Someone over on the AR Recipe Exchange posed a question to us the other day concerning getting ready for the holidays...
What holiday-related one task or chore do you enjoy doing?
You know me - I can never pick just one thing! And you know one is baking, of course.
I think I started my holiday baking marathons when I was about twenty. My niece was born, so that meant getting together with an extended family on holidays and birthdays, which meant more of "what can I bring?". People who could never figure out what to get me started getting me kitchen gadgets and tools. Over the next few years I started bringing in platters of baked goods for Christmas gifts for my co-workers, neighbors and friends. I felt like I was ripping them off, because, really, I baked because I liked it. With maybe one or two exceptions, I didn't have a particular person in mind when I baked a certain cookie. But we won't tell them that! ;)
I've always enjoyed baking throughout the year, but Christmas baking is special. I remember taking a week off from work, filling a shopping cart with one or two of everything from the baking aisle and taking over the family kitchen (and dining room, for cooling and storage!) right up until just before Christmas. And any time I needed to put together a platter for a gift or a party, I'd lay those bins and tins and bags of goodies on the dining room table, and work my way around as if I was at a cookie buffet.
Baking for me is one of those tasks that is fun, from filling up that shopping cart to putting together those packages. Although, as my personality dictates, I actually prefer to "hit and run" when it comes time to deliver them - at work, I'd sneak my tray into the factory breakroom when nobody was looking, or leave tins on people's desks - kinda like a cookie Santa! Not that they didn't know who it was from, but like I said, I do it for the love of doing it, not for a pat on the back or the big, wet, powdered sugar-laced kiss on the cheek.
Wrapping presents is another thing I love doing, and it's one of the first things I realized my husband and I had in common, way back when we first met. I think at that time I was just about to cross over to the dark side, like my Mom, and just throw everything into gift bags. Then I met Steve, and we had our first Christmas together and did a lot of shopping that year, as we had several young nieces and nephews to buy for. The first gift he wrapped...took 45 minutes. I kid you not! First, he had to pick the perfect paper, and not so much a coordinating bow as a contrasting one - Hey, the man was attending art school at the time. This brought wrapping presents to a whole new level of artistic expression. He even made his own bows, because the storebought ones weren't the perfect color or just weren't good enough. His motto was, and still is today (although we've sort of mellowed out on the wrapping protocol these days), "It's all in the packaging". And that's true! It's all part of the sparkle of the season.
So, back to baking....I've been doing a bit of that lately! I set up a recipe box on Allrecipes for "Christmas Cookies" - meant to hold the recipe that I absolutely, positively MUST MAKE this year. No maybe's. The biggest variety I ever made in one Christmas season was 23 different cookies, so I was aiming for a more practical, doable 15. I have 43 saved.
Yeah. Even I don't like baking THAT much!
Here's what I got so far....
These little cuties have been in my recipe box for a long time. Fudge Puddles - peanut butter cookie cups filled with a fudgy filling. Sounds good, huh? They taste even better!
They intimidated be for a while - I don't know why, they just looked like a lot of work, but trust me, they were so easy! Just roll the dough into 1" balls (yes, they'll look tiny in those mini-muffin tins, but they expand to just the right size while baking - any bigger and they'll overflow). Right out of the oven (which I adjusted to baking at 350 degrees for 12 minutes), press down the tops with a melon baller to better form the well for the filling. I used the teaspoon of my stainless steel measuring spoons, as it was the perfect shape and size. The filling - chocolate chips and sweetened condensed milk - will stay plyable if you leave it in the double boiler - just turn the heat off. I spooned some into a Ziploc bag, snipped a corner and piped it out. Easy as pie!
Then there's these cookies, Santa's Chocolate Thumbprint Cookies.
Another recipe that has haunted my recipe box for a few years now. It's a chocolate crackle-type cookie, rolled in cinnamon-sugar before baking (gotta love cinnamon and chocolate together!), baked, and when still hot you make an indentation and pop in a few chocolate chips - I used a combination of white chocolate and semi-sweet. Let them melt, swirl with a toothpick and top with crush toffee bits. The recipe calls for marachino cherries, but I skipped those. Only problem I ran into was the white chocolate - my store brand ones weren't melting nicely so I had to crack open the Ghirardelli. They melt like a dream!
My next recipe I saw in a Fine Cooking Publication last year, Dark Chocolate Crackle Cookies.
My dad is going to LOVE these! He and I are big time dark chocolate fanatics - I think we're just about a step away from being able to eat and enjoy unsweetened baking chocolate. And these are the most chocolatiest cookies I have ever tasted. The dough is flavored with cocoa and melted bittersweet chocolate, and if that's not enough, more chopped chocolate is added. I taste all my batters and cookie doughs, and let me tell you, I could not bear to add chopped bittersweet chocolate chunks to this - it would have sent me over the edge! I added semi-sweet chips, and they worked fine. They taste like....midnight. Chocolate midnight.
Quick! Hand my something NON-CHOCOLATE!
When I was 14, we moved into a duplex in the same neighborhood I grew up in. Hilda owned the house and live on one side, rented out the other. And because she lived alone, until I actually met her, us kids all thought she was a witch. Come on, old and living in a huge house? Gotta be. But no, as I soon discovered, she was a kind, loving, interesting woman, who was widowed at a relatively young age, worked until the age of 70, never had children of her own and had a lot of love to give. Although she spent her early years in a seaside village called Pigeon Cove, she graduated high school in my hometown, worked in the factory that pretty much built the town (literally. The neighborhood of duplexes we lived in were built to house factory workers) and knew EVERYONE in town. Even into her 90's, she still attended the high school reunions, although the number of people seated at the 1920's table dwindled over the years. She became a close friend to my mom and dad, and a surrogate grandmother to me and my sister (and ever other kid in town!) And boy, did she love to bake. Not just at Christmas, but year round. She'd make twelve different types of cookies or candy because it was a rainy April day, then strap on her plastic rain cap, don her raincoat, galloshes and gloves, and make her deliveries.
I had moved out of that house by the time she passed away at the age of 94 back in 1999. That previous Christmas, she was still baking (although, had surrendered her driver's license, thankfully, after taking out a few mailboxes). That would be the last time I tasted one of those "white powdery things" from Hilda's kitchen. We thought the recipe was lost when lo and
behold, I found a tattered, stained piece of paper with Hilda's handwriting on it - a recipe called Swedish Tea Cakes. By then I had determined that they were some variation of Russian Tea Cakes, Mexican Wedding Cakes, Butterballs, Snowballs.... But, Hilda was Swedish, made lots of Swedish pastry, and none of the recipes I had found on my own were the same as hers. I know now that the difference is in the nuts....while here recipe states that ground almonds can be used, I know she always used pecans. Her brother Walter would ship a big bag up to her from South Carolina every year. I think of her every time I make these cookies.
The thing I think about is rather sad - that Hilda never was able to share her traditions with a child of her own. But even though I love my parents, I have a special place in my heart for Hilda, and I will never forget her kindness, her voice, her laughter..or her cookies. Better yet, my daughter, born 6 years after her passing, actually knows who Hilda is. She knows when we drive by "Hilda's side of the house" when we visit the old hometown. And she knows Mommy is making Hilda's cookies when she sees the powdered sugar and chopped pecans come out!
I think that makes Hilda, wherever she is, very happy.
Hilda's Swedish Tea Cakes
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 cup butter, softened
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup finely chopped pecans (or almonds)
1/4 tsp. salt
Powdered sugar for rolling (about 1 1/2 cups)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
In a large bowl, beat 1/2 cup powdered sugar and butter until light and fluffy; beat in vanilla.
Stir in flour, nuts and salt, and mix until dough forms. (Chill dough, if desired)
Shape into 1" balls and place 1" apart on ungreased cookie sheets.
Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until set, but not brown.
Immediately remove from cookie sheets - cool just slightly, so you can handle with your fingers. Roll in powdered sugar and place on wire racks to cool completely.
When cookies are completely cooled, roll once again in powdered sugar.
Store in an airtight container.