Cookie Day!

Here’s a really easy riddle for you: what can you make with 6 1/2 pounds of butter, 12 pounds of flour, 29 eggs, and 3 pounds of sugar? Answer: A hell of a lot of cookies and a lot of happy friends, coworkers, and neighbors.

Who wants a cookie?

In case that wasn’t clue enough, this past weekend was Cookie Day (or really, Cookie Weekend), which has been an annual tradition since before I can remember. When I was growing up, my mom and her friend Connie would pick a day in December and there would be Baking-with-a-capital-B. Over the past 20 years, Cookie Day has seen 6 homes and pretty much every major life milestone–and I couldn’t be happier that I brought at least a small part of it with me when I moved to Chicago.

Recipes and lists

Lists are essential

Now, let me be clear: this is no two- or three-hour deal with one or two batches of your holiday cookie standards. I don’t say that out of some kind of misplaced pride or egotism, but to set the stage for the sheer amount of baking that is involved. During Cookie Day’s heyday, there had to have been more than 3 dozen kinds (that’s not 36 cookies, but 36 kinds of cookies) at the end of the day. And since nearly every recipe was at least doubled, if not tripled…I can’t even guess how many cookies that would be.

Fig-date swirlsPistachio-orange crescents

But oh, does it make for the best memories. There was the time trays of cookies were being shoved, hot, into trunks of cars because a) there was probably no other flat surface on which to cool them, and b) it was so late and everyone was so tired that it was unimaginable to do more than that. There was the year that we opened tins to start boxing up cooled cookies only to discover cookies leftover from the year before (thankfully well-preserved, if very stale). Or the year of the unfortunate reindeer turd cookies–at least they tasted good!–or the year of the florentine mishap.

Cookies

Some things have never changed with Cookie Day with my mom and Connie: mimosas always start the day, with a break for sandwiches and chips for lunch. Someone will always choose an overly-complicated new cookie recipe for the end of the day and end up swearing up a storm. Someone will inevitably put a dough in the refrigerator to chill, thinking “Oh, I’ll remember what cookie that’s for” and will have no idea three hours later which of the now five chilled doughs belonged to which cookie.

My mom will always make butter horns, Connie will always make rugelach, my sister Laura will always decorate the “pizza” cookies, and my sister Erica will show up at the end of the day to eat the butter horns and ask what she can take (but we love her anyways). And I will always be the pecan-tassie-maker and the unwrapper of Hersey’s Kisses and chocolate balls for peanut butter blossoms and “surprise inside”s–three tasks that I now happily pass off to my unwitting, yet very patient, friends. There have to be perks to hosting my own Cookie Day, you know.

Helping hands are essential

Helping hands are essential

But beyond the masses and masses of sugar and flour and butter and chocolate and nuts, I love my friends who have joined me over the past few years for the baking extravanganza, and helped me create my own version of this tradition.

Treat box

Mulled wine or glogg has been the beverage of choice for the past three years, cheese and crackers for snacks. I still choose at least one overly complicated recipe, forget which cookie dough is which, and swear at midnight on Sunday that next year I’ll make two cookies and that’s all! (I’ve said that for 6 years, hasn’t happened yet.)

Boxed and ready to give away

What are your holiday baking traditions? Any other baking over-achievers–do we need to start a support group?

Cookie Day 2012 Recap

Types of cookies: 14, plus hot chocolate mix and marshmallows

  • Anise-almond biscotti
  • Fig-walnut biscotti
  • Peanut butter blossoms
  • Thumbprints (raspberry, grape, and apple-lemon)
  • Pecan tassies (a double-batch, god help me)
  • Chocolate-espresso crinkles
  • Rugelach
  • Raspberry meringue bars
  • Grasshopper bars

New this year:

  • Fig-date swirls
  • Pistachio-orange crescents (Cut-outs, filling, AND fussy timing? What was I thinking? They were delicious and quite popular though)
  • Chocolate-orange biscotti
  • Spice buttons (Never would have done the frosting and sprinkles, thank god for friends and co-bakers!)

Total number of cookies: 660, not including bar cookies or ones sacrificed for “taste-testing”

Best new recipe: Tie between adding espresso powder to my usual standard snowcap/crinkle recipe and a totally new pistachio-orange crescent (which I will never again make for Cookie Day, as they broke several of my cardinal rules, not least of which is no cutouts, complicated fillings, or overly fussy timing).

Grown-up tastes

Every year around this time, it would come in the mail. My dad would grab it from the box on his way in the house, a non-descript brown paper package, but I knew what was hiding inside by the unmistakeable handwriting on the outside, just waiting to be uncovered.

Anise Almond Biscotti

My sisters and I would tear open the wrapping to find a festive holiday tin. We’d pop open the lid and there, wrapped in layers of wax paper, still cold from their journey from Ohio to New York, were my grandma’s annual Christmas cookies.

My favorites then were a three-way tie between pecan tassies, with their layer of crunchy sugar hiding nutty, molasses-y insides; buckeyes, an Ohio specialty of a ball of peanut butter partially dipped in chocolate to resemble its namesake; and these chocolate cookies with a maraschino cherry hidden under a coating of chocolate frosting. There were other choices in the tin too, of course: soft, cakey cookies topped with sugar glaze and multi-colored sprinkles, peanut butter blossoms, maybe some pizzelles if they managed to survive the trecherous journey intact. And of course no gift of cookies from an Italian grandmother–from my Italian grandmother–would be complete without biscotti.

