Seven years ago this week, I started a part-time job at a recently opened bakery in Maplewood, NJ, called The Able Baker. I was hired as a cookie decorator, joining a very small crew around a very long table. Our primary focus at the time was thousands of sugar cookies in varying sizes, sharing the commonality of Christmas.
My tenure at Williams-Sonoma and Tabora Farms had provided me with plenty of hours of cookie decorating. I took an open spot around the table at The Able Baker and grabbed a piping bag. In the background, Etta James crooned “At Last” on repeat, occasionally interrupted by Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby. The well-seasoned Hobart mixer droned on, beating quarts of egg whites and pounds of powdered sugar into fluffy submission. The ornamental icing was divvied up amongst half-quart plastic tubs. Drops of Christmas Red and Forest Green transformed the stark white royal icing into an instant holiday piping and painting medium. Blank cookie canvases were outlined, then filled, finally embellished with sugar crystals and edible candy pearls. Santas, snowmen, and tiny reindeer stared back from parchment lined sheet trays.
In the beginning of my tenure, the color palate remained fairly traditional, reds and greens with one renegade blue reindeer. In time, things changed, as did the faces around the table. More importantly, social media revolutionized our approach to cookie decorating, affording way too many examples and options to snag from the internet and make our own. It felt like cheating in some ways, a far cry from the early days, when cookie inspiration was limited to a handful of examples provided by the cookie cutter manufacturer and one’s imagination. Imagine that.
Seven years later, holiday cookies continue to be a mainstay of the bakery’s business. The baker’s racks are presently weighted down from top to bottom with overfilled sheet pans of everything Christmas, making the racks practically immobile, much like a pesky shopping cart with wheels that won’t turn. We have reached capacity around the worktable, with some new faces and a few seasoned worker bees. Thick royal icing spins around the tired Hobart mixer at a furious rate, splashing bits of stubborn meringue on bandanas and fingertips. There are now far too many food color choices to be contained in one oversized plastic tub. The array of sprinkles, edible glitter, and something identified as ‘disco dust,’ is staggering, crossing the line from whimsical to excessive. There remains one constant however; once you walk away from the oven, out of earshot of the oven timer, that is when the cookies will turn from golden to dark brown to burnt.
It seems appropriate this week to share a little background information on my cookie decorating past. From the early days on the blog, December 2013:
You Can’t Catch Me, I’m the Gingerbread Man
Truth be told, I arrived rather late to the Christmas Cookie/Eggnog party. The closest our kitchen came to actual holiday cookie baking wasn't a holiday at all. It knew no specific season, it was simply heralded by Jessie's aluminum Mirro cookie press. Technically, I suppose, you could consider this Christmas cookie-ing, or Spritz cookie-making. In a somewhat child-like disconnect, it reminded me just a bit of my Play-do Fun Factory, and was infinitely more fun than Mr. Potato Head. The chocolate and vanilla doughs were quick and easy to mix. The challenge was selecting just the right cookie disc. I agonized over the myriad of choices and always gravitated towards the dog, maybe because he shared just the slightest resemblance to the dog in Monopoly. In hindsight, I must admit that somewhere between going into the oven and twelve minutes later, exiting the oven, the poor doggie looked nothing like the picture in the Mirro-Cookie press recipe pamphlet. And although Spritz cookies were apparently quite comfortable gussied up for the Christmas holidays, there was nary a green or red sprinkle to be found in our kitchen.
My first foray into the professional Christmas cookie leagues began when I was hired to work at Williams-Sonoma. I had restaurant experience which plummeted me to the front of the demonstration line. Whenever a new product or technique was center stage, I had the misfortune of being selected to "demo" the product. Unpacking cases of holiday cookie decorating kits, I found myself knee-deep in sugars, icings and sprinkles boasting the titles, "Christmas Red" and "Evergreen Green." To say this was baptism by fire sums it up rather accurately. Standing at the demo counter, brandishing my piping bags, I had to dig deep into my Ithaca College acting skills. I promised the decorating novices they, too, could boast their own cookie glitterati that very holiday season. I piped red bow ties on terrified gingerbread boys. I sprinkled crystal sanding sugars with great abandon, temporarily blinding a young woman leaning in a little too closely. The regulation green Williams-Sonoma employee apron tied around my waist resembled a Jackson Pollack canvas of royal icings. My audience waved farewell, clutching their decorating kits with the same fervor mother's had clutched Tickle Me Elmos a few years prior. The store manager deemed it a very successful afternoon. I clocked out and ran for my life.
With every series of culinary jobs that followed, Christmas holidays found me armed with piping bags and literally hundreds of naked cookies waiting to be costumed. I navigated angels on the wing with gold sugar crystals as they flew perilously close to reindeer sporting oversized red non pareil noses. Gingerbread families dodged mistrals of confectioners' sugar, while the houses in which they lived fell victim to asymmetrical window placement and slightly toxic gold metallic door knobs. Every year, as Christmas slid into New Year's, it became easier and easier to understand why Santa and Mrs. Claus had a penchant for eggnog.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm