TRR photos by Jude Waterston

Christmas cookies for kooks

I’ve been cooking since I was a little girl, when I first coveted the Easy Bake Oven featured in commercials on television. Ignoring my pleas, but wanting to motivate me, my mother rolled up my pajama sleeves, propped me on a stool, and introduced me to the kitchen stove.

Cooking is all about playing with your food—I’ve never followed a recipe exactly as written, preferring to be inventive and add my own touches. Baking never appealed, as it is an exact science where all ingredients must be measured and the recipe strictly adhered to. A rebel by nature, I’m not one to obediently follow instructions.

My sister, Janet, on the other hand, has the kind of personality that allows her not only to meticulously follow a recipe, but also to enjoy the process.

After our Grandma Bella’s death, Janet inherited her cookie press and the recipe for her renowned butter cookies. After mastering those, Janet went on to execute confections that looked as though they were bought at the best bakeries.

So why, every Christmas for 10 years, did I bake cookies for my co-workers at a family-owned, century-old homemade pasta shop? Perhaps it was my mother’s suggestion that homemade gifts are the most endearing. With Janet’s expertise and generosity in helping me with the disdainful task of measuring and following a recipe to the tee, I began my yearly tradition of offering an assortment of beautiful and delicious treats to each member of the staff.

In addition to being tied to the specifics of a recipe, the process was even more challenging because of the cast of characters with whom I worked. I had to deal with varying tastes and personalities. The matriarch had bad teeth, so she was spared caramel, and she was indifferent to chocolate. One employee periodically stopped talking to one or more of her co-workers. The year she had not uttered a word to me in weeks resulted in my gift to her being unceremoniously tossed into the garbage can. The woman who ran the kitchen eschewed any foreign objects, such as nuts or raisins, in her cookies. The owner’s step-daughter, whose “work” in the store consisted of texting on her phone all day while ignoring both customers and co-workers, never thanked me or acknowledged my gift and left it on my boss’s  desk. He and his daughter, who were crazy for sweets in general, polished off her box after devouring their own. The rest of the crew was gracious and nibbled their selections throughout the day and complimented my efforts.

With Janet’s help, I made four or five different cookies each year. There was one cookie that was popular with everyone: a chewy coconut macaroon laced with orange zest and drizzled with rich dark chocolate. I like trying new things, and soon after Thanksgiving, I’d begin to push Janet to help me find (and bake) new recipes. There was one colossal dud that I recall with a cringe. It was a molasses spice cookie that looked fine enough in the photo provided in the book. But when I pulled a tray of them from the oven, they looked bloated, the consistency was gummy, and the taste awful. My neighbor threw them on her front lawn for her dogs to consume; but not only did they want nothing to do with these duds, the birds wouldn’t even give them a peck.

Every year Janet and I stopped at a craft store and bought all kinds of fun vessels in which to pack the cookies, along with shiny little shopping bags, and we affixed each with the name of the recipient. In an effort to be thoughtful of what certain people liked or didn’t, I individualized the selections as best I could. Christmas Eve day I lugged in an enormous shopping bag filled with each person’s gift and handed them out before we opened the store for business. It was a lot of work and planning, but I felt good.

I left the store two months ago. Christmas will soon be upon us. I think of all those years I baked for days to give a little bit of myself to the people I worked with for so long. As a reminder, I think I’ll bake a big batch of the coconut macaroons and give them to the friends we have made in Callicoon. I think I’ll enjoy the baking more this year than ever before.  

Ambrosia Macaroons
Makes about 45 cookies

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons finely grated orange peel
3 large eggs
24 ounces sweetened flaked coconut (about 6 cups firmly packed)
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted

Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 325°. Line 3 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar and salt; beat until blended. Beat in orange peel, then eggs, one at a time. Mix in coconut. Drop batter onto sheets by tablespoons, spacing 1 ½ inches apart. Bake macaroons, 1 sheet at a time, until golden on bottom and browned in spots, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool completely on sheets. Using fork or demitasse spoon, drizzle chocolate over macaroons. Chill on sheet until chocolate is firm, about 30 minutes.

 

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