Welcome to My Holiday Cookie Bake Shop

Baked

 

I didn’t have an Easy Bake Oven when I was little. I didn’t need one. My mother let me use the big oven, with her supervision of course, but I was turning out cakes and cookies by the time I was six. I remember when I was in Kindergarten, my friend Debbie Levine asked me to come over to her house for lunch. I came and brought some peanut butter cookies for dessert-you know, the lunch box classic with the crossed fork marks on the top. “I baked them myself,” I announced proudly.

Debbie must not have been too impressed because she took a bite out of one and screwed up her face. “Eewww,” she said, “they taste like throw up.” Debbie’s mother rushed over and took the cookie from her hand and said, “Debbie we don’t treat our guests like that.” I wasn’t too upset because I knew Debbie was only kidding. She finished the first cookie and had a second one.

My mother made spritz every Christmas and had an ongoing battle with her constantly malfunctioning cookie gun. She wouldn’t get a new one though; she preferred thrill of the hunt for the perfect recipe for spritz dough that would work in her cookie gun. She never found it and when she died, I returned her cookie gun to the earth. I was never fond of spritz anyway.

I don’t bake much anymore, but I did bake this year. I thought I would share some of my tips to make the task easier (besides throwing away tools that you can never get to work.)

If you make cookies that have to be cut out and decorated, do yourself a favor and make them over the course of three days. Mix your dough on the first day and let it chill properly. Just put it in the fridge and forget it. Roll, cut out and bake on the second day. Decorate on the third day. This will make your life so much easier. If you think this is impractical, go out and buy some cookies.

cutting out

Properly chilled dough is easier to roll. Rather than dusting with flour during the rolling, I prefer to use cooking spray. I spray the rolling surface, my hands, even the rolling pin. If you roll between sheets of wax paper, spray the paper. If after you’ve cut the shapes out the dough is soft again, return the wax paper with the cookies to the fridge for a couple of minutes to let it firm up. You will be able to move the raw cookies to the pan without distorting them.

Rolling pin

It’s important that rolled cookies have a consistent thickness. I have a rolling pin that has different sized rings that fit on the ends to help maintain uniformity. You can get yourself a set of rings here.

Parchment brown

Baked on parchment paper

If you learn only one thing from this post, let it be these two words: parchment paper. Parchment paper for baking that is. I don’t know what took me so long to start using this stuff but once you use it, you won’t go back. It saves on pan cleanup and you don’t have to grease your cookie sheets. It’s easy transfer a whole batch of baked cookies off the hot pan for cooling and it’s easy to get them off the paper. Foil or a so-called non-stick pan will not give the same results. I do not advocate any particular brand. I bought mine at a grocery store. I have heard that you can’t use sheet more than once. Not true although it does become brittle after awhile and since you can’t really clean it, you don’t want to save it too long.
Twokinds

The more fat chocolate chip cookies have in them, the more they spread. If you want firmer cookies, use less butter and make up the liquid balance with water or eggs. The cookies in the foreground had more butter in the recipe and those in the background had less. Both taste fine. It’s your choice
I love the convenience of refrigerator cookies and who says you can’t slice and bake drop cookies like chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies? It’s easy. I make logs of cookie dough, wrap it in foil and put it in the freezer. It never freezes rock solid. A day or two later, I unwrap the dough, slice and bake. What could be easier? These cookies keep a shape too. But with any cookie, always make sure you start out with a cold cookie sheet. Otherwise your cookies will spread more and you won’t get the shape you want. I have two cookie sheets and bake with one sheet at a time. When a batch of cookies comes out of the oven, I wait a couple of minutes and lift the sheet of parchment with the baked cookies (carefully!) off the pan and put it on a rack or other surface to cool. Then I let the pan cool before putting the next batch on it. If there is a short time between batches, I will cool the pan in the sink with cold water. It really does make a difference.
Well, tomorrow night is decorating time! Here are some more pictures of today’s cookies.

