December 23, 2009

Whirlwind: NaCoBakMo, Day 26.

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:07 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Some NaCoBakMo cleanup details: First of all, I can tell you right now that my Day 19 report is going to have to wait until December 26 or 27. There is no way it’s going to happen before the Big Day. I apologize, because it is a cookie full of awesomeness, but I promise you will hear about it. Second, I am closing my official cookies-for-Irving Park Community Food Pantry donations offer as of the end of the day today, so if you want cookies now is the time to act. I am so grateful to all of you who donated, and I’m hopeful that you will enjoy the cookies once they arrive. My current plan is to ship on Saturday the 26th, but if I am unable to stand up that day (a distinct possibility, given how things are going at the moment) it might have to wait until Monday the 28th. I plead total holiday overload and beg your patience.

Time is really getting tight now. Back when I was doing concert management, I always had to live with very firm deadlines. No matter what, on such-and-such a day there would be between 450 and 1,000 people showing up to hear a performance whether I had finished cobbling the music together or not.

I learned this the hard way early on in my tenure, although fortunately it was a lesson learned at a rehearsal instead of a performance. There were certain time constraints limiting the amount of preparation I could do for any given concert, and it always seemed like a million things I couldn’t possibly prepare for would suddenly be due all at once. On this particular occasion I had been working frantically to get ready for a rehearsal involving about 30 instrumentalists. I had either pulled an all-nighter in advance of the morning rehearsal, or possibly had been at the office until around 1 am and returned close to 7 am in advance of the 10 am rehearsal. I swear to God my failure was not due to lack of trying. Instead, it was due to still being somewhat new on the job (it was a job that really took a full concert season to learn properly) and not knowing how to prioritize correctly.

Background: my boss had stressed very strongly the need to have multiple copies of all the markings on the music in my possession at all times, both for backup purposes if someone took music home and forgot to bring it back, and also for keeping a complete record of the conductor’s original, pre-rehearsal period markings, and, I don’t know, general apocalyptic situations.

You must understand that the music was key. Without that sheet music everyone was toast; there simply could be no performance. When I was the concert manager if we were in the middle of a concert run I never allowed the large and heavy black music box to leave my possession; the only exception to this rule was when it was on a truck with the music stands and chairs and the company’s keyboard instruments, and that was safe only because if anything happened to that truck we sure wouldn’t be having a concert anyway. I certainly never, ever left the music in my car. If I wasn’t heading straight home from a rehearsal or performance I lugged it with me to the restaurant or to Mr. Unfocused’s apartment or wherever else I was headed.

As I think about it, there was actually one occasion when the music stayed in the car: it was January, and the roads in the oft-neglected Hyde Park area of Chicago were very, very bad; even though I was only driving about five miles an hour on slippery road I lost control of my vehicle and slid in slow motion under a University of Chicago bus. The bus was unharmed, but my car was a mess. I barely got it back to the general vicinity of Mr. Unfocused’s law school apartment and into a parking place a few blocks away, and it was so very cold I couldn’t manage to drag the music box with me that distance. It seemed highly unlikely that anyone would ever steal a significantly damaged vehicle, particularly in such astonishingly frigid temperatures, so I felt it to be a reasonable risk. Still, I think I worried more about that music box sitting in the trunk than I did about the fact that I had just had a serious automobile accident.

But back to my story. Despite working as fast as I humanly could, I ran up against the limitations of the speed of our office copier. I was copying the music (remember, for the markings—not to be any kind of usable part, we always had excess legal copies of everything, sheesh!) and it was taking a long, long time. God damn that slow, slow copier. I watched the minutes tick away and calculated probably completion time for the copying process as well as the time it would take to get to my car and the driving time to the rehearsal location over and over in my head, comparing it against the time I had left before rehearsal was to start. Under normal circumstances I should have been at the rehearsal location well in advance, having distributed the music properly to all of the stands, but I was just terrified that someone was going to take a one-copy part home, like, say, the bassoon or oboe or something like that, and when my boss asked for a copy for reference to review some finer point in between rehearsals or something I would have to admit that I didn’t have one. I would have broken the cardinal rule of the concert manager, and I was totally panicked.

So I pushed the time too far. I copied as much as I could (it still wasn’t everything) and I was actually late for the rehearsal. I kept 30 musicians waiting for about fifteen minutes of our available two and a half hours of rehearsal time, which at professional orchestra rates is a very, very expensive thing to do; it’s also a very stupid thing to do, because it is fifteen rehearsal minutes you can’t ever get back. I raced into the hall in a near-hysterical whirlwind, having driven at extremely illegal speeds down South Lake Shore Drive on the slim chance that my high velocity might cause time to move backward. I have no idea how I found parking. All I remember is all of those musicians looking at me, the still-new girl who had screwed up a few smaller things before but nothing like this; they had been convinced I was dead in a ditch somewhere, and instead I was just late, a loser, not the brightest bulb in the chandelier; of course I should have ditched the copying and made sure I was at the rehearsal. I had a firm deadline and I blew it. I don’t know that I ever had a lower professional moment in my life.

Somehow they managed to forgive me. I went on to become very competent at my job, and although those firm deadlines made for some seriously stressful moments, I look back on it as a great work experience. I wanted to tear my hair out half the time (and I sure got frustrated and angry a lot), but it was very live, crackling with energy.

Now my workaday life is long over, and I am beset with a completely different, but equally firm, deadline. My twenty-six consecutive days of cookie baking activity have forced me to be very organized, but they have also made it a challenge to manage some of the basics (and all of the extras) of doing Christmas, and nothing can add extra time to this day. I’m counting down the hours now and calculating how long it will take to complete all the items on my list, and I’m deeply aware of a looming disconnect. But unlike the musicians, Christmas will not wait for even ten minutes; it will come whether I have made all the copies or not.

