December 12, 2009

A nut-free cause for rejoicing: NaCoBakMo, Day 15.

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:50 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Today, I bring you Evelyn’s Butter Crescents, another recipe from my grandmother’s kitchen. I’m putting her name on this one because she deserves accolades to be shouted from the mountaintop in her name in gratitude for this cookie. Unlike the 1937 recipe I gave you on Day 5, this is one of her all-time go-to recipes; not the jottings of a newly-minted housewife trying to determine what works, it is instead the totally spectacular and reliable product of an experienced baker with years of cookies for her husband and boys under her belt.

This is my dad’s favorite cookie ever. I was under the mistaken impression that it was made from almonds, so I haven’t thought of making them. To my delight, a chance observation at my dad’s kitchen table has re-ordered my cookie universe. It turns out that my dad’s wife, a lovely woman possessed of great forethought, secured the recipe from my grandmother before she died—and not only are there no nuts in these, there are no eggs either! I think they thought I had the recipe already and just didn’t make it, but, alas!—’tis not so. This would have been a totally Junior-safe nut-free, egg-free cookie during the last few years of eggless baking. Still, I am so relieved to have the recipe now I’m not going to worry about the last few years of crescent deprivation.

For this recipe is extraordinary indeed. So, so simple—a mere five ingredients—but if butter crescents float your boat it might be the best cookie you ever tasted. I say that this makes 4 dozen cookies, but the truth is I have no clear idea of its true yield: the kids and I simply couldn’t stop snacking on the dough, which is amazingly delicious too. I tell you, you cannot go wrong with this cookie.

Here’s what the crescents look like before they go in the oven:

And here they are in their completed glory. I don’t know how we’re going to keep these around long enough to send out to my happy band of cookie subscribers—they are OUT OF THIS WORLD. Go make some TODAY!

Evelyn’s Outstanding Nut-Free, Egg-Free Butter Crescents

1 c butter, softened
1/2 c powdered sugar
2 t vanilla extract
2 c flour
1/2 t salt
additional 1/2 to 3/4 c powdered sugar in a bowl, for rolling cookies in

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

Beat butter and 1/2 c powdered sugar until creamy. Beat in vanilla. Mix in flour and salt. Form dough into crescents. (I used a 1/2 T measure to scoop out a consistent amount of dough for each crescent.) Bake for 12-14 minutes. Allow to cool for two to five minutes on the cookie sheet, then carefully remove to wire rack to finish cooling. (Straight from the oven they are very fragile. My grandmother’s recipe calls for moving them right away, but this ends in losing a lot of cookies. If you do choose to move them off the sheet right away, then use the parchment to slide the whole shebang onto the rack; this will help prevent the cookies from breaking.) When fully cooled, roll in the bowl of powdered sugar. Yield: approximately 48 cookies.

TOMORROW: I have no idea. Ask me tomorrow.


A Scandinavian feast: NaCoBakMo, Day 13.

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:43 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

This past Wednesday, Day 13 of my NaCoBakMo odyssey, was the day of our church’s annual St. Lucia dinner. For more years than any of the long-time members can remember, our congregation has been gathering in the church basement on a December night to celebrate the Scandinavian holiday of Santa Lucia Day (officially December 13).

The party starts with the drinking of glögg (see Bonus Recipe #1 below), a comfortingly warm and alcoholic beverage to help offset the truly frigid conditions that seem always to be present on the night of the party (this year was no exception). After some pleasant glögg-enhanced chitchat (for my crowd, the subject is often “how are we going to manage to pull off the Sunday School Christmas pageant this year?”) and the saying of grace, it’s time for some eats. Here’s the view from my seat:

The hands of many volunteers put together the main courses: ham, meatballs, and Swedish potato sausage (which sounds peculiar, but is delicious), as well as a few key sides like the special cheeses and appropriate crackers and whatnot. Attendees pay a small amount for a ticket (this year it was only $10) and bring a potluck dish to share. By the time all is said and done, let’s just say there is no reason for anyone to walk away hungry. I am always worried that there won’t be enough potatoes at any given food-focused event (potatoes are unreasonably important to me), so I brought the world’s best potato gratin (see Bonus Recipe #2 below). It vanished pretty quickly.

After the eating is over it’s time for telling the story of Lucia, the young Italian girl who carried food to the hungry in the night, wearing candles on her head to light the way so that her hands would be free to carry her offerings. No one is quite clear on how Lucy’s legend migrated to Scandinavia, but it seems that this story of a light-bearing maiden struck the fancy of a part of the world that deals with extended darkness around this time of year.

The story is followed by the Lucia procession, wherein a young woman of the congregation dressed in a white gown, head bedecked with a crown of candles (electric, fortunately), enters the room carrying a tray of coffee and Lucia buns (some kind of caraway roll that has never really grown on me). Behind her are the other young women of the congregation, also dressed in white but without the crown distinction, carrying candles. Next come the Star Boys, boys dressed in red choir robes, clutching stars; the Star Girls take up the rear, wearing the Sunday School’s collection of angel costumes and also carrying stars. All of this takes place under dim lighting to the sound of the old Neapolitan tune “Santa Lucia.”

They make their way to the basement stage and assemble there in a little tableau (see blurry photo above). All the kids are introduced to the crowd, and then they make their way back through the basement to the narthex where they will lose both costumes and angelic demeanors, transformed back into their normal, energetic selves. Here’s my little Starboy and Stargirl holding still for a quick picture before becoming regular kids again:

I’d like to be all sophisticated here and say that the whole thing is kind of hokey, but I can’t. I’m plenty cynical, and plenty argumentative when it comes to religion, but, still, this is just nice. It’s quite special to the kids, and it’s hard not to get a little lump in your throat when you see them all enter in their sweet procession. Plus the food is good, and there’s glögg. How could I not respond to such a formidable combination?

For today’s cookie, I turned to Bev, one of the older women in our congregation. I admire her tremendously. I first met her when I was a last-minute soloist substitute at her husband’s funeral. Her husband had been the much-loved choir director there for a lengthy tenure, so many people came to pay their respects; in that cruel twist of all funerals, she was called upon to bring comfort to all those in attendance while simultaneously coping with her own staggering loss. She impressed me then with her strength.

I came to know her better as I started helping out more often as a ringer in the choir, an opportunity for which I am truly grateful.

In her younger days she raised a large family while also teaching gifted students. She is sharp as a tack, funny and irreverent, able to look at the world with both eyes wide open and accept the negatives of life while fully embracing the positives. She isn’t hidebound by an “it’s always been this way, why should we change, that’s not going to work” attitude. She’s open to new ideas and experiences, and when she commits to something she really gives it all she has. In short, Bev is a fabulous dame. I want to be her when I grow up. Between Bev and my mother, who is very much a woman cut of the same cloth, I have plenty of guidance to get me there.

Bev is one of the chief orchestrators of the Lucia ritual, and she is known for the pepperkakor she contributes to the sweet table. Pepperkakor, a cookie of Scandinavian heritage, is a lot like gingerbread, but I’d describe it as a little lighter and a little thinner. It seemed like the perfect choice of cookie for a day of Lucia celebrations.

