Monday, November 27, 2006

Christmas Cookies

This year we've decided not to make our usual number of Christmas cookies. We're going to make maybe three or four batches, and leave it at that. In years past we've made up to 150 dozen cookies to share with our friends, family and coworkers. Yes, we are insane. Between the day after Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas our breakfast used to consist of breakfast + a cookie or two. And we still had hundreds to give away.

The tradition was one my husband started years ago when he worked for a fairly small company. He didn't really like his coworkers that much, so he didn't care about attending the annual holiday party. But at the same time, he didn't want to look like the original bad elf. So he would say that he had something else he needed to do at that time (the party was always held right after work on a weekday) and leave a huge tray of cookies for everyone to enjoy.

The selection was pretty run of the mill--oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, chocolate chip. He'd also send a tin of these to his parents (his dad liked the oatmeal raisin, his mom liked the peanut butter and they'd serve the chocolate chip at holiday gatherings).

Then he married me, and things got really out of hand.

I joined in the annual cookie orgy, and with two of us cooking (and a larger kitchen and more storage space) we could make more varieties. We still stuck with the tried-and-trues as our “core” offering, but we added many, many others, choosing a couple of new recipes each year. There were the bar cookies my grandmother called "magic cookies" (no idea why). They're made with German chocolate cake mix, melted caramels, chocolate chips and walnuts. The recipe came out of a package of Kraft caramels, and Kraft refers to them as Favorite Caramel Chocolate Nut Bars (wonder how they thought of that name?). There were sugar cookies, lemon bars, Mexican wedding cakes and orange balls. The selection changed every year, and we'd spend hours choosing and then calculating how many pounds of this or packages of that we were going to need to make them all. On average we'd make at least four batches of each variety, and we'd each make at least four varieties.

One memorable year we had been to visit my family in the Pacific Northwest in the fall, and had bought a huge bag of unshelled hazelnuts. I found a recipe for raspberry bars with a hazelnut shortbread crust, and it seemed like a great idea. It was not. If there's anything more tedious, time consuming and downright dull than shelling 10 pounds of hazelnuts, I'm not sure what it is. The cookies were fantastic (they damned well better have been), but I swore never to make them again because of the work involved. And for those who suggest buying shelled hazelnuts instead, I would say that unless one comes into a significant inheritance, or wins the lottery, this is NOT an option.

One choice that proved to be very popular but sounded just downright weird when I decided to make it was a cookie made with ground up Werther's butterscotch candies. The cookies spread to an incredible degree, and they're not recommended for anyone with extensive dental work about which they actually care, but they're a nice addition to a holiday cookie platter. The candy melts into the cookie dough and makes a very crisp, melty, almost lacy cookie. Broken up it would probably make a fantastic ice cream topping (although if you undercook them they're too chewy to break up, so they'd have to be slightly overdone).

We dismissed such obvious choices as the peanut butter cookies with a Hershey's kiss jammed in the middle of it, or anything with broken up starlight mints. Anything that appeared in a holiday candy or butter ad was right out. They're the kind of thing that anyone can make. We go for the unusual or, in the case of "the usual," the particularly good version.

Truthfully, most of the recipes we use come from pretty mundane sources. But they're really good versions. The oatmeal raisin recipe comes from the canister of oats. The peanut butter recipe is from The Joy of Cooking. The bag of morsels supplies the chocolate chip recipe. We do have two or three cookbooks that have been a source of some good selections over the years. The Rombauers put out a "Joy of Christmas Cookies" that has some good ones in it, and Nancy Baggett's All-American Cookie Book has lots of interesting recipes, along with lots of background information on the history of different types of cookies.

Starting in mid-September we'd start buying non-perishable baking supplies when they were on sale. Flour, sugar (both brown and white), chocolate chips, caramels, peanut butter, raisins. Then starting after Halloween we'd start buying things like margarine and nuts on sale. We never used butter (see unshelled hazelnut comment above), and besides, margarine keeps almost indefinitely (probably because it's one molecule away from plastic--but it makes decent cookies). Then we'd start making dough and freezing it. Chocolate chip, oatmeal and peanut butter dough all freeze exceptionally well. Right after Thanksgiving we'd thaw the dough and start baking off cookies.

We were fortunate (in a strange way) to have a finished but unheated attic. The closed staircase got to a temperature that rivaled the refrigerator for keeping the cookies fresh for several weeks. We'd pack them in tins between layers of waxed paper and put them on the stairs. Every holiday season we'd acquire a few more tins, mostly from gifts sent to our offices. In the end we probably had 25 tins and every year they were all filled to capacity. We also used Ziplock bags for sturdy round cookies that could be packed in rows, like peanut butter.
About a week before Christmas, we'd load up enormous platters (the ones that most people use to hold their 22 pound turkeys) and take them into work. The cookies would stay for about two days, by which time they were almost always gone. There were even people who would email or call me because they weren't going to be in the office on "cookie platter day" and ask me to make them up separate small plates for when they got back. In fact, when I left my last job I got many very distressed emails because my last day was Halloween--no cookies. But, as I said, this year we've come to our senses and besides, we now have four children.

So this year we'll make a few batches for ourselves and our kids and whatever friends or family happen by during the holidays, but the cookie frenzy is over. And I think we'll enjoy our cookies even more without the pressure of having to make dozens and dozens against a deadline. Those cookies were part of what makes the holidays so hectic. Baking cookies should be fun, not mandatory. When things stop being fun, we should stop doing them. Making hundreds of cookies used to be fun, partly to share the pleasure with our friends, and in part to see the looks on people's faces when we walked into the office with those enormous platters, but the thrill is gone. Now we'll enjoy the looks on our children's faces when they taste those Favorite Caramel Chocolate Nut Bars for the first time. I'm sure it'll be just as much fun, and even more rewarding.


Anonymous said...

The last thing I need are cookies, but I may not be able to stop myself. I'lkl claim it's for the neighbors, but eat them all myself. :) Would you please send me the Werther's cookie recipe? That one was my fave, as evidenced by how many of them I ate.I am both sad and relieved to not be sitting next to that ginormous plate of assorted cookies.

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