Today’s cookie, third to last in my NaCoBakMo odyssey, is my favorite of all my mother’s cookie recipes. I had intended to make it on her birthday because my memories of making it with her are so happy, but instead the gingerbread decorating took precedence. These are supposed to be called Candy Cane cookies, not particularly for the taste but because the dough is supposed to be rolled into two colored tubes, red and white; twisted together; and shaped in the form of a candy cane. Unfortunately, we experienced a dinner delay between the making and shaping of the dough, and in that time the dough became very dry to the point of being unworkable in the candy cane shape. (We added a little milk and that helped some, but not quite enough.) Knowing that my mother is nothing if not inventive (not to mention realistic), I decided that she would approve of a slight alteration in plan. Unfocused Girl and I switched gears and made disc-shaped cookies reminiscent of peppermint starlight candies instead, and they look lovely. I also omitted the vanilla and upped the almond extract (imitation, in my case, but use the real thing if allergies don’t prevent it) because in the current chaos the vanilla has taken a hike.

Starlight Cookies

1/2 c shortening
1/2 c butter
1 c confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 egg
1 1/2 t almond extract
1 t vanilla
2 1/2 c flour
1 t salt
1/2 t red food coloring, or test for an appropriate amount of gel paste (I used 1/4 t of red gel paste coloring for a double batch of cookies)
1/2 c crushed peppermint candy or candy canes
1/2 c granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 375º. Prepare cookie sheets with baking parchment.

In a large mixing bowl beat shortening and butter until creamy; beat in confectioners’ sugar, then egg and extracts. In a medium bowl combine flour and salt. Gradually beat into shortening/butter mixture. In another bowl combine the crushed candies and granulated sugar.

Divide dough in half. Thoroughly blend red food coloring into one half.

For starlight shape: grab roughly equal hunks of each color. Work the colors together to create the start of a marbled effect. Pinch off a true tablespoon-sized amount of dough that includes both colors and roll together into a ball. Roll the ball in the candy/sugar mixture. Place the rolled balls on the prepared sheet approximately an inch and a half to two inches apart. When your sheet is full, press each ball into a disk using the bottom of a glass. It might be helpful to dip the glass in the candy/sugar mixture to keep it from sticking excessively. Bake for 9 minutes. Cool on sheets for two minutes, then remove to a rack to complete cooling. Yield: 36 cookies.

For candy cane shape: roll 4″ strips using one teaspoon of dough from each color. Place side by side, press together, and twist. Curve on baking sheet into candy cane shape. Candy cane cookies should be rolled in the candy/sugar mixture after baking, when sufficiently cooled to allow the cookies to hold their shape. Yield: probably close to the same as for the starlights, approximately 36 cookies.

COMING UP: I attempt to overcome my cornflake cookie skepticism.

December 22, 2009

A Smash Hit Christmas Pageant Extravaganza!: NaCoBakMo, Day 24.

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:58 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

I am pleased to report that our Sunday School Christmas Pageant was a tremendous success. This was my first experience directing a Christmas pageant, although goodness knows I participated in a ton of them when I was a kid. My parents easily recall my first appearance onstage around preschool age when I had a short line in the pageant. They practiced with me over and over again, emphasizing how it was a big room and I would really need to project my voice to be heard. Apparently I showed up and the folks in charge handed me a microphone into which I dutifully boomed my line just as instructed, causing severe auditory damage to everyone in the building. They may have been lamenting their hearing loss for years afterwards, but, dammit, no one could say I didn’t have stage presence!

Later my mom became involved in the whole Christmas Pageant process, and our family became totally pageant-savvy. The jockeying of position to be Gabriel (a part which is coveted as a major, steal-the-show-type role, with the added benefit of not requiring a child to hold hands with someone of the opposite sex as poor Mary and Joseph are often forced to do); the girls who live for that moment of wearing their angel halos; the frantic search for the baby Jesus; the mumbling of the second verse of Away in a Manger—it’s all part of the Christmas Pageant DNA.

Pageant directors, expecting that the audience has seen the whole plain vanilla nativity thing before and some of the kids might be looking for a challenge, tend to seek out ways to spice things up a bit. My personal favorite Christmas Pageant from when I was growing up involved a story-within-a-story arrangement: a narrator (my mom, I believe, holding what I am almost certain was our oversized copy of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas which had been covered in tinfoil to make it look like a really snazzy storybook) told the Christmas story to a fairly large cast of characters that might have been from Santa’s workshop, with some lucky kids getting the chance to be one of the colorful worker types and other kids stuck having the same old Mary/Joseph/shepherds/etc. assignments.

I had the plum part of Candy Maker. I still remember the hat my mom made as part of my costume: it was sewn from white piqué and had a holly sprig for decoration. Boy, did I love that hat. She probably did a lot of sewing that year, as a whole battery of Santa’s workshop employees would not exactly have been part of the church’s stock costumes. (Perhaps this bit of background gives you some insight into the source of my little “going a tad overboard on the Christmas Pageant” problem.)

One other thing I remember very, very clearly about that particular Christmas Pageant: the congregation was so wowed that they actually applauded. Now, applause is fairly common in church these days, or at least it happens frequently enough in mine—but remember, this was a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church; we didn’t even exchange the Sign of Peace in there. Never in my short life had I heard applause in the middle of a church service, but, that day, applaud they did. As well they should have; it was an amazing show. If I didn’t say it then, I’ll say it now: Well done, Mom. You have to know you did something great when it’s remembered so fondly more than thirty years later.

But for my first time out as director a giant extravaganza was not something I could have managed. We were limited by what was a fairly small cast. We also had very little rehearsal time available to us, as kids are so much more heavily scheduled than they were 30-odd years ago, and the parents didn’t have a lot of extra time to give either. Still, by keeping it simple we pulled it off, although it looked a little dicey there for a bit. It is miraculous indeed how the experience can go from a totally chaotic dress rehearsal with small children wandering around confusedly and/or racing around uncontrollably to a relatively organized performance full of serene, cherubic angels. One of the great mysteries of life, I’d say.

