You can run and you can hide, but everywhere you turn at this time of year the smell of freshly-baked cookies permeates the air. It’s definitely not a good time to be on a diet.
As soon as Thanksgiving is over, thoughts turn to cookies and baking. I know a few people who break out the mixing bowls and baking sheets as soon as the leftovers are divvied up and sent home in care packages with overstuffed relatives. They spend the rest of the holiday weekend in a baking frenzy, making dozens and dozens of different Christmas goodies.
I’ve done my share of baking over the years, but I sometimes wonder why I do it. For whom am I baking all those cookies? For the carolers who come knocking and singing on Christmas Eve? I haven’t seen a caroler in years, much less played host to a group on my doorstep.
For all the friends and family who visit during the holidays? This is a lovely idea, but most of my family lives miles away, and everyone else is too crazy-busy in December to just “pop in” for a visit.
I think we bake simply because it’s a time-honored, and tasty, holiday tradition. If there are young children in the house, it’s a nice way to spend some quality family time together. Even if the children are a bit older, holiday baking is something the whole family can enjoy, whether everyone helps or if they just enjoy consuming the end product.
Everyone has at least a few recipes that have been handed down from their mother or grandmother. These are like baking gold in the family treasure chest. They’re tried and true and beloved by everybody.
I’ve already made my 92-year-old Aunt Dorothy’s sugar cookies this year, and I am going to attempt to make nut rolls using my Mom’s recipe. It’s one she has used ever since I can remember, and it produces perfectly risen loaves with ample nut filling and dough that is flakey but not dry.
I’ll try my best to do the recipe, and my Mom, justice. To help in my endeavors, I’ve assembled the tools of the trade I’ve always found work for me.
Mexican vanilla: I’ve tried other pure vanillas, but I much prefer the strong flavor of the Mexican variety. My current bottle, which almost is empty, was purchased while on vacation in the Riviera Maya. Soon I’ll need to recruit a vacationing friend to bring me back a new bottle.
Parchment paper: How did we ever bake without this stuff? It’s such a simple idea—line your baking sheets with paper and not only does it keep them clean, it also prevents cookies from sticking.
Butter: We always used margarine in baking when I was growing up, but I’m a firm believer in the wonders of real butter. You simply cannot beat the flavor.
I asked friends who are avid bakers what tips and tricks they use to ensure success. One said that she has learned (the hard way) to measure out everything before she starts.
The concept is called mise en place, meaning "everything in its place" in French, and helps prevent omitting anything from the recipe. Another friend claims she gets far better results from her electric stove/oven than a gas range. That is, perhaps, just a matter of what you’re used to using.
If you’re looking for a few new recipes to add to your repertoire, the web site Christmas-cookies.com features more than 565 recipes of all types including bar cookies, refrigerator and no-bake cookies, filled and fried cookies, cookies in a jar and many other types.
If you need help with a recipe, an ingredient substitution, or if you're dealing with yeast that won’t rise, the good folks at King Arthur Flour offer a Baking Hotline at 802-649-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.