Holidays turn this guy into a baking fiend

CONFESSIONS OF A COOKIE MONSTER

November 06, 1994|By Peter Jensen

Do Keebler elves ever suffer anxiety attacks?

In a matter of a few weeks, it will be that season. Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against the winter holidays.

There are worse things than exchanging gifts, roasting chestnuts and listening to Gene Autry sing about reindeer games. Spending time with friends and family can be a genuinely enriching experience (unless, of course, they're your family or your friends).

I like pine, candles and boughs of holly about as well as the next guy. Some people find shopping to be an ordeal, but I never have.

Tree trimming? No problem.

Cards and wrapping? Ditto.

Lights? I was born to twinkle.

But when December rolls around, it's not Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, but Cookie Season in my home. Time is measured in baking hours. Dog-eared cookbooks are scattered around my kitchen like texts in a college senior's dorm room.

Bowls rarely sit in the cupboard for long. Tables are lined with baking sheets. Shelves are stuffed with an atypical bounty, roasted nuts and candied fruit. (Who uses citron any other time of the year?)

Cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice, brown sugar, molasses, raisins, various forms of cocoa and chocolate, powdered sugar, corn syrup, vanilla and almond extracts, baking powder, several varieties of flour, baking soda -- the inventory goes on and on.

It would be one thing if I could just take a list and spend an afternoon at the grocery. But no, that won't do.

I worry about freshness and quality. I look for the best whole spices to mill. Butter -- it may just be shortening to you but it's a precious commodity to me.

Friends, this cookie thing has become an obsession.

Do you raid several stores each year looking for new cookie cutters? Do you stare longingly at Kitchen Aid mixers in the department stores? Can the subject of cookie-press techniques start you rambling? Do you own a rosette maker?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, you may have caught the same cookie fever (pyrexia bettycrockeritis) that has infected me for the past six years.

The whole thing started innocently enough. I was sucked into it by the delightful presents of homemade cookies friends would share with me at Christmas.

They didn't just taste good. The gift seemed so personal, as if I had been invited into a family tradition. Often, they sent cookies I had never eaten before, recipes that had been passed along for generations.

Somehow, giving them my usual gift of a bottle of liquor wrapped with a self-stick bow didn't seem quite as warm and fuzzy.

Baking was not a new concept. My mother raised three sons and she felt an obligation to teach us all basic kitchen skills.

She made sure we knew the difference between liquid and dry measuring cups. Milk was always measured to the bottom of the meniscus -- the curve that forms on the surface of a liquid. Not a trace of yolk can be found in an egg white separated by a member of my family.

But the holidays were not one big bake-athon at the Jensen residence. We were kind of a mail-order fruitcake family, except for later when my father discovered the joys of stollen -- but

that's a story for another time.

In 1988, I bought my first house. With it came a sudden urge to be the next Mr. Martha Stewart. I wanted to launch a holiday tradition, something I could share with kids, but nothing so complicated it required Ms. Stewart's glue gun.

The first Christmas cookie effort was simple enough, with standards like tollhouse, rum balls, molasses crinkles, and sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles.

Hey, we all have to start somewhere.

They loved them at the office. Friends were delighted. I had the perfect little nosh for when company drops by unexpectedly.

The next year's baking became a little less casual. Time is so precious around the holidays, it quickly became clear that I needed a game plan. A calendar was required. Recipes and shopping lists had to be organized.

And what about containers? I had used old cookie tins for storage the year before. That wouldn't do. I went out and bought a variety of plastic storage containers that burp. After all, you can't lump rum balls or meringues with other cookies.

The product was wrapped in decorative tins rather than the previous year's waxed cardboard boxes. The more elegant the container, I reasoned, the more precious the contents will seem to the recipient.

My cookie repertoire gradually expanded. Merrily, I began rolling out my rolling pin. The first cookie press was acquired. (We're on our third model these days -- Swiss-made, a real beauty.)

After that, I'm afraid the intervening years are a blur. It was a gradual descent into the Williams-Sonoma catalog.

I began to worry that I needed the best cinnamon, the finest candied ginger. The benefits of real vanilla bean over extract became clear.

Who among us hasn't sought out the mostly recently laid extra-large eggs? Rational people, of course, but who else? I once drove 40 miles to pick up cholesterol-rich French butter from Sutton Place Gourmet.

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