All of the kids did a great job. Naturally I was particularly proud of Unfocused Girl, who was a marvelous narrator…

…and Unfocused Junior, who was a very Linus-esque shepherd.

Amazingly, simple as it was, the congregation expressed over and over again how much they enjoyed it. (One of the very nice things about the volunteer work I’ve been doing over there lately is that people have been generous in their appreciation; it’s easy not to say anything at all, so I am grateful for the positive feedback.) One of the church’s elder statesmen sought me out afterwards to say, “I saw the rehearsal last week and I thought this was going to be a DISASTER. Instead it turned out to be one of the nicest Christmas pageants we’ve ever had!” This, of course, was due to my iron-fisted direction, as can be seen in this photo from that morning’s dress rehearsal:

"People! Pay Attention! It's time for the Star Dance!"

In that picture you can also see a portion of the backdrop I was frantically sewing the night before, as described here. I must say it was pretty fantastic. I think the big “reveal” when the curtains were first opened during Mary & Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem was effective, and the fancy pants Mary/Joseph/Jesus silhouette effect I had envisioned for inside the stable worked beautifully, just as I had hoped.

This is not to say that there weren’t occasional moments of confusion once we reached showtime. One of the shepherds improvised some additional wandering after the big arrival at the stable, and I had to peek from my hiding place to coax him back:

"PSST! Shepherd! Come back! You're not done!"

But, as I was expressly told in advance, everyone would have been quite disappointed if it had been a perfect performance; people live for those unscripted moments when children exhibit spontaneous, irrepressible cuteness. Of course, there’s plenty of irrepressible cuteness even when the kids are doing what they’re supposed to do: witness this shot of the big finale, with another good look at that killer (if a little bunched up) backdrop. There are several more angels and three wise men (all girls, so Unfocused Girl drove me crazy throughout the rehearsal process by correcting my terminology: “Wise people, mommy!”) cut off on the house right side of the photo.

So I guess it was a Christmas Pageant Extravaganza after all! Even if we didn’t have any Candy Makers.

Well, perhaps there were no Candy Makers at church this year, but instead I am doing an extended run as the Stealth Cookie Baker of the Night. Usually it’s a solo show, but I have occasional special guests; performances daily, but the show will close soon. A few more cookies and some wrapping and I’m HOME FREE!

Since it was another church-y day, I figured I’d use another church-y recipe. This one is a recent addition to my recipe file from a nice lady at church who often prepares cookies for the Sunday coffee hours. I had explained how I couldn’t allow Unfocused Junior to eat the baked goods because of the peanut and egg allergy issues, and she was pleased to say that her cookies were free of both. What a find! They have a similar texture to sand dabs, but the Rice Krispies give them some bite.

Crispie Rice Cookies

1 c (1/2 lb, 2 sticks) butter
1 c sugar
2 1/4 t vanilla extract
1 1/2 c flour
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
2 c Rice Krispies

Preheat oven to 325º. Prepare cookie sheets with baking parchment.

In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in vanilla extract. In a medium bowl combine flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Gradually combine with butter/sugar mixture. When well incorporated, fold in Rice Krispies.

Spoon onto cookie sheets in rounded teaspoonfuls. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or adjust as needed.

Note: I took the cheat of using an ice cream scoop because I needed to speed up the process and get my weary self to bed; it was not sensible to stay up crazy late after the exhausting Christmas pageant situation. The scoop moves things along lickety-split, but in this case I think it makes the cookies too large. It definitely impacted my baking time and temperature, as I needed to up the oven temp to 350º to get them to bake properly. I’d go with smaller cookies and the lower oven temperature, and I’d watch the timing carefully—they might not need quite so long if they’re smaller.

Hitting the wall, rescued by the Original Supermom: NaCoBakMo, Days 23 & 25.

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:55 am by the Green-Eyed Siren

Day 23 was my first day of really not quite making it on NaCoBakMo. I made the dough for gingerbread early in the day, but turned over the actual cookie production to the crack team of my mom and kids, who handled it zestily. This is my mother’s signature cookie recipe, so I felt almost justified in passing off the work to her experienced hands. She was on call for a night of babysitting so Mr. Unfocused and I could get out to one of the very few social engagements we ever seem to have, an annual Christmas party that is always an elegantly raucous good time. Unfortunately I was tied to the sewing machine for hours and hours that day making a backdrop for the Sunday School Christmas pageant taking place the following morning, and as the hours wore on it appeared that I might not be going anywhere after all.

About now I’m guessing you’re wondering what the hell is going on with me and church. Honestly I’m not quite sure myself. I realize that all the church activities I’ve been describing for the last month makes it look like I am not merely a churchgoer but one of God’s Chosen Messengers, and you’re going to have to take my word for it that that is really not me. Far closer to the truth would be to say I’m more like Ado Annie from Oklahoma!—I Caint Say No.

Yes, I’m easy. Tell me your organization is in need of someone to take on an outrageously large volunteer task and I can’t resist. I go all in. A few years back, that’s where I was with one of the kids’ schools, and now that’s where I am with church. But, as Annie wonders, “Whatcha gonna do?”

So Saturday night found me at the sewing machine, surrounded by yards upon yards of muslin and quilting fabric in varying shades of starry blues, in much the same position I had been in that morning, not to mention the previous Wednesday. My mother had the cookies well in hand, and the kids were having a ball examining all of the new cutters from the assortment I had picked up a few days before.