Enough explaining. Time for the recipes.

Bonus recipe #1: Glögg
This is mostly derived from a book in my mother’s cookbook library which I’m guessing was published sometime in the 1960s, possibly titled The Art of Swedish Cookery, but also with adjustments from my mother and me. The cookbook’s recipe calls for flaming it in a chafing dish and serving with a long-handled ladle, but I’m omitting that because who can wait for such a thing? Plus, you lose so much alcoholic goodness as the wine burns. I am SO not cool with that.

1 part port to 2 parts burgundy (I use Cabernet Sauvignon instead, and I go with the 1.5 liter bottles of supermarket wine. No need to go all fancy pants here. Spices quantities below based on using 1.5 liter bottles; reduce if using .75 liter bottles.)
3/4 to 1 1/2 c raisins
2 T cardamom seeds
6 cinnamon sticks
1/2 to 1 c sugar, to taste
1 t whole cloves
2 small pieces lemon peel
1/2 to 1 c almonds, optional

Pour 1/2 of port and all burgundy into large pot. Add raisins and sugar. Tie spices in cheesecloth and drop into the mixture. Cover pan and bring very slowly to the boiling point. Let simmer 30 minutes. Add remaining port a few cups at a time, tasting for the balance that is most pleasing to you. If it seems like a good idea (it generally does to me) add a little vodka. Maybe you need a bit more sugar? I’m just asking…no, really, if you don’t think you need it that’s fine—it’s delicious. Whatever seems right to you. Now’s a good time to add the almonds if you plan to. Serve hot hot hot! I have a glögg-dedicated coffee carafe I use for parties—wonder where that got to? Also, Bodum glass teacups (mine are from Crate & Barrel) are perfect for serving.

You must understand that a glögg recipe is less a specific chemistry formula than a broad guideline. Just keep tasting to see what works for you. By the time you pronounce it done you’ll be three sheets to the wind, but that will only enhance your glögg’s perfection. And, remember, even though there are as many glögg variations as there are cooks who make it, I’ve never tasted a cup I didn’t like.

Bonus recipe #2 (No photos, though—I was racing against time to get to the dinner. Yes, it is technically French, not Scandinavian, but considering its ingredients are potatoes, cheese, and cream I think it certainly counts as Lutheran.)

Madame Cartet’s Potato Gratin
from Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking, one of my top two cookbooks of all time, the other being Julia Child’s The Way to Cook

1 garlic clove
2 lbs (1 kg) baking potatoes
1 c (about 3 ounces; 80 g) freshly grated French or Swiss Gruyère cheese
1 c (25 cl) crème fraîche or heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350º. Thoroughly rub a shallow, 6-cup (1.5 l) porcelain gratin dish with the garlic. Layer half the potatoes in the dish. Sprinkle with half of the cheese and then half of the crème fraîche. Sprinkle with the salt. Add another layer, using the rest of the ingredients. Bake, uncovered, until the gratin is crisp and golden on top, from 50 to 60 minutes. Serve immediately. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Note: I quadrupled this recipe for the Lucia dinner, but I really should have quadrupled it twice and had two giant dishes of it—it would easily have been polished off. When increasing the quantity, it is really, really important to leave additional baking time, as I learned one memorable Christmas eve when the gratin failed (to my horror, I might add; there was a chef in attendance that night). I had the dish in the oven for at least an hour and a half, and it might have even been an hour and forty five minutes. Turned out perfectly, I’m happy to report. When I went to claim my pan at the end of the evening, the kitchen ladies said, “That was you? It was the best one!” Yup.

Back to our regularly scheduled cookie.

A word about baking. When you’re getting ready to bake, and especially before you decide to double a recipe, read through the whole thing. Don’t make any assumptions about quantity just from the amount of butter it calls for. That is a rookie mistake, or at least a mistake born of a combination of way too much to do and extreme sleep deprivation. Please note that you will never, ever have a good reason to try to double this pepperkakor recipe. It makes a ton, and while a KitchenAid mixer is a wonderful tool it simply cannot handle 8 cups of flour. And when you are midway through making the recipe and discover your error, you will be in such a fix as will cost you an hour you didn’t have in the first place to deal with it, easy. Plus you will embarrass yourself. “How’s that pepperkakor going?” “Oh, um…it’s fine! It’s going fine!” Yeah, that’s right. A lie of omission to a lady you respect. Nicely done, Siren.

Bev’s Pepperkakor

1 c butter
1 1/2 c sugar
1 egg
2 T light corn syrup
2 T baking soda mixed in 1 T liquid coffee
1 T each ground cloves, ginger, and cinnamon
4 c sifted flour

Preheat oven to 325º. Prepare cookie sheets with parchment, or use nonstick cookie sheets. Mine are nonstick and I had run out of parchment, so I went without; they came off the sheet with no trouble.

Allow to set for an hour or two; DO NOT CHILL. Roll out the dough thinly. It is very crumbly and fussy, so have patience; it helps to be well-rested. Cut shapes from dough using cookie cutters. (Bev recommends hearts because they use the dough efficiently and produce the least scraps, a helpful suggestion given the fussiness of the dough.) Bake on cookie sheets for 8-10 minutes. Allow to cool on sheets for two minutes, then transfer to rack to cool completely. Cookies will darken as they cool.

Yield: I don’t know, because so many things went wrong as a result of stupidly doubling the recipe. Also, it depends on the size of your cutters. But, really, I’d say the recipe makes quite a lot. I got 48 good sized, very tasty cookies out of my efforts, with a lot of dough left over before I had to give up and go to bed. If I had had time I would have baked up the rest the next day, but I never stopped running and just couldn’t pull it off. Lessons were definitely learned on this one.

LATER TODAY I’ll catch up with my post for Day 15: a simple but spectacular cookie from my grandma.

December 11, 2009

Desperate times, desperate measures: NaCoBakMo, Day 14.

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:58 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Day 14, the halfway point in my cookie-baking marathon. The cookies are coming close to breaking me.

My already bizarre sleep schedule has moved into the realm of insanity and my mind is going right along with it. Everything is up in the air. Also, everything I type has typos, which is officially Not Like Me at All. And I’ve been doing the long blink every five words or so here for about the last half hour.

Mr. Unfocused has been away, so I’ve been in single parent mode during a week that included swimming lessons for the kids on Monday night, choir rehearsal for me on Tuesday night (thanks, mom, for watching the kids, much appreciated), a kid home sick on Wednesday followed by the church Lucia dinner on Wednesday night, and Unfocused Girl’s school holiday concert last night. This is also the week when I reached my limit in the “how long can I go without freaking out about getting the Christmas shopping done” game, so some time had to be devoted to that issue. Add in a huge explosion in the tiny, tiny freelance project I do along with some extra stuff for a volunteer project I’m working on, and you have disaster. Almost all of my cookie activities this week have not begun until 10 p.m.; last night I didn’t start my mixer until around 11:15 which meant the last sheet of cookies came out of the oven around 1:15 a.m. I’m well aware that I was cutting it pretty close on the whole one cookie per day thing, but I finally decided that if I wasn’t in bed yet it still counted.

