Monday, December 21, 2009

How To Make A White Christmas

No matter what the temperature is outside this week -- my kitchen will be tropical.

This week I will bake at least 15 Christmas cakes for family and friends as well as several types of cookies for the family cookie platter.

As I bake, I will think of each person who will receive the treat. It is my meditation time.

This year after more than a decade of making my traditional Christmas cake, I will be making a few of them a bit differently. Several of my friends and family members are gluten intolerant. After many trials and lots of errors, I've developed a flour mix that works in this Christmas cake so that it actually still tastes good.

I was very happy to offer someone their chance to once again eat a favorite sweet.

Every year I also try out a new cookie recipe. I still hadn't chosen one until just a few weeks ago. One afternoon I decided to head up to St. Helena in the Napa Valley for a quick road trip. This time of year is so beautiful up there and I needed a break.

No trip to St. Helena would be complete without a trip to the Model Bakery. This bakery has been part of the downtown scene for more than 80 years. They make the best ginger molasses cookie I have eaten - it is soft in the middle with a chewy edge - heaven.

As I strolled down the street admiring all the festive shop windows, I remembered that the test kitchen for the Los Angeles Times had just published the recipe for the Model Bakery molasses cookie. That sealed the decision - this cookie would share the Christmas cookie platter with the Peanut Butter Blossoms that I make each year.

I don't bake fancy or decorated cookies. I generally like to bake homey cookies with big flavor - like the ginger molasses cookie. So I had never mastered my mom's Spritz cookies. These buttery cookies were always her contribution to the family Christmas cookie platter. Since my mom had been in poor health for several years, one of my sisters had generously assumed the family tradition of baking the Spritz cookies each Christmas.

This year will be the first Christmas without my mom; she passed away in February 2009. This year I was determined to master this cookie.

My mom tried to encourage me one year by buying me my own cookie press. It remained unused in the back of my kitchen pantry until I finally gave it away.

Any cookbook with a Spritz recipe will warn the baker that getting the dough out of the press is the hardest part of making these cookies and that had certainly always been my experience. These recipes recommend making sure the dough is at just the right temperature although they never actually give a temperature range in their recipes.

Last week my sister generously gave up an afternoon to show me how to be one with the cookie press and to show me her secrets for getting the dough out of that device of the devil!

In memory of my mom, I turned to the cookbook she used the most for all her cooking and baking for the Spritz recipe: the 1963 edition of the McCall's Cookbook.

Spritz cookies are made from a simple butter dough that is pushed through a cookie press fitted with decorative disks. The resulting Christmas trees, wreaths, snowflakes and flowers are then decorated with gumdrops, red hots and sprinkles.

My mom would save white shirt boxes from her job at J.C. Penny's to package the dozens of Spritz cookies she baked each Christmas. As a child, I always thought the cookies looked like pieces of jewelry nestled in their white jewelry boxes.

Most recipes consist of just a few ingredients: flour, salt, sugar, butter, egg yolk and vanilla. Some recipes also add baking powder. Although my family prefers the plain butter dough, this type of dough adapts well to other flavorings like almond or peppermint.

I mixed up two batches of dough the night before my cookie tutorial - one of the plain butter dough and the second of a chocolate dough. Anita Chu's Field Guide To Cookies had suggested combining the two doughs in the cookie press for a marble effect. That sounded fun and not too far of a departure from the traditional family offering.

My sister was patient with me as she showed me how to work the cookie press. Turns out she gets just as frustrated with the process as I do but for the sake of that Christmas cookie platter, she has sacrificed her sanity each year to make them for the rest of us.

We decided to see if we couldn't come up with a way to ensure each cookie came out of the press easily (almost) every time. It was a fun couple of hours as we tried all kinds of experiments with the dough. In the end, we made an interesting discovery - despite what the cookbooks tell you, it really doesn't matter what temperature the dough is as long as you avoid the two extremes of too warm or too cold.

The real secret is to chill ungreased cookies sheets before trying to coax each gem out of the cookie press.

No go forth and press on!

Oh yes, and Happy Holidays!

"Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it white."
Bing Crosby

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing the tips To Make A White Christmas. It was nice going through your blog. Keep it up the good work.