If I had not been starting into full-on panic mode, it would have been a perfect pre-Christmas late afternoon—and even with my increasing worry about finishing in time to get to the party it was still pretty nice. We had this episode of A Prairie Home Companion streaming live; we were excited to tune in because one of our best friends from college sings with the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York and they were featured on the program. They sounded great (and we followed our friend on Twitter throughout, which was fun), and Keillor was entertaining as always. (The Lutheran jokes were, of course, the most appreciated around here, although we also were quite amused by the Unitarian Christmas carols.) Meanwhile, my mom was rolling, the kids were cutting, I was sewing, the tree was glowing, and Mr. Unfocused was buzzing about, keeping everything moving and under control. Even as I started to wonder in alarm if I would actually fail at this theatrical undertaking I was aware that it was a very pleasant atmosphere.

Around 7:30 I reached the point where I was confident the worst of the work was over, leaving me with a few manageable hems I could finish upon returning from the party (hopefully not too late). I flew up the stairs, grabbed a quick shower, and dressed appropriately for a lovely evening, all the while attempting to refocus my brain away from harried anxiety to breezy party mode. We went out and had fun, but I was back at the machine by midnight. Eventually I made it to bed for a refreshing four and a half hours before it was time to haul out to church and make sure that backdrop would actually hang in the sanctuary (it did; pictures to follow). Thank goodness for my mom and kids handling the actual baking that day.

My mom, coming to the rescue, teaching my kids the finer points of making rolled cookies. Thanks, Mom!

Mom’s Gingerbread (from Better Homes & Gardens Cookies and Candies, c. 1970; leafing through this book now brings back memories of childhood days spent in deep contemplation of its fascinating pictures)

1 c shortening
1 c granulated sugar
1 egg
1 c molasses
2 T vinegar
5 c sifted all-purpose flour
1 1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
2 to 3 t ground ginger
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t ground cloves

Preheat oven to 375º. Grease baking sheets.

Thoroughly cream shortening with sugar. Stir in egg, molasses, and vinegar; beat well. Sift together dry ingredients; stir into molasses mixture. Chill at least 3 hours.

On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to 1/8″ thickness. Cut with cookie cutters. Place one inch apart on greased cookie sheets. Bake for 5 to 6 minutes. Cool slightly; remove from cookie sheet and cool on rack. Once fully cooled, decorate if desired. Makes 5 dozen 4-inch cookies.

Now, once you get your gingerbread cookies done they are perfectly lovely just as they are, but they also inspire decorating desires in the hearts of children and madwomen. Further, decorating gingerbread cookies (particularly with the assistance of two helpers under the age of ten) is EXTREMELY time-consuming. In my case, I was too worn out to attempt it on Day 24 once we returned home from the Sunday School pageant; instead I baked a quickie after the kids went to bed and called it a day. That meant doing the decorating today, on Day 25, fitting because it is my mother’s birthday. How better to honor her by lovingly and carefully embellishing her signature cookies? I had expected to accomplish both this decorating and the baking of another cookie which I consider to be my favorite of my mother’s recipes, but after nearly four hours of dealing with icing-covered children I figured I had put in my NaCoBakMo time for the day. Here are the finally-done cookies along with the icing recipe I used, courtesy of Joy of Baking.com.

Royal Icing (using Meringue Powder)

4 c sifted confectioners’ sugar
3 T meringue powder
1/2 t almond extract (I used imitation, due to the nut allergy issue)
1/2 c water
gel paste food coloring

In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), beat the confectioners’ sugar and meringue powder until combined.  Add the water and beat on medium to high speed until very glossy and stiff peaks form (5 to 7 minutes). If necessary, to get the right consistency, add more powdered sugar or water. To cover or ‘flood’ the entire surface of the cookie with icing, the proper consistency is when you lift the beater, the ribbon of icing that falls back into the bowl remains on the surface of the icing for a few seconds before disappearing. The icing needs to be used immediately or transferred to an airtight container as royal icing hardens when exposed to air. Cover with plastic wrap when not in use.

AND LAST BUT NOT BY ANY MEANS LEAST: A very Happy Birthday to a mom I love, respect, and admire. I am so fortunate to have such a strong, smart, and savvy lady to guide me through this bumpy life.

Not enough hours in the day: NaCoBakMo, Days 21 & 22.

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:51 am by the Green-Eyed Siren

Day 21 of NaCoBakMo was the day before our church’s first Advent Choral Vespers service, and our nine-voice women’s choir (of which I am a member) was performing John Rutter’s Dancing Day. I was responsible for the program layout, and it was a nasty one to put together—the page turns just stubbornly refused to behave themselves, and pulling together all the various elements in the correct order was time-consuming, and all in all it was just a huge time suck. Later that night at our dress rehearsal all hell broke loose as we became aware that our harpist had not had adequate time to prepare for the Rutter (which, in all fairness, is apparently one of the most challenging works in the harp repertoire). Serious scrambling took place post-rehearsal, and we were very, very fortunate (like on a Christmas Miracle level, actually) to find an amazing replacement by 11 pm that night. We would get our only time with her during the brief warm-up/run-through the next day, but at least we’d have a shot of pulling it off.

The next day was a whirlwind. It was the last day of school before winter break, so I needed to prepare the fruit tray I’d volunteered for my daughter’s classroom party. A quick stop at Target was on the agenda, both for last-minute Christmas thingys and materials for distributing my cookie largesse. There were several more hours of work to do on the program book, and then the performance that night; I also had found out I’d be doing a bunch of chanting so I needed to practice lest I look like an idiot. The program had me the most concerned: since it was complex I really didn’t trust anyone else to print it, and I decided we would have to go straight to church from school pick-up in order to leave enough printing time (120 copies of a 20-page book is not exactly speedy, even on a fancy copier that does all the work for you). I tossed my few remaining pieces of presentable looking (and clean! woot!) clothing into a bag along with a little makeup (there was no time for glamour, but I could at least look like I had made a tiny bit of effort). I picked the kids up from school and we raced off to church, where we camped out by the copier until rehearsal and, finally, the service. The new harpist was amazing, the chants went fine, the Rutter was really lovely, and we had a decent crowd in spite of a little bit of weather: all told, a very successful event. Then a post-service coffee hour that ended in a surprisingly festive neighborhood blackout, followed by collapsing at home.