Anise Almond Biscotti

I never got the appeal of biscotti then. They weren’t really sweet; you risked cracking a tooth if you didn’t eat them patiently, waiting for them to soften in your mouth or a cup of coffee; they tasted…different. Anise, as I learned, an acquired taste and one not often acquired by kids who were more interested in chocolate or sugar frostings. They certainly didn’t look like a kid’s cookie–craggy oblong slices, broken up only by small flecks of aniseed, austere in the grand scheme of holiday cookies.

Anise Almond Biscotti

But my dad loved them. He would eat them on Sunday mornings with his once-weekly cup of coffee while my sisters and I made quick work of the rest of the treats. I would munch on one or two as long as I could dip them in hot chocolate, but only if all my other favorites were gone.

Anise Almond Biscotti

Since then, my tastes have grown up. Biscotti have become one of my favorite cookies for the holidays, one of the few that end up in my own private cookie stash once the rest have been gifted away. As with my issues with mass-produced muffins, these are not the biscotti you find at most coffee shops.

The licorice flavor of anise is the highlight, they’re just sweet enough for my tastes, and, while you won’t risk cracking a tooth like really traditional biscotti, they definitely have a crunch (and I personally like them best after a few days to really dry out). This time of year, they’re my favorite Sunday morning treat with a strong cup of tea–or, even better, an afternoon treat with a cup of hot mulled wine while I’m baking up more holiday goodies.

Anise Almond Biscotti Continue reading

Finding tiny bits of beauty

To be fair, I did warn you. I said that I could live on soup through fall and I wasn’t lying. As I also seem to have come down with the latest strain of the plague making its rounds of my office (why are students so germy? even college students, eesh), I was craving a soup flavorful enough that I could have some chance of actually tasting it.

Creamy lentil soup

For about a year lentil soup was my shoot-I-forgot-my-lunch lunch from a little Mediterranean kinda-fast-food-but-not-really joint: a cup of lentil soup, a fresh pita, and three falafels for under $5. I was so sad when the place closed, and still haven’t found a good cheap-and-reasonably-healthy lunch replacement. This lentil soup is nothing like theirs, except for the hit of lemon at the end, but it’s delicious in a totally different way. (I don’t think there were enough hyphenates in that paragraph so here’s an I-need-another-hyphen hyphen: – )

Lentil soup ingredients

This soup is creamy (without any cream), rich (with a minimum of butter and oil), so packed with flavor I can still taste it with a compromised olfactory system (thanks onion, garlic, and curry powder), and just so simple (all the ingredients were in my cupboard). Perfect.

Can I stop for a second and point out how beautiful French lentils are? Indulge your inner child, scoop up a handful, and really look closely–tiny saucers of deep olive green with blue-black speckles, stripes, swirls remind me of pictures of Jupiter and its whirlpool of clouds or the jar of spotted, striated river stones my mom keeps in a glass jar on a shelf.

French lentils

Just gorgeous. How can you not love food and cooking when it involves tiny bits of beauty like this?

French lentils

I also love that this soup gives me an excuse to use a lot of really good curry powder, breaking one of the cardinal rules of cooking in an apartment: no seafood or curry if it’s too cold to open a window.

Curry powder for lentil soup

Oh well, I can’t smell anything right now anyways, and my neighbors can just indulge me for a day.

Creamy Lentil Soup

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Let the decorating (and baking) begin!

World, it is now December, which means I grant that the following are acceptable for the next 30 days: snow (just the sparkly fluffy stuff please), Christmas music (even the Chipmunks or dogs barking are cute once), trees covered with twinkling lights, pine-scented anything, and general glittery festive-ness. You’re welcome.

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Most important of all, it is acceptable for this month only to buy sugar in 15 pound bags and load up my fridge with far more butter than has a right to be there. Oh yes, baking season is on.

So far I’ve got my usual cookie recipes together for my annual cookie day, and each year I try to find at least two or three new cookie recipes to try. The past few years, I’ve found that the new cookies fall into a pattern of at least one other biscotti, one cookie with lots of spices, and one that somehow involves citrus or coffee.

I have a few rules with my Christmas cookies though–no special tools required (this rules out anything requiring cookie cutters or cookie presses–unless I had my dad’s pizzelle iron) and once they come out of the oven, they need no additional attention (in other words, nothing that requires frosting).

These are my standbys, if you’re curious. Recipes for at least two of these will be coming, I promise.

Almond-anise biscotti
Pecan tassies
Rugelach
Chocolate snowballs
Jam thumbprints
Grasshopper bars
Peanut butter blossoms
Raspberry meringue bars
Chocolate-raspberry nonpariels
(Plus my usual marshmallows and hot chocolate mix, but they aren’t cookies, so they don’t count)

What are your baking plans this month? Any cookie favorites, or recipes you’d recommend? Is your house already filled to the brim with color and lights, are you like me and wait until December, or do you put it off til the very last minute?

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