It is now 11:15 the next night, Friday night, and I have finished my cookies for the day (Day 15), but I’m way behind on blog posts. My last post was about Day 12, which means that as of now I’ve skipped Day 13 altogether. I have a lot to say about Day 13, and I prefer to do so in a moment of far greater coherence than I currently possess. I’m just going to have to write Day 13 tomorrow morning, I guess, and then move on to a very quick roundup of Day 15, which has an absolute superstar of a cookie to its credit. As for tonight, I know I need to just get something posted so y’all know I’m still alive, rendering it unnecessary to send out a search party to find me unconscious under a giant sack of Costco flour.

The cookie I turned to as a not-so-difficult choice for a difficult day turned out to be technically easy but still moderately time consuming to make. I was foolish (perhaps arrogant, even) to think I could just knock it out. But if you’re willing to put in a little time it’s a charmer. It hails from the Chicago Tribune annual cookie feature, although from a different year than Day 11’s chocolate shots. It’s really nice, a great little cookie with a lot of personality.

OK, I just had to pick up my head from the counter. Really must get some sleep. Mr. Unfocused is coming in on the redeye tonight and will probably be even more wrecked than I am, so I’ll need to be on my toes with the kids. You know what would be awesome? A playdate. At someone else’s house.

Jelly Thumbprints (Hussarn grapsen)

2 c butter, softened
6 egg yolks, room temperature
1 c sugar
4 c flour
zest of one lemon
1/4 t salt
3 T jelly

Preheat oven to 350º.

Combine butter, egg yolks, and sugar in a large bowl. Beat with a mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about three minutes. Reduce speed to low; slowly beat in flour, lemon zest and salt just until blended.

Roll scant teaspoonfuls of dough into balls. Place on lightly greased baking sheets, or baking sheets lined with parchment. Make indentations in balls with the smallest end of a melon baller or your finger or thumb dipped in flour, being careful not to poke through the dough.

Fill indentations with jelly. Bake until edges begin to lightly brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from sheet to wire rack; cool 30 minutes. Yield: the newspaper says 68, but I got 84 out of each of two batches.

Note: for rolling the dough balls I used a 1/2 tablespoon measure whose bowl was very half-spherical. It gave me the perfect amount of dough and a good shape to start with. I needed to use another spoon to make sure I was getting all of the dough out, though. For the indentations I used a wine-stopper gizmo that had been a freebie with some bottle of wine we bought a while back. It, too, was just the right size and shape for the job. For the jelly I made the mistake of using strawberry jam, and the chunks of strawberry were a little overwhelming to some of the cookies. I filled the indentations with the jam using a disposable pastry bag with a small hole cut in the bottom.

NEXT: Playing catchup with memories of Day 13. Also, possibly the best cookie in this whole project for Day 15.

December 10, 2009

For my coffee-addicted darling: NaCoBakMo, Day 12.

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:00 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Back to being a day behind on posts, but I swear I’m still baking. As I post this the sun has risen on Day 14; after today’s batch I’m halfway there! See the About this NaCoBakMo thing page for info on my quest.

Mr. Unfocused and I met during fall quarter of freshman year in college; we have officially been a couple since the end of freshman year, June, 1988. This means we have passed the point where we have spent more than half our lives together. My earliest memory of him is an image of a compact young guy in a ratty jeans jacket leaping down the wide stone stairs of his house (we were in the same dorm, but different houses), unable to pause for the proper introduction our close mutual friend was attempting to make. That was OK; his energy was so appealing that I couldn’t help but figure, well, he’s got stuff to do!

As our circles of friends began to overlap, we became friends ourselves. I was irresistibly drawn into his Unfocused mystique. He was easygoing and clever—perhaps a bit too much so for his own good when it came to his classes. I, on the other hand, was a straitlaced kid. We seemed quite different from one another back then; so strange that we are so alike today.

One of the ways in which we were different was his tendency to pummel his body mercilessly through bad habits. (I had, and have, plenty, but his were executed with far more flair.) He picked up smoking in college, because for all his vast intelligence he was perfectly capable of being an idiot. He stayed up too late and drank too much, generally at the same time, far too often. And the way he drank coffee was theater. He was well known for bringing a full cup of black coffee back to the house table in the dining hall (it was like Hogwarts, we ate with our houses in a gorgeous wooden dining hall structure with an cavernous vaulted ceiling, adorned with all manner of decorative painting) and upending the glass sugar dispenser over the cup while carrying on lengthy conversations with housemates who would pretend nothing was out of the ordinary until they could no longer stand it. Pity the oblivious uninitiated observing this coffee/sugar display for the first time: the poor sap would get progressively more twitchy, finally blurting out, “Isn’t that enough sugar yet??”

I am pleased (if still somewhat astonished) to report that Mr. Unfocused has since become the poster child for how to take your body back from the indignities of neglect, as is plain from his kicking of many 20 year-old behinds in this October’s Men’s Health Urbanathlon. Thanks to years of diligent effort as a runner and at the gym he has lost a ton of weight and earned the distinction of being in far, far better shape at 40 than he was at either 20 or 30. He quit smoking ages ago, and now the late nights tend to be work- or writing-induced.

However, he still drinks a lot of coffee; now it’s black, “Like my lawyer’s heart.” He builds his day around his coffee rituals, and when he travels for work the crucial point determining whether he returns cheerful or grumpy is the proximity of Starbucks to his hotel—just imagine how difficult life was for him in his pre-iPhone days, no Starbucks locator app at his command! Our kids take it for granted that coffee addiction is one of the defining elements of his personality and cheerfully enable it (“Daddy, do you need to go to Starbucks?”). I am an inconsistent coffee drinker myself, but he loves it when I’m on caffeine. Quoth Mr. Unfocused recently, when I was going through a particularly punishing time and required a Starbucks run, “It’s so nice when you’re drinking coffee—it’s like we share a hobby!” Awwww.

Thus, when I decided it might be nice to craft a cookie he would particularly enjoy, coffee came instantly to mind. Unfortunately I think the first round of this recipe wasn’t as coffee-licious as I would have liked, although it is still quite full of awesome. I’m confident that when he returns from his latest trip (they have coffee there, Lord be praised) he will thoroughly enjoy them.

This is really your basic chocolate chip cookie recipe, with a slight adjustment in the white/brown sugar balance, an omission of the vanilla, the addition of chilled espresso, and using chocolate chips for a thin top layer rather than embedded in the cookie itself. I reduced the amount of salt as well, in hopes that it wouldn’t overpower the coffee flavor while still pepping things up, as salt is wont to do.

