Tuesday, December 11, 2007

the Unbearable Whiteness of Baking

Mrs. Bomblatt woke with foreboding. “Cookies? Bah! Humbug!"had been her less than gracious response last night, when her eight year old daughter reminded her that it was time for that marvelous tradition known as Making and Decorating Christmas Cookies With Your Children, or Creating Total Havoc with Flour and Confectioners Sugar.

Mrs. Bomblatt knew this to be an activity perpetrated by Mary-Poppins-like mothers who shared it gently and graciously (there was that word again) with their children, dressed all the while in clean, unrumpled Alice Blue dresses and white pinafores, their blond hair swept impeccably into soft chignons.

Mrs. Bomblatt knew her own limitations. There was a medieval edge to her food sense, she feared, a touch of the arcane. Much to her consternation, a friend had once suggested that if she’d lived in an earlier age she would have been burned for a witch, just because she loved the quirks of food, the historic pattern of it. She had a feeling for the ethos of the people who performed the intricate processes before her.

And holiday food was no exception. Mrs. Bomblatt liked to steam a plum pudding, stew mincemeat with real meat, preferably venison, spend extraordinary amounts of time finding a free-range goose to roast, soak a southern ham in the bathtub for days, or hang a locally smoked one in a cool dry place for a month, scraping off the mold before baking it. And while, for most people, eggnog meant pulling a cardboard carton out of the dairy case and adding liquor to it at the appropriate time, wasn’t that just too simple for her taste! She liked to beat up fresh eggs and cream with sugar, weeks or months ahead of time, add a liberal amount of dark rum, and let it mature in a crock in the cellar (refrigerators are so... mundane, she thought) to let it mellow for weeks or months, stirring occasionally and testing by the spoonful. Once, she had tasted it, diffidently, at Easter, and it was very good, in her opinion, and, to her surprise, she had survived. That was when she began to consider how Mr. Bomblatt’s beloved Bailey’s was made; how all those little European towns thrived in spite of drinking old eggs.

Mrs. Bomblatt had realized long ago that she’d never make old bones as a cook if she didn't do something to liven it up. Her family, on the other hand, could stand a little more ordinariness, something they could count on. Cookies were, as her daughter would say, something Mrs. Bomblatt could not possibly add a hot pepper to. But making Christmas cookies involved time! Great, massive quantities of time, and if she knew herself, those quantities would be short on quality.

Mrs. Bomblatt threw back the covers and planted her feet on the chilly floor, girding herself for battle, for today would be the day to play Saint Mary of the Cookies and she feared she would find herself once again eminently unfitted for the part.

Sure enough, later that afternoon:

"Why are you swearing, Mom?" Lizzie asked with equanimity, sitting on the counter, all knobbly knees and elbows. "Santa will hear you and leave you a lump of coal!" She laughed. Outside it was frigid and snowy, but inside all was cozy chaos and flour. They’d been at cookie baking for a nice quantity of time — about fifty hours, Mrs. Bomblatt thought.

She glared at her daughter. "I'm just perpetuating an old tradition among the wimminfolk of our family," she said, yanking the silverware holder out of the dishwasher (she was her mother). "You're lucky I'm not slamming doors and crying."

Lest the reader come away with the wrong idea, Mrs. Bomblatt would not ordinarily act in such a way except that a truly monumental misfortune had befallen her – she had misplaced the rubber spatula! Or, rather, someone had taken it! Or it had taken feet and walked away! Her daughter was staring at her rage in fascination. Mrs. Bomblatt considered kicking the step-stool; resisted kicking the cat; found herself frozen in mid-exasperation by some kind of rational maturity. Shame on me! she thought.

She centered herself. She’d looked everywhere at least three times, and wouldn’t look again. The problem could not be solved by brute action – Mrs. Bomblatt took a deep breath and put her faith in civilized problem solving. There were several ways to go, i.e. Sour Grapes – She didn’t need the stupid thing, would use her hands; Give Up and Kick The Stool – Mrs. Bomblatt caught her blood pressure by the shirt-tail as it shot up in anticipation; Pass The Buck – "Well, if you think YOU can find it (she was her aunt) then do!". She did not so much decide on as burst out with the latter.

Balletically, Lizzie dropped off the counter, gracefully sweeping flour with her. Mrs. Bomblatt opened her mouth and shut it quickly. Lizzie glanced back at the resulting squeak and opened the refrigerator door. "Here it is," she said, yanking the cursed thing out of the chilling cookie dough.

I think I will go away, far away, and lie down with a cold compress on my head, thought Mrs. Bomblatt, until the season of harmony and grace has ended.

Whom did she think she was kidding? Once started, the process of fourteen thousand tasteless gingerbread boys demanded to be completed. One quarter ton of sugar cookie dough must be pressed out of this silly little contraption, although once baked it would have melted back into shapeless blobs anyway. Ah well, Mrs. Bomblatt began to pack the dough into the tube and, sure enough, when she tried to screw it out in the shape of a poinsettia a blob emerged.

"Here, Mom," Lizzie took the cookie press from her mother. "You just relax. Let me try."