My Grandmothers’ Christmas Legacy

My Grandmothers Emma Montgomery (nee Peterson on the right) and Mattia Aleo (nee Moceri, left picture)  had several things in common even though the worlds they came from were so different. Emma’s mother died around 1896 when Emma was ten. Mattia’s father died when she was seven-I estimate this was around 1901 or 1902. Both girls left home within a few months of their respective parents’ deaths to assume positions as servants or companions to wealthy families.  They were paid only in room and board, but their absence meant that their families had one less mouth to feed.

Emma lived in Southern Ohio and Mattia lived in Sicily. Emma met her husband-to-be a few counties over from where she was born; Mattia met her future husband in America where she had come to find work so she could send money back home.

Emma met her husband at an ice cream social; theirs was a love match. Mattia’s marriage was arranged by a match maker when her older sister and brother-in-law decided it was time for her to marry.  Both women  were married before the  United States entered the First World War and raised their children during the Great Depression and the Second World War.  Times were hard and life’s uncertainties took their toll on both families.  When my mother and father married, they brought this history to the new family they made. Our  family life could be stressful and unpredictable.

But one thing sticks in my memory: for some reason, the strife died down during the winter holiday season. I think this is because my parents felt safe at this time of the year. This tells me that their parents also felt safe during the holiday season and were able to create a temporary haven for their families. This is another tradition they handed down to my parents.

I remember that the safest I felt as a child was during the Christmas season. The craziness of the world was kept at bay and the adults seemed happier and calmer. My family was not big on extravagant gifts, but there were always decorations,  family and the smell of Christmas cooking.  This was part of my Grndmothers’ legacy-one I treasure.

Recipes are another important part of family tradition. We had Emma’s Brown Bread  and Mattia’s biscotti  every Christmas. Here are their recipes.

Mattia’s Biscotti

Three cups flour, one and one-half cups sugar, one-half teaspoon salt, four teaspoons baking powder, one teaspoon vanilla, eight eggs, anise seeds.
Beat eggs and sugar until well blended. Add vanilla. Add flour, salt and baking powder (I just dump it in) and mix until blended. Pour into eight by fourteen inch pan which you have lined with a piece of buttered wax paper. Sprinkle  liberally with anise seeds. Bake at 350 degrees until baked through, twenty to thirty mintues.
Remember this is not a cake so it will not rise very much and will seem a bit rubbery.
Remove from oven. Flip pan over on a work surface. The cake should fall right out. Peel off the wax paper and cut cake in half crosswise. Cut each half into long biscotti-sized pieces. Place back in pan cut sides up and return to oven set at 250 degrees. Leave in oven until the biscotti achieves  the desired level of hardness. If you have a gas oven with a pilot light, you can choose to leave the biscotti there overnight.

Emma’s Boston Brown Bread

Combine two cups boiling water, two teaspoons baking soda, one cup raisins. Let sit until warm. Cream together two tablespoons of unsalted butter, two cups sugar, two eggs and one teaspoon vanilla. Add two cups white flour, two cups whole wheat flour and the water/raisin mixture. Beat well. Add one cup chopped walnuts and mix to incorporate.
Fill four greased and floured #2 cans two-thirds full. Bake one hour at 350 degrees. Let stand in oven one hour after baking. The batter will rise about two to three inches above the top of of the cans. The bread should slide right out of the can although you will probably need to loosen the bread from the sides of the can by running a knife around the bread.
A #2 can will hold about one and one-fourth cups batter and give the bread room to rise. If you don’t want to use a can (this is an old recipe-people didn’t worry about doing this in the old days. The original recipe calls for “seeded muskets.” I don’t know where you would get raisins with seeds these days), you can try mini loaf pans. The bread is done when a toothpick inserted i. the bread comes out clean.
This bread is good sliced thin and spread with butter. It’s even better with cream cheese.