All of that added up to some serious cookie difficulty for two days. Somehow, however, I managed to get a batch of cookies made during the school day on both of those days, but I admit to some cheating: I essentially baked the same recipe twice, with the excuse that I wanted to see what difference could be made by using a shortening/butter combo vs. all-butter (I also reduced the flour on the all-butter version). I was going for a very chewy cookie, and based on my very positive experience with Day 19’s (yet-to-be-posted) cookie I thought I’d be pleased with that combo, but the alchemy of cookies is such that all the other differences in the recipe yielded a totally different cookie experience. Not bad at all—in fact, really, really good—but different than I expected. The all-butter version ended up being closer to what I was seeking, so that’s what I recommend, and that’s the recipe I will post.

I based the recipe on the spice combo in a Maida Heatter recipe for Mexican chocolate cookies, but that recipe was for a very crisp and bittersweet cookie. I was looking for something my kids would eat, hence the search for a nicely chewy cookie. (In addition to the Maida Heatter recipe and the Day 19 recipe I also consulted the Day 9 Chewy Chocolate Cherry recipe to get the proportions right.) Both the shortening/butter and all-butter versions of these cookies were great and gobbled up by my family, but they do prefer the butter version. They have a very brownie-like consistency.

As I was making this recipe I thought about one of my two best friends from college, who first introduced me to the idea of Mexican hot chocolate. I had never heard of the chocolate/cinnamon combo before arriving on campus as a fresh young coed, but she was a well-traveled, sophisticated, class-act young woman who was also very kind and generous of spirit, and she happily shared with me the chocolate/cinnamon secret. Thanks, M, these are in your honor.

Day 21: The shortening/butter combo cookies. They held their shape in the oven remarkably well, almost too much so.

Day 22: The all-butter version. A little more spread, but definitely not too much. Also, only half of the cookies were baked right away; the other half waited until later that night. The ones that were delayed came out much, much darker in color. The cocoa powder seems to have had more opportunity to fully dissolve into the dough. It might be worth allowing it to rest a bit before baking in order to get the richest possible experience.

Chewy Mexican Chocolate Cookies

1 c butter
1/2 c brown sugar
1 c white sugar
2 eggs
2 c flour
3/4 c cocoa powder
2 t cinnamon
a generous pinch of finely ground black pepper
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt

Preheat oven to 350º. Prepare baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl beat butter and sugars until fluffy. Add eggs and beat well. In a medium mixing bowl gently combine flour, cinnamon, pepper, baking soda, and salt. Gradually add dry mixture to butter mixture.

Using a medium-sized ice cream scoop and leaving roughly an inch and a half between cookies, scoop batter onto baking sheets. Bake for 11-13 minutes. Allow to cool on sheets for two minutes, then transfer to wire rack to complete cooling. Yield: at ice-cream scoop size, about 24 cookies. Smaller scoops will yield more cookies.

This one sneaks up on you: NaCoBakMo, Day 20.

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:48 am by the Green-Eyed Siren

On Day 20 with the Christmas crunch hard on my heels I was in serious need of another bar cookie that would bake up pretty quickly, so I turned to another toffee square recipe. Not wishing to come too close to repeating Edna’s Toffee Squares (Day 4) I went in search of something with a distinctive flavor and texture.

This recipe comes from a book I strongly recommend: Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. There is a lot of very good stuff in there—and she is fantastically detailed in her preparation descriptions—so it’s well worth making space for it on your cookbook shelf. I substituted pretzels run through the food processor for the walnuts, and it worked out quite nicely. Just don’t over-crush the pretzels, because you’re not looking for a powder here. When I first tasted this cookie out of the oven, I was a little underwhelmed. That didn’t last too long, though, because pretty soon I was eating up the ones that were just slightly burned (and therefore unacceptable for shipping out to you lovely people) with astonishing speed. I found myself thinking about them at random moments and wondering how many were left; pretty soon, that number was zero. They improve with a day of aging, I’d say. They are very crispy and crunchy and are quite possibly dangerously addictive.

Dolly’s Crisp Toffee Bars

1 c (two sticks; 1/2 pound) butter
1/2 t salt
1 t vanilla extract
1 c light or dark brown sugar, firmly packed
2 c sifted all-purpose flour
4 oz (generous 1 c) walnuts, cut into medium-sized pieces (or substitute pretzels for nut-free baking)
6 oz (1 c) semisweet chocolate morsels

Preheat oven to 350º.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer cream the butter. Add the salt, vanilla, and sugar and beat well. On low speed gradually add the flour, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula and beating until the mixture holds together. Add the nuts (or pretzels) and chocolate morsels and stir until they are evenly distributed.

The dough will be stiff. With a teaspoon or with your fingers place small mounds of the dough in an unbuttered 10.5 x 15.5 x 1-inch jelly-roll pan. With floured fingertips press the dough firmly to make an even layer—it will be thin.

Bake for 25 minutes, reversing the pan front to back once to insure even baking. The cake will be golden brown.

Let cool in the pan for only a minute or so. Then, with a small, sharp knife, cut into bars. Let stand in the pan until cool.

With a wide metal spatula transfer the cookies to paper towels to dry the bottoms. Wrap them individually in clear cellophane or wax paper or store them in an airtight container.

NOTE: I used my 11 x 17-inch cookie sheet, not being in possession of a jelly-roll pan. They turned out very well, although a little more brown around the edges than was ideal. I recommend reducing the baking time a bit if you go that route. Also, I never do very much to sift my flour. At most I’ll gently combine the dry ingredients with a whisk, because I am lazy.

