The last few years, the whole cooking-baking thing has gotten away from me entirely. Too much to do, too many obligations, too many parties to attend, too many cards to write, too much work to plow through in shortened weeks, too much dog hair to vacuum. too much sleep I'm not getting. The notion of making cookies at Christmas just kind of... crumbled. Which is a bummer because they're cute and they're fun and you can give them to people and it totally makes their day. Who doesn't like getting a cool tin full of buttery, sugary treats? Well, heck, I do.
But this year is kind of an odd one for us. My husband's mom passed away last month, so the normal way we go about things has been understanadably altered. Lola (the nickname she was called by those her knew her well) loved Christmas--the tree, the grandkids, the seven fish on Christmas Eve, the homemade manicotti on Christmas day, the presents, the lights, the whole shebang. Not to bring you all down, but we're a little sad this year because we're missing her very much. Without her, we're being a little more low-key than usual. Accepting less invitations, spending more time as a family, opting for quiet nights watching old Christmas movies and writing out a few cards instead of driving ourselves nuts in all the holiday hoopla. And I can't say we're not appreciating this -- the act of slowing down. It's like a little gift from Lola, reminding us to just relax and be good to each other.
The idea of baking cookies -- and the actual act of baking cookies this year -- is actually something that I not only find myself with a little extra time for, but I'm filled with the urge for an edible mitvah (hey, look, this holiday is already so jumbled with the secular and nonsecular, I can throw a little Yiddish in there if I want) to give out to people I know, and maybe some I don't. So I'm baking. I'm up to three kinds right now, and then I'm just going to see how I feel about it. If I wake up tomorrow with a burning desire to make chocolate-peppermint crinkles or pignoli or sprinkle-laden sugar cookies, then by gum, I'm just gonna go with it.
Right now, I've cooked my first gingerbread in, wow, 20 years from the new
The Gourmet Cookie Book, and they turned out great: a little crispy, but with just the right amount of toothsome-sinkability that I like so I can really savor all the crazy, gingery spice and molasses in them. Before that, I indulged my inner Betty C. making spumoni cookies for the first time ever, which are--ohmuhgosh--awesome! The red, spiral-bound
Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook (1950 Classic Edition) I have was a gift from my mom (when my three older sisters and I were old enough, mom would give us 1) a Le Crueset and 2) a Betty Crocker Cookbook), and although I know Betty isn't the sexiest of cookbooks and mine, circa 1986, has got some doozy recipes in it, it's also got some great stuff, too. My tri-color spumoni have one layer of pistachio, one layer of chocolate, and one layer filled with dried Chuka cherries. I might not use the dried cherries next time, but they're good enough for now and the cookies really are pretty darned great.
The final cookie is my Must cookie. The one, if I'm only making one thing, I will make almost always, even if just for Dan and me. When I was a kid, I had two best friends -- Jennifer and Debbie. We were thick as thieves (and they're still my girls today -- shout out to the Shelter Islanders!). Jennifer's mom was, and still is, an amazing cook. Originally from Canarsie, Brooklyn, Angela's kitchen was always filled with the most amazing aromas and I would more often than not find an excuse to ride my bike over there to sit on a stool near her stove and watch her whip up one of her Italian-minded specialities. Around Christmas, she'd always make an abundance of cookies, but the one I couldn't resist was a little almond and vanilla tinged treat, rolled in nuts, with a thumb-print indentation in the middle filled with raspberry jelly. The texture and the flavors were perfect--soft cookie, crunchy nuts, sweet ooze of preserves. I think they're came a point when Angela began making a dozen or so extra just because she knew her daughter's friend was inevitably on her way over to hoover them all. What can I say? They're really good.
So I'm mixing and rolling and baking, gently lifting golden pieces of cooked dough from well-used cookie sheets and sliding them onto plates to cool. Packing them up in pretty tins and handing them out. And you know what? It feels pretty great. It's not an ordeal this year. Or an obligation. Just a sweet task that you really only get the opportunity to do once a year.
Gingerbread Men a la Gourmet
(makes eight 6-inch cookies)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 scant TBSP cinnamon
1 tsp ground clove
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup molasses
1/2 cup butter
1 beaten egg
1/4 tsp allspice
Into a bowl, sift the flour. Add the baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, clove, ginger, and salt. Sift the mixture. In another bowl, combine the brown sugar, molasses, butter, egg, and allspice, and mix together well. Stir the brown-sugar mixture into the dry mixture and knead untilall the flour has been worked in.
Divide the dough and roll it, half at a time, into a sheet 1/3 inch thick. Cut the gingerbread men with a floured cutter. Transfer the forms to a buttered cutting baking sheet and use pieces of seedless raisin and candied fruits or nuts to make the eyes, nose, and mouth. Bake the gingerbread men in a moderately hot oven (375 degrees F) for 12 minutes or until they are lightly browned.