Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hidden Kisses

It's not what you are thinking, this post of mine. Although hidden -- nay stolen -- kisses are a tempting topic to while away an evening of writing. You know, the kind of kisses I mean -- the soft gentle ones that at once comfort and confirm a quiet steady love. Or the first kiss of a brand new relationship -- the one that makes you tingle all over in anticipation. That leaves you wanting and thinking about what may be. Or the sad kiss of good-bye -- this is it, we were great together, but we are broken and we will never be repaired no matter how hard we try.

No, this post is about something more mundane and more profound -- my almost 30-year love affair with holiday cookie baking. I do not know why I started this although I suspect I can trace it back to fudge and friends in college. I can remember mailing a particular package off to London one year (his year abroad) and getting a thank you note some two months later because the friend in question was off gallivanting around the continent during his winter break. Fortunately, England has no central heating and the fudge survived until his return or so HE wrote.

So, here I am, a single professional woman of a certain age living in New York city who makes holiday cookes. Dozens of them. Every December. My friends think it's a bit of an oxymoron -- the overly committed, hard-driving, single career woman who bakes cookies. Did I say dozens? And, can I add usually no less than 7 different kinds? They wonder where I find the time -- and sometimes even ask "have you lost your mind?" Each year, I say to myself this is the last time I'm doing this but the following year, there I am pulling out the cookbooks and the clippings and the recipe cards with the goal of paring it all down. Making less kinds of cookies and making less cookies altogether. Each year, I am reminded of my apartment in the east 20s off of second -- the one with the stove so old that the oven did not have a temperature control. The one where I first negotiated with the landlord -- a new stove, this simply won't do I said when I moved in, you see I bake cookies in December and I wouldn't even know where to begin with this stove. I won -- and he got some cookies that year so I think he won too.

But as I scroll through the recipes, I see old favorites -- the chocolate chip mounds that require a little extra oomph than a toll house chocolate chip cookie; the fudge ecstasies that I now make with dried cranberries instead of nuts, and the oatmeal cookies that are the canvas for all sorts of flavor combinations (not just nuts and raisins for me). And new favorites, the peanut butter munchies and the homemade oreo cookies. And recipes I have never tried that may make the list this year.

I see recipes that make me laugh at the absurdity of the scope of my past enterprises -- I'll never make those again I think even as I look at the recipe and remember the product. The gingerbread teddy bears that require no less than 13 rolled balls of dough EACH and yields 16 very fragile and very beautiful little gingerbread bears. For some reason that recipe reminds me of my apartment on Riverside Drive. The apartment with the kitchen on a wall -- the kitchen with the stove/refrigerator combination unit and the sink that was smaller than my current bathroom sink. The kitchen with 1 foot of usable counter space. The apartment with a peek-a-boo view of the Hudson River and a neighbor who lined his walls with tin foil. A sheet on the floor, judicious use of tables, and I was off and running. That was the year of the hand-decorated boxes -- themed to the person on the other end.

Aah, there is the fudge -- the tried and true standby, the epitome of suburban cooking (like my chicken cordon bleu). The recipe on the back of the, gasp, marshmallow fudge jar. Ours is slightly different my sister would say -- it's not that recipe, that one from the fluff jar. In reality, it is a fudge recipe that involves fluff -- can't get beyond those two facts. It reminds me of a year early on in my adventures in holiday cookie-making where my roommate Gail and I decided we would make lots of different kinds of fudge. We collected our recipes, purchased a candy thermometer, and proceeded to make lots of different kinds of really interesting sauces for ice cream. We laughed at ourselves for days after that. And, the only fudge I know how to make has marshmallow fluff in it.

Over the years, a theme has emerged in my holiday cookie making -- it's the all chocolate show all of the time parade for me. Don't get me wrong, I still like ginger, sugar, and lemon tea cookies. It's just that I've noticed that most people on the other end -- without hesitation I might add -- go for the chocolate cookies. Leaving the others looking a little lost and forlorn -- and ready to be sent to the island of misfit toys.

I'm about 2/3rds of the way through this year in the holiday baking extravaganza. I've used up almost 7 lbs of flour and at least 5 bags full of chips. and just plain old white sugar, and the pecans, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Not to mention the bottles of vanilla, the coconut flakes, the bakers chocolate, the unsweetened cocoa, the butter, the confectionary and brown sugar. The wall kitchen is long gone -- I have a working food processor, a kitchen aide mixer, measuring cups for dry ingredients, and a spatula for scraping down the bowl. I even have a dishwasher and real cookie pans (the kind with air in them). No cooling racks for me -- still wedded to the tried and true waxed paper on the table approach of my mother, the queen of the NestlĂ©’s chocolate cookie recipe.

This year, again, I went through that very same exercise of "why are you doing this?", "do you have the time?", "is there a way to do less?” And, as always, I tossed those thoughts aside as I opened the book -- a small little present ($4.95 at Caldor's) from my mother and saw her beautifully formed handwriting:

And I flipped through the pages of that little book to my favorite recipe -- Hidden Kisses -- and thought, mom had it right on this front. Making and giving cookies makes me happy -- I like putting a little love (as a colleague remarked today) into each batch that I make. I like making the time in my overly busy life to make something that involves all of my senses -- taste, touch sight, smell, and even hearing (my oven has a kitchen timer now -- how grand!). I like the feeling that sending something homemade off to points West, North, and South gives me. A little home-made chocolate cornucopia of love from me to them.

As to my favorite cookie -- those hidden kisses -- they are just a little mysterious, a little misleading, and oh so rewarding if you take the time to bite into one. Because there is that chocolate kiss at the center of a simple cookie dough that surprises and delights everyone who meets this cookie for the first time.

I think I will have one -- perhaps with a glass of milk -- before going to sleep with visions of kisses dancing in my head.