What’s off on the balance here is also probably part of what makes them tasty. If I had used all white sugar in place of the brown sugar, the coffee flavor almost certainly would have stood out more. However, I took a chance because I suspected (and still do) that the addition of the brown sugar would allow them to age and travel better; I’m figuring on tossing a slice of bread into each cookie box to keep them moist. (That trick works with any brown sugar cookie, and it can keep your brown sugar pantry stash soft as well. An apple slice also does the job, but it’s messier under shipping conditions.) If these did not have to wait a few weeks for their debut I might have given up the brown sugar, but, then again, that would have meant sacrificing the chewy bite. Hmm…decisions, decisions.

I’d like to experiment further, pushing the envelope on how much liquid espresso could go into this recipe before it becomes a soggy mess. I was definitely hoping for a more pronounced coffee flavor than I got, but I didn’t particularly want to use espresso powder or ground coffee beans to get there; perhaps a combination of the two would assist this cookie in achieving greater coffee goodness. The last thing contributing to an obscuration of the flavor is the chocolate layer, but I wouldn’t want to give that up. I mean, what would be the point of living?

One more point: pressed for time, I did a double batch and baked them both at the same time oven racks separated by just one level, hoping it would help with evenness. It didn’t, so don’t do that. But what I noticed was that the coffee flavor was definitely more pronounced in the cookies that were slightly underdone and chewy. As with a good chocolate chip cookie, it is far better to pull it out of the oven a smidge early rather than the tiniest bit late.

Hint O’ Java Squares
(for my Unfocused but Highly Caffeinated Guy)

1 c unsalted butter, softened
1 c sugar
1/2 c brown sugar
2 eggs
2 oz espresso, chilled
2 1/2 c flour
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 c milk chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350º. Prepare a single 11″ x 17″ baking sheet by spraying with cooking spray, then lining with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugars until fluffy. Beat in espresso until well incorporated. Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in a separate bowl. Gradually beat flour mixture into the butter mixture.

Turn the dough out onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. Cut a second sheet of parchment a few inches larger all around than the baking sheet. Place on top of the dough. Spread the dough evenly across the cookie sheet by working it all the way to the edges, pressing on the dough through the parchment in order to do so. Once dough is evenly distributed, refrigerate with the top parchment sheet in place for an hour or more; this will prevent the dough from coming up with the parchment when the top sheet is removed. Remove from refrigerator and peel top parchment sheet from dough. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until nicely browned.

Remove from oven and allow baked cookies to rest for about five minutes. The cookies will collapse and firm up a bit during this time. Sprinkle with chocolate chips while still warm. Allow chips to melt, about 3-5 minutes, and spread very thinly across entire sheet. Allow cookies to cool thoroughly before slicing. Makes between 60-80 cookies, depending on size.

UP NEXT: A Scandinavian extravaganza.

December 8, 2009

We’re living the winter wonderland dream, people: NaCoBakMo, Day 11.

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:15 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Here in the great city of Chicago we have now had our first consequential snowfall of the season, which meant doing a (very little) shoveling yesterday morning as the sun rose on Day 11 of NaCoBakMo; this evening saw a slushy rerun as my currently thawing toes can attest. Adding to the excitement, Unfocused Me has jetted away to rainy San Diego for a week of high-intensity lawyering, or so he tells me. I’m thinking that if ever there was a moment when he is NOT lying to me about work being the reason for his travel, a week during NaCoBakMo is probably it. However irresistible another woman might appear, I am reasonably confident she would not be slaving in the kitchen baking cookies. And Mr. Unfocused likes his cookies.

This is going to be a short post (yeah, yeah, I can hear the hallelujahs from here, internet) so I can allow my toes to come to room temperature revel in the majesty of a snowy winter evening. Plus I need to start writing about Day 12’s cookies, which I baked today (I’m on a time delay, much like the Super Bowl Halftime Show), and since I just made that recipe up (woo-hoo! baking without a net, baby!) I need to get it down before I forget.

I clipped Day 11’s recipe from the newspaper’s annual holiday cookie contest story. Every year the Chicago Tribune (and the Sun-Times, and probably every other newspaper in the country) celebrate the best holiday cookie recipes from reader submissions; as you might have guessed, I tend to keep an eye out for the story. This year’s winners were published last week, along with a helpful article that has me panicking over how all of these cookies are going to weather the whole freezing process, despite their carefully-stored state. (An aside: Lady, it does not help me to know that you think I should just be freezing dough. I cannot bake more than 2,000 cookies from frozen dough on Christmas Eve. I have stuff to do.) I’m starting to worry that you’re going to open your box of cookies, aquiver with anticipation, take a bite, and go, “Meh.” I’m trying to wrap them well, but we’ll just have to see how it goes. Knowing me, I’ll get to the box-packing day, take a nibble from a random cookie, cry out in agony, and get to work baking a replacement batch. It’s almost certainly going to happen—the only real question is how many times will that scenario play out before my family has me committed.

But I digress. This cookie caught my eye when it ran in the annual cookie roundup the year or two after my son was diagnosed with the peanut and egg allergies—it was Junior-safe, so it was a keeper. As it happens it’s not really his kind of cookie (“Mommy! I can’t! taste! the chocolate!”), but Unfocused Girl and I are fond of it. I don’t recall if Mr. Unfocused particularly likes this one or not, and I’m afraid I can’t investigate at the moment (have I mentioned he’s away for a week? and not shoveling my snow?) so it’s anybody’s guess. It’s the sort of cookie that is an ideal accompaniment to a cup of coffee, very light and crispy. Also, not least among this recipe’s many virtues is the huge quantity of cookies it yields for what is really not a lot of effort. So thank you to the family who submitted this cookie to the Tribune, and thank you to the Tribune for publishing it. It was a great relief to this baker to have another cookie to make with my kids in those long eggless days.

Also, a quick but heartfelt shout-out to the folks whose weather is considerably worse than Chicago’s is at the moment. Perseverance! You shall prevail! Bake some cookies!

UPDATE: Last night before collapsing I looked more carefully at this year’s Tribune cookie feature. Nothing there for me this year, as they are all too nut-heavy, but I am 99% certain I know one of the winners. Crazy! Congratulations, mystery friend!

Yes, that's our undecorated tree in the background.

Chocolate Shots

1 c unsalted butter, softened
1 c confectioners’ sugar
2 T vanilla extract
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/2 t baking soda
1 c rolled oats, not instant
3 bottles (1.75 oz each) chocolate sprinkles

Preheat oven to 350º.

Beat butter in large bowl of electric mixer at high speed until creamy, about one minute. Add sugar and vanilla; beat until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Gradually beat in flour and baking soda until smooth. Stir in oats. Refrigerate dough in mixer bowl 20 minutes for easier handling.

Remove dough from refrigerator. Divide dough into 2 to 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Pour sprinkles into pie plate; roll logs in sprinkles to coat evenly. Wrap logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours, or overnight.

Cut dough into 1/4 inch slices. Bake on greased or parchment-covered baking sheets until lightly browned and slightly firm to the touch, about 20 minutes. Remove to cooling rack. Makes roughly 90 cookies.

TOMORROW: OMG! A cookie invention that will TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

December 7, 2009

When only the best will do: NaCoBakMo, Day 10.

