Gingerbread guys and dolls are not the only things gussied up for the holidays. Suspended above extensive scaffolding fronting Lord and Taylor’s 5th Avenue department store is a dazzling canopy of white twinkle lights and artificial fir. One window boasts a Victorian gingerbread house supported by a perfectly choreographed troupe of gingerbread men. Another window features a conveyor belt of intricately decorated cakes, cupcakes and pastel macarons. I want one of each.
Blondilocks suggested to me that she grew up in a household devoid of Christmas cookies and gingerbread houses. I reminded her that in her childhood, more than a bakers dozen of holiday cookies tumbled out of our illegal commercial oven. True, the majority of those cookies were baked in the eleventh hour of the last day of school prior to Christmas break. Also true, the recipients were Bob the School Bus Driver, a slew of hard-working teachers and Philly’s Forrest Theatre staff. The cookies iced under my professional hand at Tabora and Cafette rarely made it home, but they can be listed on my resume of special skills. How do you think carpal tunnel begins?
After some thought, Blondilocks recalled that she had some experience with gingerbread house decor. I had forgotten that holiday crafts in elementary school featured gingerbread houses fashioned out of heaven forbid, empty half pint milk cartons. Slathered in thick ready-to-spread frosting and a dizzying array of Christmas candy, I vaguely recall the arrival of the decorated milk carton and the prompt disposal of the handicraft. Sorry kids.
My childhood gingerbread memories did not revolve around Christmas. They were rooted in a 9” square Bake King pan brimming with Jessie’s after school gingerbread snack cake. Lugging home a pyramid of textbooks held together by an elastic book strap, the fragrance of molasses and spice taunted from the front door. This was the cake I ate at the kitchen table, watching The Million Dollar Movie with Jessie. Evidently this food memory skipped a generation because my children’s after school snacks leaned heavily towards chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin.
This weekend, I will try to make it up to Blondilocks and Master/Master in both cookies and cake. As we assemble for a leisurely holiday weekend, there just so happens to be a pudgy square of gingerbread cookie dough in the fridge awaiting inspiration. I’m also convinced a gingerbread cake seems the perfect contradiction to the unseasonal temperatures we’ve been experiencing. This cake is not to be confused with Master/Master’s birthday cake, a completely separate and independent entity. The tube cake that we will nibble prior to the 28th of December has plenty of heat from a laundry list of spices and a serious dose of crystallized ginger. Having baked dozens of them this week providing sustenance to many Whos down in Whoville, it’s quite possible this recipe is permanently ingrained in my memory. Not to say there hasn’t been any pie this week; there’s been plenty. I’m sporting a brand new this-oven-mitt-doesn’t-quite-cover-my-elbow burn to prove it.
I am giddy with the thought of several days sans Christmas tunes and chronic oven timers, surrounded by my favorite people. This is what Christmas is all about.
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It is quite possible that I am just the slightest bit overdressed in my hooded parka. The woman squeezed in next to me on the subway platform is wearing a short sleeved paisley dress with a lightweight cardigan tossed over one arm. She looks ready for summer, I look ready for the polar vortex. We wait for the E train shoulder to shoulder, making it impossible to ignore the lyrics pouring out of her iPhone. Without meaning to, I am mouthing the words to It’s A Marshmallow World. This is a song I know better than most of the offerings on the holiday playlist at work. This can be attributed to the hilariously brilliant gift that was sent to me from my sweet friend Heidi. It is a chef bear, perfectly plush, attired in a spanking white chef’s toque and chef’s jacket. Armed with a spatula, this bear is ridiculously adorable. When you pinch his fluffy paw however, he sings the very song that is pouring out of the iPhone to my immediate left. Ms. Paisley and I inch our way towards the doors of the arriving train, bobbing amidst a sea of early morning commuters. Performing the shoulder-dip-and-turn, it is possible to snag a fraction of an overhead strap to steady myself. I am instantly drawn to the man standing opposite me, more accurately drawn to his fashion sense.
He is attired in cherry red trousers tucked into oversized black boots. Is that you, Santa Claus? No, it is bandana-pants man. His trousers are fashioned out of red bandana fabric. This is clearly a subliminal message from the bakery. We ride the subway together four stops south, exiting the train at Spring Street. Out of all the subways in all of Manhattan, it’s practically kismet. Sadly, we part ways at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Spring, which coincidentally, seems to be the season folks are dressed for. Feeling the slightest bit conspicuous, I forego my fleece lined hood.
It is way too balmy for December in NYC, feeling more like Christmas in Florida.There are tiny white lights and frosty ornaments draped across the windows of storefronts, boughs of evergreen gussied up with red velveteen bows. My day is spent with my Longhouse crony Alicia, trouble-shooting recipes, preparing cookies. Dark chocolate crinkles, buttery pecan wedding cakes and sugar cut-outs dressed in royal icing top the work list. An enormous stockpot of granny smith apples and cranberries simmer on the stove, holiday pungent with cinnamon and cloves. It smells the way December should. Alicia is in the thick of whisking egg whites and sugar, her black leggings spattered in wayward meringue. My sneakers leave a subtle trail of powdered sugar with each footprint.
