Food for Thought #5: Cookies and Calm

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style…
In the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas…

Maybe in your private Idaho. Here in the real world, what I sense five days before Christmas is stress. My to-do list remains distressingly full – life doesn’t always cooperate with pre-holiday plans. That means the next few days will be busy ones, what with all the cleaning and decorating there still is to do. And shopping too. In keeping with our family’s desire for a spiritual rather than materialistic holiday season, we don’t go mall-hopping for store-bought gifts (save for Mom’s perfume, the spouse’s annual Bob Marley calendar and some toys for Junior). Some things, however, like food and household/holiday necessities – simply must be purchased.

So, despite my best efforts, much of this week is being spent searching for incidental items in stores. Trust me, it isn’t all sweetness and holy light. The weather is frightfully cold, gas prices are back on the rise (grrrr), and even health- and grocery stores feature painfully bare shelves. (It took me three places to find white edible glitter. And all the mistletoe is gone!) Still, it could be worse: I am not scouting for shiny objects designed to delight, impress or seduce other humans. I don’t have to duke it out over an Xbox 360 with some aggressive, competitive bluehair commandeering a walker, Dick Cheney’s sneer and a bad attitude. This leaves me energy to focus on one of my favorite pastimes: people-watching.

Over the past few days, I have had a few opportunities to gaze at the poor souls scouring the malls for The Perfect Gifts. You know what? They don’t look very happy. People laughing? People passing, wearing smile after smile? Not this time: Stress lines these people’s faces. Frowns crease their foreheads. Piped-in Christmas carols seem to annoy them rather than energize their spirits. They seem to swallow without tasting the food-court crap they wolf down between visits to the Sharper Image and the Disney Store. And they all look exhausted, absolutely depleted. It’s a holiday picture that resemble heavenly peace.

My advice: Chill. Look around. Remember what all of this hustle and bustle is supposed to be about.

When the end of the holidays arrives, will someone love you less – or think you love them less – because you gave them something handmade or home-baked or not “the latest thing?” Do you really think the solution to dwindling family togetherness is a new pool table? If so, your problems are too big to be solved by any Christmas or Hanukkah present. Seriously, if you have the time and ability, consider skipping the mall and its seasonal psychodrama. I embrace making gifts simply because the process allows you to focus on the reasons you are engaging in your labor. It permits you to think about the recipient and why he or she is important to you. It offers time to revel in the wonder of winter; to feel grateful for the birth of a special baby; to recommit to forging and protecting the unity of the human family; to recall the miracle of the lamp that wouldn’t die. You also can ponder what a privilege it is to be able to think about weighty concepts while creating something special for a loved one.

Solstice is tomorrow. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are just days away. At this point, the easiest, fastest and, in my opinion, most fabulous gifts are baked goods.

As mentioned last week in the first part of my edible-gifts series, I’m traveling along Baked Gifts Highway. Which means we’ve been stocking up on fun stuff – real butter(!), cream, chocolate chips and candy – as well as healthy but equally wonderful goodies like dried fruits, carob, fresh and dried spices, granulated maple and date sweetener. I bake all kinds of cookies, covering the sinful and the sensible. And why not? I am all for healthy eating and for maintaining healthy routines during the season of peace and expanding waistlines. There is such a thing called moderation, though – even when it comes to playing by the rules. If one enjoys cakes and cookies – even if they have butter and sugar and all manner of evil ingredients, what better time than the holidays to allow oneself a rare treat? Personally, I make a sincere effort to watch what I eat 11 months out of the year. A couple of December splurges won’t kill me. And if they do, what a way to go…

Today I present more cookie recipes that make wonderful gifts when sealed in a plastic grip-lock bag and wrapped in shiny foil or a festive holiday tin. These, in addition to those shared last week, are the presents my friends and loved ones will receive this year. Consider them gifts to you as well.

Ginger Cookies

This is a cookie recipe adapted from an old, old gingerbread recipe I used to make for my father each Christmas. Dad’s been gone two years now, but we all remember him with love and joy when we taste these spicy treats. For this recipe, start a day ahead so that the cookie dough has plenty of refrigerator time.

Ingredients

1-1/4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1-1/2 tsps. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter (at room temperature)
2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons light molasses
1/4 cup white sugar or granulated sweetener

Procedures

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, sift together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, salt and cloves. Place the butter and brown sugar into a large bowl. Using an electric mixer or a strong arm, beat them until fluffy. Add the egg and molasses to the butterand sugar and beat them into the mixture. Then stir in the flour-spice combination. The resulting dough will be very soft. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow to chill in the fridge overnight.

The next day, when you’re ready to start baking, preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit / 160 degrees Celsius. Spray two large baking sheets with butter-flavored canola (I recommend brands that don’t use alcohol or silicone) and set them aside.

Pour the white sugar or granulated sweetener into a custard cup or ramekin. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and – with clean hands, kids – form it into 1-inch balls. Roll each dough ball around in the sugar. Arrange cookies 2 inches apart on the baking sheets. With the bottom of a glass, gently press balls into 1-1/2-inch-wide rounds.