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:06 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Up until now, I’ve been content to bake my cookies with regular supermarket brands of all the staples. Meanwhile, I’ve been desperately trying to fit a Costco trip into my days: with all the running to and from the store I’ve been doing, it’s pretty clear that my madness has a price.

But Day 10’s cookie bears no sign of cheaping out, my friends. I purchased the ingredients at Whole Foods, because nothing is too good for you people—only the finest cream cheese from the milk of pampered cows will do. More importantly, Whole Foods carries an intriguing product called FiCoCo, a fig and cocoa spread whose zippy label proved irresistible to me one day as I impulse-shopped my way through a quick $100 (2 whole bags!) of groceries.

The rare occasions when I permit myself to enter Whole Foods are often followed by feelings of remorse and shame due to overspending on exotic foodstuffs, feelings which tend not to be adequately counterbalanced by the combined sense of self-righteousness and upscale glamour such a visit affords. As a result, it is not unusual for me to squirrel away some of the nonperishable goodies in my pantry, where I can look upon them comfortable in the knowledge that when the apocalypse finally arrives I will be prepared with an eclectic array of expensive condiments.

And yet—purchases which appear to be a brilliant idea when strategically displayed among cheeses with names I cannot pronounce and provenances more well researched than the average champion show dog can seem perhaps less inspired when unceremoniously tossed into my pantry’s disarray right next to the canned tomatoes. I have looked at that oh-so-appealing FiCoCo jar frequently, and every time I have wondered, “Um, what the hell do I do with this stuff?”

But, I ask you, how could you not pick it up? Just look at that label, with its perfectly pitched sophisticated whimsy. I want to wallpaper my bathroom with that label. I could stare at it all day.

That gorgeous label leapt out at me anew from my pantry shelves when I was making the decision about Sunday’s cookie. I wanted to use a recipe for a filled cookie in my old church’s cookbook, but the filling noted was pecan-based. (In case you’re just joining us, I’m working to avoid nuts because of Unfocused Junior’s allergies, but that is very challenging in a “28 days of cookies” project.) I wanted something with a quality reminiscent of a pecan pie-type situation, and that happy little jar of FiCoCo just sang out to me. And the result is good. Very good.

The crucial piece of baking advice I have for you with this recipe is that if you overfill the dough cups with your FiCoCo, you will have what the kids today refer to as a Hot Mess. Literally. The shell will rise as it bakes, leaving far less room for the FiCoCo than you expected to have when you were doing the filling part. It will deal you yet another setback from which you must recover, and you will be questioning your intelligence to a degree that is embarrassing for a seemingly experienced baker. Do not do it, my friends. A scant 1/2 teaspoon of filling is plenty. And if, by chance, you do end up with a hot mess, for God’s sake DO NOT LET THE COOKIES COOL TOO LONG or you will be scraping them out with a paring knife for HOURS. Or at least A LONG GODDAMN TIME, and you might well lose a few in the process. Also keep in mind that you will probably need to wash out the muffin tin after every batch because of the FiCoCo spillover. For all their simplicity they are quite time consuming.

Fortunately, they are also really quite nice. Because there is no sugar in the dough, all of the sweetness comes from the FiCoCo, and the balance is ideal. They would be perfect for all those fancy tea parties you host, exhibiting as they do that same whimsical sophistication that the FiCoCo label has in spades.

Seriously, I think this cookie works very well as an addition to an assortment because it’s so easy to become overwhelmed by the sugar rush when the treats are all supersweet. Just don’t get carried away with the FiCoCo awesomeness and you will be fine.

FiCoCo Tassies

12 oz cream cheese
1 1/3 c softened butter
4 c flour
1 jar FiCoCo spread (I needed two, but I’m pretty sure that’s because I overfilled the first two dozen. One should be enough.)

Preheat oven to 350º.

Beat cream cheese and butter until well mixed. Gradually beat in flour.

Place approximately 1 T of dough in each cup of mini muffin tins. Using your fingers, press the dough into the cup evenly. Drop a scant 1/2 t FiCoCo into each indentation. Bake for 17-18 minutes. Cool for not longer than 5 minutes in the muffin tin, then remove to cool on a wire rack. Makes around 5 dozen.

Breakfast with Santa Time: NaCoBakMo, Day 9.

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:28 am by the Green-Eyed Siren

Saturday was time for a sacred annual tradition around here: Unfocused Junior’s school’s Breakfast with Santa holiday event. Boys racing around at top speed, girls wearing picture-perfect Hanna Andersson dresses, Santa and Mrs. Claus stopping by for a visit, Christmas carols, and a craft and bake sale fundraiser for the school.

This year, despite the cookie-making frenzy, I contributed some Harry Potter wands to the craft sale. This is without a doubt one of my all-time favorite mom things to do, in part because when I found it over the summer it proved to be that most elusive of projects: one I was able to identify, start, and complete with the kids in a single day without having to go chasing out where Moses lost his sandals in order to find all of the materials for it. And it was SO EXTREMELY COOL. It made my Unfocused children deliriously happy.

Our summer Harry Potter wand project results.

After causing such excitement around here, wands seemed like a sure bet for the Holiday Craft Sale. It was all very crazy and last minute so I didn’t get any pictures, but the seven wands I made just flew off the table. Like magic, even. There would have been eight, actually, were it not for an unfortunate Regretsy-worthy problem which caused one of the wand handles to resemble, ahem, an extremely rude object. In fact, the experience suggests that if this whole cookie-baking thing doesn’t work out for me I might just have a future in creating scale models of certain items such as are generally only found in retail establishments catering to the 21-and-older crowd. Just think: I could be featured on Regretsy all the time. I’d be famous!

But I digress, and in a most unbecoming fashion. This was supposed to be a nice, heartwarming story about a very happy children’s event, which it indeed was. Both of my kids still love Breakfast with Santa, even after what is probably four consecutive years of attendance. A good time was had by all, and we are now well supplied with Magic Reindeer Food to sprinkle on the (hopefully) snow on Christmas Eve.

At last year’s Breakfast with Santa, I purchased some cookies from the bake sale. This year, of course, such an expenditure was unnecessary, but last year I was quite sanely permitting others to do the baking for me. Still, I was delighted to find a recipe card tucked in to the Chewy Chocolate-Cherry cookie package. Because they were really most excellent I tucked the card into my handy-dandy binder-o’-Christmas-notes and recipes (as opposed to my gigantic binder-o’-regular recipes, which is stuffed to overflowing and thus cannot accommodate the Christmas stuff too). When I looked through my recipes in an attempt to figure out which cookies I’d be making when, it seemed appropriate that this should be the right cookie to bake on Breakfast with Santa day.

Oh, Lordy, is this a good cookie. Absolutely perfect.

Chewy Chocolate-Cherry Cookies

2 c all-purpose flour
2/3 c unsweetened cocoa
1 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
2 c sugar
2/3 c butter, softened
2 t vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 1/3 c dried tart cherries (I prefer them coarsely chopped)
1/2 c semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350º. Prepare baking sheets with parchment paper, or use baking sheets coated with cooking spray.

Combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Sift together gently with a whisk.

In a large mixing bowl combine butter and sugar. Beat at high speed until fluffy. Add vanilla and egg; beat well. With mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture. Beat until just combined. Fold in cherries and chocolate chips (can be done with beater attachment on a stand mixer; do not use balloon whisk attachment).

Drop by tablespoonfuls onto prepared baking sheet, or form the dough into 1″ balls (this will yield much rounder cookies) and place on baking sheet. Bake for 12 minutes or just until set. Cool on baking sheets 5 minutes, then remove to wire rack to cool completely. Makes between 4 and 5 dozen cookies.

TUNE IN TOMORROW for a trip to Whole Foods.

December 5, 2009

On pacing oneself: NaCoBakMo, Day 8.

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:27 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Channelling Cookie Monster. Gaaaah! Cooooookies! I bake coooookies! You give to Food Pantry, I give you cooooookies!

Day 7’s cookie/brownie was fussy, and the project extended unexpectedly into Day 8. Combined with the one-day posting delay I was starting to sweat, so for the official Day 8 cookie I thought I’d do something simple. A sugar cookie. No big deal, just mix up, roll out and cut. It seemed like a reasonable way to get caught up.

Of course, rolling and cutting is never that simple. First, you need to find acceptable cookie cutters. I’ve been collecting cookie cutters for, well, forever, so that shouldn’t have been a big problem. What I did not realize is that almost every cookie cutter I own falls into one of two categories: a) gigantic oversized Christmas-themed cookie cutters, such as those popularized by Martha Stewart and Williams-Sonoma for creating Perfect Oversized Holiday Memories for one’s children and b) spooky Halloween cookie cutters. The oversized cutters are really a pain to deal with and result in fundamentally unstable cookies unsuitable for shipping, so they were a no-go. I briefly considered the prospect of sending Nightmare Before Christmas-inspired holiday jack-o’-lanterns, but the children and I felt that perhaps that would not do. Fortunately I had one small angel cutter in the box, and we decided that the small heart cutout (one of three remaining from a set of four playing-card inspired cutters my mom had when I was a little girl) would be socially acceptable for Christmas. So that was settled.

Unfortunately those leftover Day 7 cookie issues were costly time-wise, so we weren’t rolling and cutting until about 7:45, which was way too late even for a Friday night. I let the kids stay up long enough to do much of the colored sugar sprinkling part, and they had a lovely time with it. But then we ran out of red sprinkles, and they were tired, and I was tired, and Mr. Unfocused (who arrived home around 8:15 in serious need of a scotch-and-soda, as his workday had begun with a 7 a.m. conference call) was tired, and we eventually gave up. Also discouraging was the fact that this was not the super-tastiest cookie ever. It’s fine, it holds up really well and should arrive at far-flung destinations intact, but it seems like a lot of trouble to do all that rolling and cutting for a cookie that’s not absolutely thrilling to eat.

So we baked up half of the double batch. It yielded probably about 60 or so cookies. I might finish baking the rest, or just figure I’ll spend my time making something tastier. It’s looking like I’ll still have plenty of cookies to go around.

This selection comes from another of my grandmother’s cookbooks, Ruth Berolzheimer’s The American Woman’s Cook Book, copyright 1941. The results were probably disappointing because the recipe calls for shortening instead of butter. I don’t think the choice of shortening was due to lack of butter’s availability or anything, because plenty of recipes in this substantial book call for piles of the stuff. Instead, I’m guessing the choice for shortening was about making the cookies more firm. But life is about tradeoffs, and I’m one who would rather have a delicious cookie show up broken on my doorstep than eat a ho-hum cookie that arrives all in one piece.

Still, I don’t mean to be unkind about them. They’re fine, and they’re festive. Nice to dress up the plate a bit.

Sugar Cookies

2/3 c shortening (but I’d try it with butter if I were doing it again)
1 c sugar
1/2 t vanilla
2 eggs
3 c flour
2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/3 c milk

Cream shortening and sugar, add vanilla and beaten eggs, then the flour, baking powder and salt sifted together, alternating with the milk. Roll and cut in any desired shape. Sprinkle with sugar before baking. Bake in a moderate oven (350º-375º) for 10-12 minutes. Number of cookies depends on the size of the cutters.

TOMORROW: Breakfast with Santa cookies.

The Best Block in Chicago, part two: NaCoBakMo, Day 7.

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:33 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

OK, the whole cookies-and-blogging-and-living-the-rest-of-my-life thing is really challenging, especially when one insists on writing interminable blog posts to explain a simple cookie choice. But apparently I have a lot of pent-up need to unburden myself, having taken such a long hiatus from blogging. So please bear with me, and certainly you should feel free to just jump right to the recipe and have done with the crazy lady rambling part.

Because even the cookies that are supposed to be simple are turning out to be very time-consuming I still was unable to get caught up on the posts yesterday. As a result, I’m going to try again for a twofer today, lest my mind become even more hopelessly muddled about what day it is and which cookie I’m on and, um, what am I doing here anyway? But I’m not promising anything, as I still have half a batch of last night’s cookies to get in the oven and today’s cookies to bake. Also, I think we’ll decorate the house this weekend. Huzzah!

If you’re just joining us, here is the explanation for what the hell is going on with National Cookie Baking Month. In short, I bake cookies, you make a $25 donation to the Irving Park Community Food Pantry, I send you cookies. Let’s see if we can help feed some hungry people.

Now, back to my story.

As I explained yesterday, Mr. Unfocused and I were looking at that house 1 1/2 blocks away only casually. We truly did not expect to be swept away in a haze of real-estate inspired desire. But our house with its gut rehab lacks true character, and the allure of old wood trim and medallion attic windows and gracious proportions was too much to bear. We, the Unfocused Family, supplied with ample good taste and sensitivity, could be the ones to bring this house to its glory. We saw ourselves charging to its rescue and creating a showplace. We imagined the glittering parties we would host: “Why, thank you so much. Yes, isn’t that the perfect color? It really reveals the soul of the house, don’t you think? And, yes, the architect did a fabulous job reconfiguring the upstairs bedrooms to give us that spectacular master bath. It’s so hard to find someone truly sensitive to a restoration. I interviewed fifteen firms before settling on them—they were obviously the only ones for the job. Did you see my dream kitchen yet?” And I would lose weight and we would all be well-dressed and eventually we would even get rid of our shitty old Tauruses and park matching new Audis in the life-changing two-car garage. Oh, God, it makes me sick to my stomach to think about it now.

