Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Cookie Exchange, Part I: Lessons Learned

Last year I went to a cookie exchange.  The invitation had come in the mail, a beautiful glossy postcard asking me to bring 72 cookies, "creatively" packaged in half dozen portions with the recipe attached, plus another half dozen for the sampling plate. I only knew a couple of the women who were attending, but I was pretty sure they were all equally crafty and hostess-y, traits I used to have. But somewhere along the line, between the teenagers and the demanding job and my general loss of interest in impressing others, those traits disappeared.

Still, I didn't want to embarrass myself.  I wasn't going to bring the paper plate of cookies with dog hair on them, or repackage something from the Meijer bakery. So I looked in my recipe arsenal and found the perfect cookie recipe clipped from an old Taste of Home magazine - Christmas Shortbread Wreaths:

Click here for the recipe: Christmas Shortbread Wreaths from Taste of Home
I figured these would be perfect - they only have a few ingredients, and they're tasty and festive and travel well.  I'd made them before, although it had been several years, so I knew that in order to be successful I would need to keep the ingredients and the cookie sheets cold, so there would be minimal spreading.  I also knew that the decorations were best added just before you take the cookies out of the oven.  Too early and they melt, too late and they roll off.  For my cookie exchange, I decided to make smaller 6-piece wreaths and package them individually. To make them even better, I would dip the bottoms in dark chocolate first!  I bought cute little holiday patterned shrink-wrap bags so the cookie wreaths would hold their shape when swapped with the other lucky exchangers. This was going to be awesome.

I planned to make the cookies the afternoon before the cookie exchange, which took place on a Sunday. I would bake them all, then coat them in chocolate and let them set before packaging. Well, it takes a lot longer to make 12 little little wreaths than it does to make one big one. After the fourth one I was sick of the whole process. I had a few mishaps - some of the wreaths were a little dark, some had swelled in the oven until they resembled pregnant ankles, and a couple stuck to the cookie sheet and broke because I waited too long to remove them. I was using colored sugar for the decor which was getting everywhere and staining my fingers, resulting in a few random red and green fingerprints on the cookies.  Still, by early evening I managed to get a dozen fairly good wreaths baked, and figured the chocolate would cover a multitude of sins.

So, if anyone out there knows how to get chocolate on the bottom of a decorated cookie, please share your secret here. It was a disaster. I tried dipping but the cookies were too thin to get a good grip, and if you squeezed too hard the edges would crumble. I tried pouring the chocolate on a plate and snuggling the cookie down into the pool, but I couldn't pick them back up without getting the chocolate all over the top of the cookie. I tried turning them over and painting the chocolate on the back. I couldn't lay them on the cookie sheet or the colored sugar fell off, so I held the pieces in my hand. It sort of worked, but I couldn't get a nice clean edge. In the end, I had 12 plates of Charlie Brown cookies. There was no way I was going to take these to a gathering of Martha Stewarts. Time for Plan B.

One of my favorite cookies as a kid is a free-form meringue we called Fly-ups. My mom always told me that they were served during the bridging ceremony when a girl "flew up" the ranks from Brownie to Girl Scout.  I never actually made it past the Brownie stage so I can't verify this, but the cookies are pretty darn good and easy enough for a 9-year-old to make, which at this point was perfect.  Normally they have tiny chocolate chips in the batter, but I didn't have any on hand. What I did have was a delicious hunk of Sanders dark chocolate peppermint bark, which I chopped up and used in place of the chocolate chips. It was magnificent!  I can't find my recipe - all my cookbooks are packed up so my kitchen counter space looks maxed for any potential homebuyers. But this one is pretty close:

Click here for the recipe: Chocolate chip meringue cookie from Weight Watchers
I wasn't going to be able to shrink wrap such a delicate cookie, so the morning of the exchange I cut up the packaging. I stacked six cookies and wrapped them in a piece of un-shrunken shrink wrap, fastening them with ribbons to resemble a christmas popper (and by 'resemble' I mean they were in a vague tube shape with both ends tied off). I made copies of the recipe and fastened it like a tag on one end of each cookie stack, and headed off to the cookie exchange. When I arrived, I placed my cookies next to the hand-decorated gingerbread men, snowflake cookies dusted with edible sparkles, exquisite rolled cookies, and... the hostess's perfect chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies. I whispered a silent prayer of thanks for the decision to make a last minute change.