Alert: NaCoBakMo Day 19 Report Delayed.

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:47 am by the Green-Eyed Siren

Because my Day 19 post only exists as a bunch of notes at the moment, but I have several other posts ready to go, I’m going out of order again. Day 19 is worth waiting for, though—it was a FANTASTIC cookie. Should be up later tonight.

December 17, 2009

Update: baking, yes, blogging, no.

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:50 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

OK, there are still lots of cookie things happening, but I am now officially totally jammed. I promise to catch you up on all the details of multiple days of cookies on Monday, after I can come up for air. Wish me luck!

December 16, 2009

The Nemesis Subdued: NaCoBakMo, Day 18.

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:10 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

All right. A very brief post here as I’m still recovering from the personal catharsis of unleashing my Lucia obsession upon the world yesterday. I also have a truly alarming amount of pre-Christmas “work” to do: rehearsals yesterday and Thursday, singing on Friday, doing the program layout for that event, getting all the shopping completed before school lets out on Friday, quilting a massively large stage backdrop of the stable for the Sunday School Christmas pageant this Sunday. I’m also not eating properly or sleeping well, and Mr. Unfocused is out of town again. Yes, I’m on the precipice called insanity, and making this a proper blog post will cause me to tumble headfirst.

So, in brief: Spritz cookies are a major hassle. They have bedeviled me in the past. They are super duper fussy: the dough never works the way you want it to, and it’s impossible to get the pressure consistent on a cookie press. As a result, I’ve avoided them for some time.

When I first decided to do National Cookie Baking Month, I knew I’d have to face up to them. I decided to put them later in the month, when I’d have a lot of cookies under my belt already—but before school was out, because I didn’t want the children to hear me cursing with such enthusiasm. Monday (Day 18), was the designated day, and I approached it with significant apprehension.

I made ready with my supplies, including a new Wilton cookie press my mom had given me some years back following my last bout with spritz. I had not had the courage to try it out as yet, but now it was time. I checked a few recipes from my reliable sources and did a search on the internet just to be fully informed before going in, and I settled on my formula. A few minutes to mix up the dough, then a few more to take apart and wash the cookie press, then a few more still to figure out how to put it back together again. I loaded the dough into the press, turned my eyes heavenward and took a deep breath, and off I went.

It was totally amazing: that new cookie press made a world of difference. It seems that there have been significant technological improvements since my mother’s cookie press (probably her mother’s, actually) came off the assembly line. Those cookies just popped right out of the press, one by one, as perfect as could be. So if you are ever in your life going to make spritz cookies, by all means run out and get yourself a new-fangled cookie press like this one (mine is a generation behind, but still leaps and bounds ahead of the 1940s press) and wave it at the dough, saying, “You are not the boss of me!” It will be terrorized into submission.

Spritz Cookies
with appreciation to What’s Cooking America.net (I highly recommend checking their site for preparation advice. It’s very complete.)

2 cups butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg, well beaten
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract OR pure almond extract (best with almond)
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

food coloring and sprinkles, if desired

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Refrigerate UNGREASED cookie sheets until ready to use.

In a large bowl, mix butter until creamy. Gradually add sugar; cream until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat well; stir in vanilla extract and food coloring, if using. Gradually add flour to mixture, beating well after each addition.

Pack the dough into a Cookie Press (disks can include wreath shapes, stars, crescents, etc). Begin cranking and twisting (if you use an automatic cookie press follow manufacturer’s instructions) the cookie dough through cookie press, forming desired shapes, onto chilled ungreased cookie sheets about 1-inch apart. Decorate with sprinkles if desired.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking time, or until light brown. Remove from oven and cool on baking sheet until just warm, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Using a thin, wide metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire cooling racks and cool to room temperature.

When cookies are completely cool, store airtight at room temperature for up to several days. Freeze for longer storage in airtight bags. These cookies will pick up moisture from the air; on a damp day it takes only six hours to turn crisp cookies into soft cookies.

Yields 6 dozen cookies.

UP NEXT: Against my principles I enter a Macy’s department store in quest of a good cookie.

December 15, 2009

Confessions of a Lucia Wannabe: NaCoBakMo, Day 17.

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:37 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Not too many baking days left before Christmas: have you made your donation to the Irving Park Community Food Pantry yet? Looks like I’ll be aiming to ship these babies out via our nation’s fine postal service on December 26 and 27. Piles of cookies are packed away, anxiously waiting to make their way to you. So far, cookies are scheduled to go to Seattle, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, New York, and, of course, Chicago—and, most importantly, we’ve raised over $200 for the IPCFP. Mr. Unfocused and I are matching donations up to $500, so donate and send me your e-receipt along with shipping info so I can send you some cookies in appreciation!

A few days ago, I told you about my church’s annual Santa Lucia Dinner, a heartwarming event built around the Scandinavian celebration of Santa Lucia Day. Each December 13 in Sweden and Norway the oldest daughter of the family is called upon to bake Lucia buns for her family, make the morning coffee, and deliver said delicacies to her family while wearing a crown of candles atop her youthful head. Or so I’ve been told.

In the Lutheran church of my childhood, I recall only one potluck dinner with a Lucia theme. Our congregation had come to the assistance of a young Scandinavian woman who had lost most of her possessions in an apartment fire; to give something back to the church, she offered to introduce us to the festival of Santa Lucia with a traditional Lucia procession. Some of the girls in the congregation were permitted to be her attendants. I may or may not have been included among them (I was quite small, and I don’t remember), but I knew right then and there that my life would not be complete until I had a chance to wear that crown of candles.