Somehow purchasing this money pit was going to propel us to a totally new tax bracket and standard of living, because we would no longer be losers sitting on the sidelines of the speculative housing market. Nope: we would be playing the real estate leveraging game to its fullest. Up, up, up; bigger is better; square footage is king; location, location, location. By buying this house and modernizing it (sensitively, of course) we were going to double the value of the property, making the rehab investment seem as nothing. We would reside in our little pocket of historically accurate perfection confident in our growing equity and the go-go economy to keep us paying the huge payments. As we became increasingly serious about the house I had some doubts about the money, but we looked around at how other (way wealthier) people we knew were juggling their debts from various property investments, and this idea seemed positively tame in comparison. More debt? No problem: that just means more wealth. And God knows the banks were doling out their largesse in the form of giant laundry sacks of unmarked bills. We would be stupid not to take our share.

We took pictures. We got a realtor. We made guesses about what our house would sell for. We juggled numbers. We had my dad and his wife walk through it. We thought about what the rehab would involve.

We made an offer.

Now, making an offer on a house in 2006 meant stepping on a roller coaster, something for which I was not fully prepared. Mr. Unfocused was in his element, though. He makes deals for a living, and he was impressively cool and detached as we went back and forth with the sellers, consulting with our realtor, eventually reaching just the number we had been looking for in the first place. Seriously, if you need a litigator, you should totally hire him. He orchestrated that negotiation brilliantly.

It was late on a Friday afternoon when we got to our number, but the deal couldn’t be completed until Monday morning due to availability of all the parties for document signing. We were giddy with excitement. We needed to share the exciting news, so when we saw our two-doors-down neighbor was out, we headed over to her porch. Her youngest was outside, so the kids all started playing together and were soon lost in the imaginary world du jour. I was nervous about telling her, because we are pretty close. But it had to be done, so I took a deep breath and plaintively inquired, “So, will you still be friends with us when we move a block and a half away?”

She was surprised and sad, but generous in her congratulations. She brought out a bottle of wine and we toasted our new house and laughed and drank and chatted. At some point one or both of us pulled some kind of delicious snicky-snacky out of our kitchens, and we enjoyed a nice early summer evening just hanging out, listening to the sound of children at play. It was perfect.

It was so perfect that by the time we went to bed that night, I was growing very uneasy. It’s a lot harder to share a glass of wine with the neighbors when you’re not a couple of doors down to notice whether they’re home or not. When you’re not running into people as you come and go, it’s necessary to go out of your way to schedule things. It’s the playdate writ large for adults: let me check my schedule and get back to you. And the way our lives work, if it gets to the point where we have to look at a calendar, it feels like work to do it. Mr. Unfocused and I are seriously guilty of spending just about every evening in front of our computers out of sheer exhaustion and awareness of the daunting effort required to do something—anything—else. Without my neighbors to just holler “Hey!” to I’d never see anyone.

As a stay-at-home mom, I like living in the middle of a bunch of houses and feeling like part of a community. I like catching glimpses of the comings and goings outside through the picture window in the living room, not because I am a busybody, but because it makes me feel less lonely. The new house was really quite isolated for a city house, resting so picturesquely on its corner lot. It faces an empty lot which serves as an extra-large side yard for the house adjacent to it, meaning that coming and going from my front door I would never see anyone. It didn’t feel like a part of any block at all. For someone who didn’t spend all damn day in the house it would be fine, but to my horror I began to realize it was going to make me feel like I was on a deserted island. And how could I leave these people I had come to love? This place which made me feel like I was home?

The hours passed, and I lay there unable to sleep, thoughts screaming through my mind. I considered my house. It is spacious but not cavernous; it is nice but not lavish. No, we don’t have a garage, and, yes, the sight that greets us when we open the front door every day is a jumble of bicycles and scooters and snow shovels and boots, but, despite that, it’s a good house. It takes care of us. We use every inch of space just about every day with the single exception of the guest room—a room we’ll need when it’s time for the kids to have separate bedrooms. (Actually, we’re just a bit concerned about what will happen when we arrive at that milestone. Where will the self-sustaining mountain of unfolded laundry reside, if not on the guest room bed?)

Even after a long, painful, and expensive renovation, the other house would not have been set up to suit us as well as this one does. And the extra space would just have meant more rooms to furnish, more rooms to clean, more places for crap to accumulate, more reasons never to get rid of anything or exercise restraint in consumption.

I was wide awake now. Midnight passed, then 1 a.m., then 2. By 3 a.m. I couldn’t take it anymore. I woke Mr. Unfocused and told him we couldn’t buy that house. Pretty soon he was wide awake too.

We went downstairs to the living room, turned up the heat, and talked for two hours. In that time it became pretty clear that my objections weren’t the normal kind of panic that can accompany a big decision. Mr. Unfocused was (justifiably) as angry with me about this as he’s ever been about anything, and I felt absolutely terrible about the entire thing. But what could I do? I simply could not leave our house. It felt wrong in every single bone of my body. He asked, incredulously, “It’s only a block and a half away. Are you trying to tell me that we will never be able to move out of this house ever?” Well…yes. Yes, that is what I am saying. We’re on the Best Block in Chicago. How could we ever move?

Thankfully, sometime around 5 in the morning he accepted it. We made the deal go away, and ultimately he rejoiced in the freedom that such awareness offers (“I NEVER HAVE TO LOOK AT ANOTHER HOUSE AGAIN”). It turned out to be for the best, anyway; if we had really and truly gotten ourselves into that level of debt I would probably have had a true nervous breakdown to accompany my visions of a modern Dr. Zhivago situation last winter, and we might well not have been able to cope with the financial burden of a renovation. We would be living right now with nonfunctional plumbing and insufficient electricity to power our laptops.

It’s not that it’s impossible that we might someday move, of course. This crazy situation of living so far from our children’s schools is not good; to say I dislike spending 3 1/2 hours on the school commute each day is a colossal understatement. But it is a testament to how strongly I feel about our neighbors that we didn’t skedaddle out of here last year. Well, that and the complete collapse of the global economy and the American housing market.

So, dear neighbors, this is my love letter to you. And it is in your honor that I will bake 2,000+ cookies in support of the Irving Park Community Food Pantry, one of the organizations that makes our neighborhood—with all of its economic diversity—one of the richest places in the city.

Now for the cookie. As I mentioned in my previous post, the basis for this recipe comes from the 1970s-80s era Old Irving Park Cookbook. It must have been popular because it appears twice as the submission of two different families. It would be perfect for this project except that this is less of a cookie and more of a brownie, and, while amazingly delicious (try this recipe NOW), my attempts at making it travel-friendly have given me some trouble. I might have to trash this batch because my adjustments appear not to have had the desired effect. The experience has given me some ideas to try, though, and I hope to have a more shippable version of this for you in a week or two. I’m giving you the recipe as it appears in the book, not as I made it, because I think you’ll appreciate it more than the hodgepodge I came up with.

Crème de Menthe Squares

1 c sugar
1/2 c butter
4 eggs, beaten
16 oz Hershey’s syrup
1 t vanilla
1 c flour
1/2 t salt

Bake in greased 10.5″ by 15.5″ pan for 25-30 mins. (Note: it will be very puffy when it comes out of the oven, but will collapse like a soufflé.) Let cool completely, then frost with:

1/2 c butter, softened
2 c powdered sugar
2-3 T green crème de menthe

Refrigerate or freeze until firm. Then melt:

1 c semisweet chocolate chips
6 T butter

Let chocolate mixture cool. Spread glaze over mint layer.