"Hmmmph," grunted Mrs. Bomblatt, crossing her arms (therefore looking and sounding just like her grandmother). "I don't know how you expect to be able to do it,"she snapped, regretting the words before they were out of her mouth, "...if I can't." Lizzie turned the screw handle and pressed out row upon row of perfect poinsettias until the thing was empty, then she unscrewed the cap, removed the pattern, inserted one of a Christmas tree, and packed the tube full of batter again.

Mrs. Bomblatt perched on the stool, arms still crossed, chagrin fading to something more easily assimilated. Was she recognizing a very faint pattern here? A very long process? She could hear her grandmother saying contentedly, "Cookies? We'll let your mother do the Christmas cookies. She does such a nice job of it." My Goodness, Mrs. Bomblatt thought, her eyes widening in relief, It’s like twins – it skips a generation!

"What a beautiful job you're doing," Mrs. Bomblatt crooned, patting her glossy chignon, smoothing her snow-white pinafore. "Let me know if you need some help with the icing," she said, heading down cellar to stir the eggnog and... make sure the taste was developing properly.

Some of Mrs. Bomblatt’s favorite cookies – made each year, forever after
this embarrassing little episode, by Lizzie.

Basler Brunsli

(Heart Shaped Chocolate Almond Spice Cookies from Nick Malgieri )

60 cookies


1 1/2 cups whole natural almonds (or hazelnuts or both) (8 oz)

1 1/2 cups sugar plus additional for coating work surface

6 ounces fine-quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 cup egg whites (from about 2 large eggs)

In a food processor combine almonds with sugar and pulse until ground fine. Add chocolate and pulse until ground fine. Don’t over process because the chocolate will melt. Add spices and pulse twice. Add egg whites and pulse until mixture forms a stiff dough, adding 1 teaspoon water if necessary.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or foil. On a surface coated with additional sugar press out or roll dough about 1/4 inch thick. With bottom of a fork held facing down and tines touching dough at a sixty degree angle, score dough about 1/16 inch deep by pulling fork across in a series of parallel vertical lines. With a 2-inch heart-shaped cutter cut out cookies and transfer to prepared baking sheets. Press dough scraps together and cut out more cookies in same manner. Let them stand, uncovered, for 3 hours before baking.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

Put cookies in oven and immediately reduce temp to 300 degrees. Bake 10 to 15 minutes, juggling cookie sheets, or until cookies are just firm, then cool on sheets or racks.

When cool, store for up to two weeks in an airtight container.

Grandma’s Ice Box Cookies

Grandma made two kinds of cookies and one was this oblong, brown, nut-studded, rich, thin bar. Mrs. Bomblatt had absolutely no idea why you needed a whopping tablespoon of cream of tarter, but you do. She keeps a pan of this dough in the fridge and manages to bake them off when needed. Grandma used black walnuts and so does Lizzie when Mrs. Bomblatt e can get them.


2 cups brown sugar

1/2 cup lard or solid shortening

1/2 cup butter

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 eggs well beaten

4 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 tablespoon cream of tartar

1 1/2 cups walnuts or pecans

Cream together the brown sugar, shortening and butter, stir in the vinegar, vanilla and eggs. Whisk together the flour, soda, and cream of tartar and beat into the sugar/butter mixture just until combined, then stir in the nuts.

Line a bread pan with plastic wrap, pack the dough into this, smooth the top, cover with the plastic and store it in the fridge overnight. Next morning, or evening, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice the dough into 1/4 inch slices and bake for about 12 minutes.

Rose’s Peanut Butter Cookies w/Chocolate Navels

From Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Rose’s Christmas Cookies. “They are very peanut buttery yet exceptionally light, with a lovely ‘sandy’ bite.”


1 cup (5 oz) all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon salt

½ cup (3.75 oz) light brown sugar

¼ cup (1.75 oz) granulated sugar

½ cup (4 oz) unsalted butter

1 cup (9.25 oz) smooth peanut butter

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Into a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt, then whisk. In a food processor with the metal blade, process the sugars for several minutes until very fine. Cut the butter into a few pieces and add it with the motor running. Add the peanut butter and process until smooth and creamy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and process until incorporated, scraping the sides of the bowl. Add the flour mixture and pulse it just until incorporated. Scrape the dough into a bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.Roll 1 inch balls of dough between your hands, set them 1 1/2 inches apart on a cookie sheet, then make a depression halfway through the center of each with your index finger. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until set, remove from the oven, and immediately place a small chunk of chocolate into the little navels. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for a few minutes until they are firm enough to handle, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Betty’s Russian Teacakes

Put these in the freezer and let them pile up, batch by batch, and don’t tell anyone how delicious they are frozen. Lizzie usually makes them in double batches. Originally from the now classic Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cook Book (1967)

3 1/2 dozen cookies.


1 cup soft butter

1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar (run it in the food processor to get the lumps out)

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 1/4 cups unbleached flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup finely chopped nuts

Into the bowl of a food processor put the butter, sugar and vanilla, and mix thoroughly. Add the flour and salt and pulse. Add the nuts and pulse. Chill.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll the dough into one inch balls. Place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. While still warm, roll in confectioners’ sugar. Cool. Roll in sugar again.

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