Inspired by peppermint, chocolate and meringue, I pause at the corner grocer for my own cello-wrapped candy cane before heading underground. My Metro card mocks me, admonishing me to swipe again and again and just once more. Long enough for the uptown E train to pull into the station, pause with doors wide open then seal them shut. Catapulting through the turnstile I find myself eye to eye with the window of the first car of the train. Instead of looking away, the engineer looks at me and opens the doors. It is a Christmas miracle.
The word on the street is that Santa Claus is coming to town. Get in line, pal. We’ve already witnessed a cookie rumble between snowmen and gingerbread angling for an inch on the baker’s rack. Snowflakes and tannenbaums are quietly planning their own uprising, edging out sugared mistletoe and the final round of Hanukkah stars.
My head is spinning like a dreidel and chances are good that I may be coming down with something. If I were to self-diagnose this week’s hypochondriacal illness, my guess would be an acute case of powdered sugar lung. One recipe of royal icing calls for twelve pounds of powdered sugar. As the mixer’s paddle attachment beats egg whites and sugar into snowdrifts of submission, clouds of white swirl overhead. Preparing four rounds of icing this week might be considered a veritable avalanche and possibly a personal best. My jeans and sneakers are spattered in dried meringue providing a subtle yet noticeable crunch to my walk.
The holiday merrymaking continues over the bakery sound system, jingle bell rockin’ and reminding us it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. No kidding. And for the hundredth time, no, no, NO, I have never spent Christmas on Christmas Island. Cookie Island, yes, Christmas Island, negative. Sonos cares not, crooning yet another carol. Oh look- here comes Suzy Snowflake.
In the very first year of the bakery, Team Butter assembled at a local eatery to celebrate the holiday season. We were a party of nine. This year, an intimate group of twenty eight ditched the bandanas to gather at the gracious home of our Butter Meisters. Armed with Secret Santa gifts (thank you, Emily) and sumptuous potluck offerings, there was nary a single royal-iced cookie in the mix.
What a swell party it was.
No sooner had the tapered rolling pin mouthed the word “Uncle!” last week, than the sugar cookie dough began inching its way towards the bench. Dreidel cutters are warming up for an eight night engagement beginning Sunday evening. They are followed in hot pursuit by snowmen and reindeer, evergreen pine and snowflake blue food coloring. I quake in anticipation.
It seems counter intuitive to cram an overabundance of sweets into one month but holiday revelers are seldom known for embracing moderation. December’s food temptations are dizzying, sprawled across every food catalogue that crosses my threshold or stares back at me from the interweb. Admittedly, my line of work makes me a sweets enabler of sorts, just as guilty as Harry and David and Williams-Sonoma. Harry and David may lure you in with their glossy cover photo of Royal Riviera pears, but turn the page and you are up to your neck in towers of truffles and a seven pound serving of cheesecake. Chuck Williams goes straight for the sweet tooth with enough peppermint bark to induce both diabetic shock and a trip to the dentist.
In a modest attempt to tread cautiously into the early days of December, it seems appropriate to kick off the season in an orderly fashion. Hanukkah cookies are first up, blanketed in white and blue royal icing. As dreidels and stars stretched out on parchment to dry, it seemed a good time to inch over from sugar to spice. The analysis and preparation of two distinctive gingerbread cakes, generously spiced and weighty with molasses provided a warming mid-morning snack. Unable to decide which one reigned supreme, I had just a smidgen more to be certain. As a palate cleanser and a worthwhile use of my afternoon, I moved on to the curious cookie known in Southern circles as the Hello Dolly Bar and elsewhere as the 7-Layer Magic Bar.
Sheltered from 7-Layer Magic Bars in my youth, it wasn’t until college that I encountered this sugar coma in brick form. There are many variations, but traditionally graham cracker crumbs hunker down beneath obscene quantities of butter, chocolate chips, butterscotch morsels, sweetened flaked coconut and finally pecans. All of these ingredients are drowned in a sea of sweetened condensed milk. That is probably why they were never featured in my childhood. Sweetened condensed milk was simply not a part of Jessie’s pantry. It seems redundant to create an achingly sweet cookie using an ingredient dubbed ‘sweetened.’ Which may be why I opted to bow out of the butterscotch morsels and skip the sweetened condensed milk altogether. Homemade caramel with a good dose of salt makes for a better confection, although probably not the one most people identify with.
Preparing the caramel in a small space also reinforces one’s respect for fire safety. This seems most appropriate with the Festival of Lights waiting in the wings. The fact that the local fire department is situated just around the corner provides an additional sense of security. Watching the sugar turn from white to clear to amber, I silently make a holiday wish that there will be no need to summon the Captain and his fine team of firefighters. The month is young.
As Hanukkah nears, it seems unlikely that Hello-Dolly-7-Layer-Magic-Bars will usurp potato latkes from their rightful place on my Hanukkah menu. Then again, as inscribed on many a dreidel, this may be the year when a great miracle happens here. The miracle of remembering where on earth I put the new box of Hanukkah candles for safekeeping.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm