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.



  1. The Lass said,

    I am here to very belatedly tell the blog world that your cookies were INCREDIBLE. You bake good, lady. And kudos to you for not coming up with this idea during what sounded like one of your most hectic times of year. HUZZAH.

    Also, please write more. :)

  2. The Lass said,

    I meant to say “for coming up” – where’d that not come from?

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