These freeze well. Best kept refrigerated.

UP NEXT: A simple (ha!) sugar cookie.

December 4, 2009

The Best Block in Chicago, part one: NaCoBakMo, Day 6.

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:11 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Well, I’m a day behind in my posting, but I’ve kept up with the cookies. It seems that I am unable to function with less than five hours of sleep per night, and previous obligations seem to have arisen as one to shout out “STOP ALL THIS COOKIE NONSENSE AND PAY ATTENTION TO US” so I had to hold off on writing for a bit. But not to worry! I’ll have not-one-but-TWO! incoherent posts for you today.

What’s this all about again? Long story short, I have taken a simple NaNoWriMo-inspired Facebook joke too far and have committed to baking one batch of cookies each day between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve—with the probable cookie total numbering well over 2,000. In hopes of protecting the waistlines of each member of our family we will use these cookies as bribes to raise money for the Irving Park Community Food Pantry. If you donate $25 (or more, of course!) to those hardworking people and send a copy of your e-receipt to me at sirensyncopated at gmail dot com (along with your shipping address), we’ll send you a nice box of cookies when I’m done. And Mr. Unfocused and I will match donations up to $500. We’re up to $175 today, so that means $350 to help feed struggling families. And, you know, you get cookies out of it. What’s not to like?

True story:

About three years ago, Mr. Unfocused and I took a look at a house in our neighborhood. It was only a block and a half away from where we lived.

We had been walking by it on various neighborhoody meanderings for the four years since we had transitioned from our Dee-Luxe apartment in the sky (21st floor! you could fish in Lake Michigan from our balcony! well, theoretically anyway) to a Leave It to Beaver block on the Northwest Side of Chicago. The house interested me; I had wondered about it for some time. It was on a corner lot, so it had some presence. It appeared to have a lot of interior square footage. It was a masonry structure, which in this area isn’t all that common (surprising, actually, considering that most of these homes were built only thirty to forty years after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire). It also possessed one significant attribute that our home lacks—a garage. A BIG garage. With room for two cars AND storage. (Ooooh….storage.)

So after four years of playing shuffle-the-cars in our side drive every Monday morning to get the garbage can out (no alley here, either, but that’s another story)—as well as tripping over the bicycles that live in the front hall for eight months of the year and the finished basement for the other four—I was seduced by a FOR SALE sign.

There was an Open House. It was a Sunday. I suggested, “Why not? Nothin’ else going on. Hey, I’m just curious.” Mr. Unfocused blindly believed me. Actually, that’s not quite true. I really was just curious. I hadn’t been looking very seriously at moving. Our house was working extremely well for us, with the exception of the garage problem. And it was practically brand-new, a 1907 (1905? something like that) structure which had been totally gutted and returned to a single-family layout from the two-flat it had been for many years. It’s true that I’m not all that fond of the color of the granite countertops or the terra-cotta colored marble in the master bathroom, but, you know, these really fall pretty squarely into the category of First World Problems. I admit that every once in a while I would scour the Real Estate section of the paper, or spend a lot of time searching, but that was less out of a need to find a new house than it was about being an enthralled spectator to the glittering American housing market (d. 2008) as it did its part to make us all feel fantastically wealthy.

So we strolled over with the kids and marched right through that house. It had been put through a lot of abuse, suffering from many odd decorating choices and several ill-conceived, poorly-executed accommodations for a physically disabled occupant. It really was a mess. But.

Much of the house had suffered the blessing of benign neglect. There were many lovely period features waiting to be restored by someone with patience and a lot of cash. It was going to require a very skilled architect to recreate rooms to modern purposes, but once it was done it would be showplace worthy of even Sarah Susanka‘s approval.

Now, before we continue with that story, a few words about our block. We moved from the condo into our house in July 2002. As it happens, it was one week before the annual block party. We didn’t know anything about block parties, so we had no idea what to expect, but it was awesome. Every year finds kids racing around in the street from 9 am until they drop from exhaustion, teens alternating from being cool to being kids, and adults taking over in the evening, dancing under the streetlights until the cops show up sometime after midnight. At that first block party, we started to figure out that we had really lucked into something huge: a place where everyone knows everyone else, where everyone is friendly, where kids can run around and play outside because there are so many people keeping unobtrusive eyes and ears open for them. My mom came to that party and marveled that by 3 p.m. she knew all of my neighbors: “After living in my house for more than twenty years I STILL don’t know all my neighbors!”

At first it was a little overwhelming. I kept a copy of the block telephone list in the kitchen drawer so I could grab it for a quick reference when necessary. It was difficult to keep track of the cast of characters, many of whom had lived almost their entire lives here. With many very longstanding relationships still vital (including three marriages between childhood playmates), this means that the term “newcomer” is still applied to folks who have been here for less than twenty years.

Fortunately, everyone gets along quite well. Yes, it’s true that things have been known to get heated around block party planning time (and I confess that I am one of the more difficult personalities), but somehow all conflict tends to get washed away by the kegs of beer and the water pouring out of the open fire hydrant in front of my house. People hang out on porches on pleasant days, chit-chatting and being sociable. We’ve closed the block for a couple of Oktoberfests, huddling around the fire pits folks have pulled from their backyards, eating bratwursts and sauerkraut. Sometimes there are dinner parties, and there are impromptu playdates, which so many city kids don’t get to experience anymore. I know how lucky we are to so genuinely enjoy our neighbors.

I’ll save Part Two of my story for my next post, as I can see this is another long one. But first, you need a cookie.

Soon after we moved in, our next door neighbors thoughtfully welcomed us with a copy of the first Old Irving Park Association Cookbook, published sometime between the late seventies and the early nineties. Shortly thereafter a new version came out, and they gave it to us as a Christmas gift. The following recipe is from the 2003 compilation. Day 7’s cookie, which I will post along with Part Two of my story later today, is based on a recipe in the earlier cookbook.

This is a sophisticated cookie. It is not outrageously sweet, but it is fantastically delicious. It’s very simple to make, but plan on it taking a little time.

Chocolate Dipped Orange Sticks

1/2 c soft butter
1 1/2 c flour
1/4 c sugar
3 T grated orange zest
1 egg
12 oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips

Prepare baking sheet with parchment. Preheat oven to 375º. Blend butter and flour. Mix in sugar and orange zest. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll out to 1/4″ thickness onto floured parchment paper (keep the top of the dough well dusted with flour to prevent sticking). Slice into 2″ x 1″ bars. Carefully lift off of parchment and place on prepared sheet 1/2-1″ apart. Bake for ten minutes. Cool for two minutes on sheet, then transfer to wire rack to finish cooling.

Melt chocolate over double boiler. Dip one end of each cookie in melted chocolate. Place on a fresh sheet of parchment and allow to cool for 2-3 hours,  or until chocolate is firm. Makes approximately 40 cookies.

Next up: another Old Irving Park specialty.

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