Words cannot express how much I wanted to be at the center of this ritual, but, alas, it was not to be. Our family didn’t maintain this tradition, as it was utterly foreign to my father’s German ancestry and my mother’s Swedish/Norwegian/German family hadn’t concerned themselves with it. My mom remembers the clear message that her immigrant ancestors had done a “See ya! Wouldn’t wanna be ya!” jaunty salute in the direction of their homeland, turned towards America, and jettisoned as many traditions as they could reasonably stomach in order to fully embrace their new identity and country. So while she grew up in a family that was all about the coffee and coffee cake—and even maintained a membership in good standing at the Swedish Club where she was free to observe the adults drinking and gambling in Swedish style—they were all just a little too modern to be putting candles on her head for a special morning of potentially life-threatening servitude.

But the passage of time brightens the shine of abandoned traditions, and my mother came to embrace her roots more and more, developing some of her closest friendships with a group of strong Norwegian immigrant women. She traveled to Norway with several of them one memorable December, and had such a wonderful time she returned the next summer with me and my brother in tow. It was fantastic—a place simultaneously fully real and fully magical, a place of welcoming people and staggering beauty.

Of course, I knew nothing of the reality of Scandinavia when I was a child; all I knew was that I wanted one of those crowns. And the robe. And the sash, and the coffee pot, and the tray…the whole deal, my friends. I wanted it all. (Harriet said in her comment about the Lucia Dinner post that she was one of the lucky girls to wear the candle crown—and I must say I will burn with jealousy til the end of my days over that. Nothing personal, Harriet!)

I do not blame my parents in any way. We had wonderful Christmases which I cherish in my memory, where they sparkle and glow in the palette of the 1970s photos in our family albums. Also, I have to speculate that even if they had been aware of the secret desire of my innermost heart those crowns were probably hard to come by in the United States in the 70s.

But not anymore. Now we live in the Global Economy (I really want to say Global “Economy”—is that too cynical?), and you can get a battery-operated Lucia crown (no fire hazards here!) with a simple few clicks of the mouse, which is exactly what I did a few years ago.

I bought it for my daughter, who had been similarly infected with Lucia-wannabe-itis. I’m not certain, but I think it happened when we attended our first Lucia dinner when she was around four years old. I explained what was going on, and the whole candle thing, and, just like me, she KNEW her destiny when she saw it. The dinner was a few days before December 13, like this year, so I said, “Sure, we can celebrate somehow. I know! I won’t be able to get a crown in time, but don’t worry, I’ll get you one of those handheld battery-operated candles and you can lead us all downstairs to breakfast!” She was only four, so we had to be realistic in our expectations of what she could manage; carrying a tray upstairs would have been too much for her.

I only had a few days to make arrangements, and with a four year-old and a toddler, my efforts to shop for supplies met with no success. Desperate, on the night of December 12 I left Mr. Unfocused in charge and headed off to the drugstore after the kids were asleep. After all, those battery-operated Christmas candles are all over the place, right? Wrong. There are no battery-operated taper candles anywhere, much less at a drugstore at 9:30 p.m., and I was really sweating it. She had gone to bed confident in the knowledge that we would have a lovely Lucia morning with her as the guiding light, and I was on the verge of seriously blowing it.

The Universe picked up on my distress, however, and presented me with another option: a 10-inch high LED-lit acrylic angel statue the likes of which I would not under any other circumstances allow into my house. But this was my only chance to salvage a child’s dream, and having shared that dream for so long I took a chance that she would accept the substitution. I needn’t have worried. The angel’s blue glow was the most entrancing sight she had ever beheld, and she carried it proudly down the stairs, leading us to our breakfast. Even after acquiring a crown the following year she insisted we continue to use it, as we have ever since.

Now that she is older she can handle carrying a tray upstairs, so we are inching ever closer to what this tradition is really supposed to look like. For the last several years she has worn the white gown I made for her Egyptian queen Halloween costume from when she was six, although it’s considerably shorter on her now than it used to be. Usually she has a red sash—really just an unhemmed 1/8 yard of red satin—but it lives in the costume box the rest of the year and at some point in 2009 acquired some kind of superhero symbol in permanent marker; we substituted similarly unhemmed green satin this time. The angel takes pride of place on the tray with the coffee and rolls, which, this being America, are giant pull-apart cinnamon rolls of decadence (frequently known as monkey bread, bonus recipe below) rather than quaint Lucia buns. For unlike Scandinavians, unfettered as they are by an American diet of nonstop sugar and fat, we require a little more pizazz and a lot more calories to make waking up early in the morning on a weekend worthwhile.

Unfocused Girl takes her responsibility very seriously, assuming her most serene demeanor when preparing for this special delivery.

I am very fond of our way of incorporating Lucia traditions into our house, but it has crossed my mind that perhaps there are a few flaws in the plan. As conceived, it should pretty much amount to a nice morning of breakfast in bed for the parents. In reality, here at Casa Unfocused it involves me racing around the night before to assemble all the stuff, getting up early the next morning to bake the cinnamon rolls and make the coffee, and carrying up the second of the two trays behind my daughter. This year I couldn’t even climb back into bed for a cinnamon roll, as I had to race off to church early to sing. But that’s not the primary indignity. My true objection is this: I do all that work, and I STILL DON’T GET TO WEAR A CROWN. I have never even tried it on. There is something seriously unfair about this arrangement! I demand justice!

Oh, all right, I’ll shut up if you pass me a cinnamon roll.

Our Lucia morning spread, complete with dreidel-and-pennies from the previous night's Hanukkah celebration. My, how our heads do spin at this time of year.

