Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ode to Christmas Cookies

Christmas, Christmas time is near, time for laughter, time for… cookies!!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Christmas is filled with delights of all kinds, from family, to decorations, to sappy specials on The Hallmark Channel, but I have to admit (and I know this won’t come as a surprise to anyone), I absolutely love all the baking. Cupcakes and cookies and cheesecakes abound as even the most infrequent bakers pull out their mixers and get to work on that one special recipe that they do so well.

In my earliest Christmas memories, magic sparkled in the air like fireflies, filling my world with excitement and wonder. The air itself seemed to hum with a sort of vibrancy, an indefinable feeling of goodwill and generosity. Each year, as the Christmas tree glittered in its multi-hued glory and the air smelled of pine needles and happiness, my mom would round us kids up for the one-day Christmas cookie baking extravaganza.

In my memories, the avocado green stove warmed the kitchen as bowls and measuring spoons and bags of flour and sugar cluttered the counter. Lined up on the table were the carefully hand-printed recipes that had been penned years before I was even born. Aprons were donned and hair pulled back and soon we were combining ingredients and making memories. My mother would hold the bowl as my young hands clutched to mixer. My sister would carefully measure the next ingredient while my brother waited to taste test the batch.

Over the course of the day, familiar cookies were pulled from the oven and laid across racks to cool. Stained glass ones, and plaited red and white cane ones, and peanut butter and chocolate kissed ones. Sugar cookies and powered cookies and cookies topped with gaily colored sprinkles.

At the end of the day, there would be only one batch left to make: the world famous chocolate-covered shortbread cookies. They were simple enough, with the shortbread base pressed into a cookie sheet, topped with melted chocolate, and sprinkled with chopped nuts, but something about them signaled to us that Christmas was here.

By then, darkness had fallen, and the house glowed with warmth and contentment. My brother would have given up on the baking long ago, but my mother, my sister and I remained, laughing and chattering about all the things that will be muted by time. The words and the topics are indistinct, but the joy, the sisterhood, and the taste of chocolate will linger on our tongues for a lifetime, called to mind every time the first hints of carols carry on the air and magic fills our hearts once more.

What are your Christmas baking traditions? Do you still follow the traditions of your youth, or have your started your own?

Note: I will be taking the next two weeks off for the holidays. I'll see you all in the New Year!!

Chocolate Shortbread Christmas Cookies

2 cups flour

1 cup butter – melted

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 egg yolk

1 package chocolate chips

1 package chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix flour, butter, sugar, vanilla, and yolk until thoroughly combined. Pat into cookie sheet. Bake for 20 min or until golden. Remove from oven and set aside.

Melt chocolate according to directions on package (either in microwave or using a double broiler). Spread evenly over prepared crust. Sprinkle desired amount of chopped pecans over top. Allow to set up.

Once firm, my family always cut up the cookies and placed in gallon size freezer bags to store in the freezer. I love these cookies ‘fresh’ out of the freezer!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Snow Place Like Home

What is it about freshly fallen snow that catapults me back so completely to my childhood? This weekend, we had all of one inch fall here in Raleigh, and the moment we returned home from out of town, I unleashed the dogs and sprinted through the darkness, finding our way by the silver light of the moon breaking though the clouds. Giggling and panting, my three dogs and I raced through the yard while my husband stood shaking his head nearby. Let him be the adult—I had a snow angel to make :)

When I think of the snow days past, somehow they always come to me through a Calvin-and-Hobbes-colored filter. A time when nature has gifted us with the best, most awesomist gift possible, and beyond the frosted window panes lays a vast, unspoiled winter wonderland, waiting only for a sled, a sturdy pair of mittens, and the over-active imagination of a child who’s been stuck indoors for far too long.

In the slightly fuzzy and rose-tinted memories of those glorious winter days when I awoke to the two greatest words a child can hear—Snow day!—one day in particular stands out. It was shortly after my family had moved from Georgia to Kentucky. I was in elementary school, while my sister knocked on the door of adolescence. Five years my senior, it was rare for the two of us to actually get along at that point. We argued, and fussed, and occasionally ignored each other all together, but with me in my annoying, tag-along phase and Kara in her too-cool-for-school phase, harmony was not readily found between us.

