Place the three ropes side by side and braid, then pinch the ends together to seal and tuck them under the loaf. Places braided loaves on greased baking sheets, cover, and let rise 1 hr.

Beat together last egg with 1 Tbsp. cold water. Use pastry brush to paint loaves with egg mixture. Sprinkle on poppy seeds or sesame seeds, if desired. Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes. Remove and cool before eating. (Or not).

(Note: There’s more than one way to braid a challah. Try braiding all six ropes together, like in this recipe: http://www.chow.com/recipes/29091-challah )

Busy Hands (aka: Old-Fashioned, Homemade Christmas)

My hands tend to be very busy this time of year. The closer the calendar creeps toward Christmas, the more my hands are in motion — wrapping, measuring, mixing, quilting, embroidering, cutting, stitching, tying, icing, writing, beading, and stamping. A part of me would love to see a return of the homemade Christmas, in which the gift exchanges rely less on department stores and more on the time-honored tradition of handcrafting. Of course, my kids would be crushed if I were to give them hand-made toys in place of the electronic games they love so much. Also, this year, my boys are really hoping that Santa will bring them pet rats, and I can’t exactly make those by hand. (Rat treats, maybe?)

A quilt I am making

A long time ago, when I actually belonged to a social circle, my hands stayed even busier this time of year. I participated in cookie exchange parties and homemade ornament exchange parties. I hand-stamped, embossed, and glittered dozens of exquisite holiday greeting cards. I gave gifts of home-baked goodies, unique soaps, hand-beaded jewelry, and scrapbooks of memories, even a rare quilt or two, all of which I spent hours, days, even months preparing. It takes a lot to create a gift for another person. But to me, it means so much more to give a gift which comes – not from a store shelf or factory, but from my heart and hands. My Homemade Gift Tags

This year, my hands are much less busy. Not because I have lost the desire to create and give homemade gifts, but because I have fewer people in my life. However, I did manage to make some gorgeous gift tags to tie on packages, and at the moment, I am attempting to make a rather complicated friendship bracelet (which I suppose I will give to my 12yo daughter). And, as always, I am passing the days of December in a puff of flour and a dusting of sugar, singing Christmas carols as I mix, shape, and bake dozens upon dozens of special homemade Christmas cookies, to give away to family and — well, mostly strangers. The house is filled with the aroma of cinnamon, cardamom, and vanilla (not to mention the pungent fragrance of fir tree) — the traditional, homemade aroma which, to my children and me, carries the hope and promise of the arrival of Christmas Day.

homemade treats Xmas

 

 

 

Christmas Cookies, Cookies, Cookies (etc.)

Do not…I repeat, do NOT peek into my kitchen right now. It is not just a mess, but a catastrophe. It is as though a bomb made of flour, powdered sugar, nuts, chocolate, cinnamon, dough, and sprinkles has exploded, plastering every possible pan, bowl, and surface.

That is Christmas Eve in my kitchen.

Every December, I take great pleasure in poring over cookie recipes, then spending hours measuring, mixing, and dipping to create dozens of delicious treats. Sometimes I even let the kids help. This year, as always, I baked a few dozen sugar cookies, which I will soon paint with sugary vanilla-almond icing. I have tried a number of recipes for sugar cookies, and here is the one which has always turned out beautifully.

I also made an annual family favorite, Chocolate-Peanut Butter Pinwheel Cookies, dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with crushed walnuts. Sorry…this recipe is top secret. 😉 Okay, fine…the truth is, I got it from a cooking magazine ten years ago, and it is nowhere online. At least, not my version.

I also made Ranger Cookies, and a new recipe, which will perhaps become the next huge family favorite–a cookie from Argentina, called Alfajores. They are a crisp, buttery, vanilla-almond-lemon cookie, sandwiched together with dulce de leche. Can I just say…yum?

A delicious Dulce-de-leche sandwich cookie from Argentina.

Oh, and I just had to try one fully dipped in chocolate, as the Argentines like it. They looked like this:

Every chocolate lover must try this cookie, if only once in a lifetime.

And the taste? Omgcookieheavenomg! I don’t think I will try that again. The very idea of how many calories I just devoured makes my stomach feel a little queasy. Or maybe that is from all the cookie dough I nibbled today.

Finally, I made fresh Pulla Bread, a sweet Finnish Christmas bread flavored with cardamom; and vanilla nut fudge, which is my favorite fudge in the world.

Mmmm...vanilla fudge!

This year’s came out a little grainy instead of creamy and smooth, but that is the risk of fudge-making. The kids don’t seem to mind. They don’t mind the disaster in the kitchen, either. We will all happily ignore it, munching dozens of delicious Christmas cookies together for the next 24 hours or so. Then I will enjoy a nice cup of chai while my kids wash the dishes. (But don’t tell them that part…I don’t want to ruin their Christmas!)