Place baking sheets into the hot oven. Bake until cookies are soft and slightly puffy, about 12 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a baking rack right away and allow them to cool. Store in an airtight container for up to three days. Makes about 36 ginger cookies.

Apple-Butter Spice Cookies

In one gifting confiuration, I put together a variety of small cookies and wrap them in colored foil. Of all the assembled treats, these tiny, airy cinnamony-apple goodies are among my giftees’ favorites every year.

Ingredients

2-1/2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup shortening
1 egg
1 cup apple butter (preferably homemade; last week’s Food for Thought includes a recipe – scroll down for it, but the jarred, unsweetened variety is OK)
1/2 cup raisins (optional)
1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Procedures

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit / 190 degrees Celsius. Prepare large cookie sheets by spraying them with a canola-oil spray and put them to the side.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Set it aside. In a large bowl, place the sugar and shortening and cream them together until the mixture is light and fluffy. An electric mixer is great for this, but elbow grease can get the job done beautifully. Next, beat in the egg, and after it is well-blended, stir in the apple butter. Now, take the dry-ingredient bowl and add its contents to the larger bowl; mix well. If you opt to use raisins and nuts, blend them in at this point.

Grab your baking sheets; we’re making 96 cookies here, so be ready to bake a several batches. Drop heaping teaspoons of the cookie dough 1-1/2 inch apart on the sheets. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove the cookies to baking racks for cooling. Makes 96 fluffy cookies.

Honey Holiday Cookies

What, you’re not vegan? So what! These variations on sugar cookies are delicious, and they’re customizable too. Pull out those Santa, star or kinara-shaped cookie cutters and be sure to have food color on hand to tint icings for Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. The recipe may not be completely traditional, but the honey-sweetened cookies it produces can be a delightful part of any holiday tradition. Note: The cookie dough needs to chill overnight, so prepare a day ahead.

Ingredients

2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 cup vegan margarine
1 cup tofu “cream cheese”
1/4 cup honey
1/8 cup evaporated cane juice
Decorations as desired

Procedures

Sift flour and baking powder together into a medium-sized bowl. In a separate bowl, cream together the margarine and tofu. Add the honey and cane juice and beat until the mixture is fluffy. Add dry ingredients to the margarine-tofu-sweetener and mix well. With clean hands, form the dough into a ball. Cover the bowl in plastic wrap and allow to chill in the refrigerator overnight.

At baking time, preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit / 190 degrees Celsius. Make sure your cookie cutters are at hand.

Retrieve your cooled dough and place it onto a lightly floured work surface. With a floured rolling pin, roll the dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. Grab your cookie cutters and cut the cookies, which should be placed 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets. (If you wish, you cam sprinkle the tops with sugar or granulated sweetener.)

Bake for 6-8 minutes; the cookies should be a light golden brown underneath. Place them on racks. Once cooled, decorate the cookies as you wish. Makes about 60.

Benne Cakes

I actually have received emails recently from folks asking if Kwanzaa had its own holiday cookies. This is one I found a few years back and enjoyed tremendously. Word has it that benne cakes come from Western Africa and were prepared in US slave households. For modern times, they make a sweet addition to the holiday table and a nice addition to any tradition or combination thereof.

Ingredients

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 cup margarine
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lemon juice
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup sesame seeds

Procedures

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit / 160 degrees Celsius. On an ungreased baking sheet, spread sesame seeds into one thin layer. Toast the seeds for 8-15 minutes or until they are lightly browned. Set seeds aside to cool. Spray the same sheet with canola-oil spray and put that to the side with a second prepared baking sheet.

Cream the brown sugar and butter together in a mixing bowl. Stir in the egg, vanilla extract and lemon juice. Follow with the flour, baking powder, salt and sesame seeds;mix until thoroughly blended.

Drop heaping teaspooons of the dough 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes or until the cakes’ edges are browned. They are best served warm from the oven, but they do make fine (and popular) gifts too. Makes 24 tiny cakes.

Grownup Snickerdoodles

Many of you know that the snickerdoodle is my favorite holiday cookie. It’s crispy, tangy, sweet and cinnamony delicious… and it has a variation. This potent, eggnog-flavored snick is one I will be giving to the mother-in-law this year – it’s that good.

Ingredients

2-3/4 cups flour
2 tsps. cream of tartar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1-1/2 cups sugar
1 cup Irish butter, at room temperature
2 eggs
1 tsp. brandy extract
1 tsp. rum extract
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. nutmeg

Procedures

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit / 205 degrees Celsius. Prepare two large cookie sheets with canola spray.

Sift the flour, creeam of tartar, baking soda and salt into a medium-sized bowl. In a larger bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until well-mixed. Blend in the eggs, brandy and rum until the whole is thoroughly combined. If resulting dough is too soft to be handled, chill it for an hour in the refrigerator.

Mix the 1/4 cup of sugar and the extra teaspoon of nutmeg together in a custard cup. With clean hands, form dough into 1-inch-wide balls. Roll the dough balls in the sugar-nutmeg mix. Place the balls 2 inches apart on the cookie sheets. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until their edges are lightly brown. Makes 36 intoxicating little snicks.

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