Until, one day, we awoke to the transformed landscaped sculpted by the winds and driving snow of a veritable blizzard. It was, in a word, magical. Icicles gleamed from the eaves, whole tree branches, encased in sparkling sleeves of ice, glittered as they swayed in the chill wind. Flush with excitement for the near foot-deep drifts of snow blanketing the yard, we three kids clamored into our quadruple layers of long underwear, clothes, mittens, and coats. We shrugged into bulky winter jackets, wound yards of scarves around our necks, and made faces as our mother fussed over us to make sure we wouldn’t freeze in the arctic countryside surrounding our house.

At last we were free, bounding through the shin-deep snow as we raced for the hill, newly purchased red disk sled in hand. We laughed with abandon, throwing handfuls of packed snow back and forth, our breath crystallizing around us like shimmering vignettes. Soon, the war had begun, and the sled was forgotten as, for once, my sister and I joined forces, digging out forts to shield us from enemy snowballs lobbed by my father and brother. When the ammo was spent, we gleefully reunited, the four of us rolling snow across the ground in an effort to build the elusive being known as a snowman.

Our cheeks brilliantly red among the sea of white, we remembered the sled at last, and sprinted through the drifts, stumbling and laughing as we raced for the disk. Despite the freezing wind and gray skies, excitement warmed our blood and before long, our jackets hung drunkenly from our shoulders, our gloves now discarded, and we wooshed down the hill in delight.

At first we took turns, sliding down the hill on the slick little disk, reveling in the frigid rush and warp speeds. Soon, we piled on together, forgetting our self-imposed rolls and delighting in each other’s squeals. Again and again we flew, hearts racing and laughter echoing through the frozen trees, skittering down the hill in a loop that replays itself from time to time in my memories, like a quicksilver slice of my childhood happiness.

At long last, Mom insisted we come in and warm ourselves by the fire. We denied being cold, but our rosy cheeks and chattering teeth betrayed us. Layer after sopping wet layer fell to the basement floor as we shed our winter armor and thundered up the stairs into the toasty little kitchen. Steaming hot chocolate, carefully poured into our matching red mugs and topped with rationed marshmallows, waited patiently at the table as we filled the small space to bursting.

Grinning, Kara and I relived the day for our mother, giddily embellishing and interrupting each other’s commentary. Mom smiled and nodded, watching her two girls, surely thankful for the winter magic which brought us together for a moment of harmony.

Within days the snow would be gone, and the sled stored away, but the memories would flourish for decades, brought to mind with every new snowflake, relived with every snow angel, and relished with nostalgic smiles anytime I watch fat flakes blanket the countryside while I hug my mug of hot chocolate closer and dream of enough snow to unbury my inner child.

My old Kentucky home :)

Did you live for the long-awaited snow days in your youth? Or did you grow up in one of those places where snow was so common, a snow day meant too much snow to actually get out of the house? And my biggest question of all – are you hoping for a white Christmas? I know I am!

Perfect hot chocolate doesn’t have to come from a packet. For one of the simplest treats in the book, give this a try:

1 cup milk

2 Tbsp cocoa powdered (natural unsweetened)

1 ½ to 2 Tbsp sugar (per your taste – I like less sweet)

1/8 tsp of either vanilla extract, mint extract, OR peppermint extract (optional)

Heat milk in microwavable safe container for 2 minutes. Add cocoa and sugar to bottom of a mug, stir to break up clumps, then pour hot milk over top. Add optional flavorings. Mix with either the drink mixing attachment of your hand mixer, a small whisk, or a fork. Top with a dollop of whip cream and a few marshmallows. Enjoy!

AND THE WINNERS ARE: Catherine Gayle and Rhonda! Congrats, ladies :) Please send your USPS mailing address to ErinKellyWrites@yahoo.com. Let me know whether you prefer chocolate or red velvet cake, and if you have a preference for frosting.