Last week an invitation came in the mail.  The cookie exchange is now an annual tradition, and I'm invited back. This time we need 11 dozen cookies!  I guess I could just hope to wow them with my packaging. But I decided to plan ahead. I found a cute recipe, bought the ingredients, and plan on doing a dry run before the big day.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Why I don't like Fall

Every year I hear more and more people saying that Autumn is their favorite time of the year, a time to slip into forgiving bulky sweaters, ride on hay wagons and go apple picking. After all, Autumn is beautiful here in Michigan. The humidity goes away, the air is crisp and clean, and the leaves turn into picture-book colors. But I don't like it.

Autumn gives me a vague sense of dread. I don't know why. The cooler temps offset those menopausal thermal events, I thoroughly enjoy clean air and apples, and I have some great bulky sweaters. So why is Gir singing the Doom Song inside my head? At first I thought it was the memory of being a kid who wasn't ready for the new school year. Then I thought maybe it was a metaphor for where I am in life, winding down from summer fun and headed towards dormancy. But a couple weekends ago I realized what I actually hate about it - it's the damn leaves! They fall. And fall. And FALL. And then we have to rake them all up before they kill the grass or turn into a slippery death trap. So Autumn is okay, but Fall sucks.

One of the things that made me fall in love with my house is that we are situated on an acre and a half of huge trees. They form a beautiful, thick, rustling canopy all summer, obscuring the neighbors houses and shielding our water-phobic dog from the rain. They burst into vibrant reds and yellows in Autumn, beautiful to look at until they drift down to form a thick carpet on the yard (and the driveway and the porch) until the pile is almost as tall as one of Michigan's treasured landfills.

Having our house up for sale this Fall added a new wrinkle to the annual leaf aggravation. Every time we have a showing we have to pick up all the leaves so potential buyers will think the woodland creatures keep our big lawn clean and tidy. Raking is impossible. It takes too long, and random tines point off at 45-degree angles so you always leave little leaf trails behind you.

We have an electric-powered leaf blower but there is definitely a knack to using it. If you don't wave it with the right momentum in just the right pattern, all the leaves just blow in a big arc over your head and settle down behind you. Just when you find your rhythm the cord vibrates loose and falls on the ground. Eventually you get creative enough to figure a way to tie the cord in a knot around the handle so it can't shake loose. This is effective for about six steps until you stretch the extension cord to its limit, straining to blow away the leaves that are juuuuust outside your reach. So frustrating! 

This year was different. We called in the big guns and borrowed a super-powerful (and super-heavy) backpack blower. I don't know the brand but I think it was powered with a hydroplane engine and looked like something the Ghostbusters would use to suck up ectoplasm. Senior strapped it on and cleaned up most of the lawn before his shoulders gave out. He made it look easy, so I decided to give it a whirl. He gave me a quick tutorial, idled the engine, and pointed me toward the steepest downhill part of the yard where it's easiest to move the leaves.

I felt pretty cool as I headed out with one hand on the throttle, ready to decimate leaves and the StayPuft marshmallow man. I got into position and gave it some juice. The blower roared into life and immediately sent a small tornado into the yard, literally knocking me on my butt as leaves, twigs and squirrels flew into the air.

I managed to get back upright, fix my stance and work my way down the hill, waving the blower wand in spastic arcs that moved the stagnant leaves off the ground. It was still slow going and the pack was crushingly heavy, but blowing wave after wave of damp leaves off the grass and into the woods was as satisfying as peeling the label off my beer bottles.

After coming under attack by our new arsenel, the trees threw in the white flag of defeat.  At last our lawn was bare. Yeah, we ain't afraid of no leafs.