Bonus recipe:

Overnight Pull-Apart Cinnamon Rolls (aka Monkey Bread)

18 unbaked frozen dinner rolls (like Rhodes; this year the store didn’t have them so I used 1 1/2 loaves of Rhodes frozen bread, thawed slightly and sliced into about 20 roll-sized pieces)
1 c brown sugar
1/4 c instant vanilla pudding mix
2 t ground cinnamon
1/3 c butter, melted

Lightly spray a 10-inch bundt pan with cooking spray. Place frozen rolls in the pan and sprinkle with brown sugar, pudding mix, and cinnamon. Pour melted butter over the top. Cover with a damp, clean cloth and leave overnight at room temperature to rise. In the morning, preheat oven to 350º. Bake rolls for 25 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to rest for no more than one minute, then turn out onto a serving pan. Serve warm.

Today’s cookie is Kanelkakor, quite possibly the cookie I have been making by myself for the longest time. It might just be my favorite cookie. I found the recipe when I was maybe 12 years old as I was studying my mom’s collection of Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery books. They were great books back then, and I suspect they still have a lot of value packed in them. This cookie was included in the section on Swedish cooking; I was probably reviewing it while fantasizing about the day I would lead a Lucia procession. I no longer use the walnuts due to fear of peanut contamination, but they turn out pretty well without them. I admit they are just a little bit better with them, though.

Kanelkakor (Swedish Cinnamon Cookies)
from Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery

2/3 c butter
1 c sugar
1 egg
1 t vanilla extract
1 1/3 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1 t ground cinnamon
1/2 c walnuts, finely chopped (I omit these)
2 T each ground cinnamon and sugar, mixed

Preheat oven to 350º. Prepare cookie sheets using baking parchment or by greasing and flouring.

In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar. Beat in egg and vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and 1 t cinnamon. Gradually add to egg mixture and blend thoroughly. Chill for 30 minutes. Combine walnuts and mixed cinnamon and sugar. Roll chilled dough into balls the size of walnuts. Roll each ball in walnut-cinnamon-sugar. Place cookies on prepared cookie sheets about 3 inches apart. Bake for approximately 12 minutes. Yield: roughly 36 cookies.

LATER TODAY: Meeting an old nemesis.

December 13, 2009

Sin: NaCoBakMo, Day 16.

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:38 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Note: We may have identified one of the issues preventing folks from making a donation to the Irving Park Community Food Pantry (remember, $25 to this fine organization will result in a nice box of cookies being mailed to you by me, the Green-Eyed Siren, as long as you send me your receipt). It seems that typing a $ in the box before your donation amount is resulting in an unsuccessful transaction. Try it with just a number and see if that does the trick. Don’t forget to send your e-receipt to sirensyncopated at gmail dot com, and include your shipping address!

When one has been a peanut butter fan for essentially her entire life, giving it up cold turkey is pretty difficult. Sad to say, this is precisely what I was called upon to do when Junior was diagnosed with his peanut allergy. It’s not that I’m a peanut butter fanatic or anything, but it’s true that I do enjoy a tasty PB&J every now and again. And, you know, peanut butter on a banana makes for a nice treat. Come to think of it, I have a fantastic recipe for Spicy Peanut Noodles. And how about Thai food? Peanuts are all over the place there. Plus when Halloween rolls around I am particularly drawn to those tasty Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Snickers bars, and all manner of peanut-chocolate combo goodness.

But never mind. I can do this! I can totally live without peanuts. They are utterly unnecessary to my existence. For the last few years I have managed to allow Mr. Unfocused to simply throw away the peanut products that show up in the kids’ trick-or-treat bags. I no longer rescue and hoard a couple in high places out of Junior’s reach, waiting for a moment alone to surreptitiously savor them—followed by obssessive-compulsive handwashing to eliminate any trace of contamination. I have come to accept the lack of “Your chocolate’s in my peanut butter!” “No, your peanut butter’s in my chocolate!” “It’s de-li-cious!” “De-li-cious!” moments in my life.

Or so I thought.

Because last night, in a desperate search to find a cookie I could manage to produce in a timely manner, I remembered the big bag of Hershey’s Kisses I purchased in expectation of making cookies with them. A quick visit to the Hershey website and I found a plethora of recipes before me. And—what’s this?—a recipe for Peanut Butter Blossom cookies. Ohhhh…they looked good. Very good. But we have this little peanut problem. What to do?

Soy nut butter to the rescue!

Yes, a simple substitution and I was prepared to luxuriate once again in Sin City or, at least, a reasonable facsimile thereof. I’ll take it. These cookies provide an experience reminiscent of that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup I jilted without warning five long, long years ago.

Ordinarily I’d be concerned about the issue of peanut contamination for the chocolate portion of this cookie. Thankfully, Hershey is one of the few chocolate manufacturers that appears to be basically trustworthy on the peanut contamination issue. I suspect they make so many plain chocolate products that they can have one whole plant devoted to exclusively to their manufacture. Once you get into the specialty stuff the peanut warnings start showing up, but the basic Hershey bar or Hershey’s Kiss appears to be A-OK. Or at least that’s what I like to tell myself.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have a date with a cookie. Don’t wait up.

Peanut Allergy-Safe Kisses

48 Hershey’s Kisses
1/2 cup butter, softened OR shortening
3/4 cup creamy soy nut butter (or peanut butter, if not avoiding)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 egg
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Additional granulated sugar, between 1/2 and 1 cup, for rolling

Preheat oven to 375°F. Remove wrappers from chocolates. Prepare baking sheets with parchment, if desired.

Beat butter (or shortening) and soy nut (or peanut) butter in large bowl until well blended. Add 1/3 cup granulated sugar and brown sugar; beat until fluffy. Add egg, milk and vanilla; beat well. Stir together flour, baking soda and salt; gradually beat into soy nut (peanut) butter mixture.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Roll in granulated sugar; place on ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Immediately press a chocolate into center of each cookie; cookie will crack around edges. Remove from cookie sheet to wire rack. Cool completely. Yield: about 4 dozen cookies.

NEXT UP: An at-home Lucia morning, American-style! Yeah!


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