Monday, December 10, 2007
We seem to be suffering from a localized ice storm. There are a couple of school delays this morning, but our trees are coated with ice, the packed snow road turned into slick of ice road with about an inch of water on top. I have been consistently horrified by the really bad road maintenance in Erie County. We were in Warren County yesterday and both Davey Hill Road and Tidioute Creek Road were nice and clear, and these are just little one lane paved roads that only go to Tidioute. Over here, even Route 89 stays mostly unplowed. Concord Road, which I think is busier and more populated than Davey is a total wreck and will stay that way until it just melts on its own. We live on a little dirt farm road, and I never expect much more than to have the drifts knocked off a couple of times a week, but on a day like today, when there are school buses and Head Start buses coming over the hill and not even a delay of school, it would be nice if there were a little of that nice cinder and dirt they throw down on the road. I had to call off a half day's work today because I really don't think I could have made it back up the hill if I went down.
Anyway, I'm back to my usual winter day activity: baking!
I'm running low on bread, so I need to get that started. I've been doing yeast instead of sourdough which means I can just decide on the day to bake. Sourdough is a magical world of discovery where the activites of a whole week can be influenced by what needs to be done with the bread. When I build my outdoor oven and start making more sourdough, I'm going to be in heaven, and people will be driven just wild with wonderful bread.
But, I'm also making cookies today. At my mother's office, they set out cookies on Wednesdays, and I'm sending down a couple batches.
There is kind of a backlash right now again homemade baking. At schools and daycare centers, they are starting to have rules like: no cupcakes! No unwrapped baked goods! No cookies! They say it is because of fat content and the possibility of nut contamination, but is anyone else freaked by that idea? My sister was driven to distraction when she had to take snacks in for her kids' school. She bakes a few times a week, and she mostly started because her kids like those mini muffins that come in little plastic bags, and they were getting bigger and mini muffining her out of house and home. I bought her a mini muffin tin, and she gets enough mini muffins out of one little bag of mix that usually costs about a dollar for a whole week. She always sent in cupcakes and things like that, too. Now, the kids get things like a graham cracker wrapped in plastic for a snack. And if you read those allergy warnings, every single thing says it was packed in a factory that also processes nuts. How many people really have lots of nuts just floating around their kitchens? I know I don't! Everything is packed away until I need it, not pulverized by machinery and getting spread randomly around.
The talk that I went to over the fall with Dr. Shiva actually addressed this. She said the vegetable and food sellers in India are being outlawed because they don't have proper health precautions. Basically, the laws are all being written so that only industry and big corporate grocery stores are able to comply with them, and all home made food is being outlawed everywhere. Think about it. It's really awful that in schools in America, kids are being taught, essentially, that anything that doesn't come out of a box or a wrapper is not safe and is not healthy and shouldn't be eaten.
There is a little backlash to all this. I read somehwere that there was a "Cupcake Protection Act" in Texas that made it illegal to ban home baked goods in schools. I know things are not great for kids in Texas and they should have a health care act or a good schools act or something, but at least someone is standing up for the cupcake.
There can be more resistance, however, and it can start with every single person who has to bring a snack or a cookie tray to a church event or a school event or a party. Don't swing by the grocery store and just grab some dry, bland cookies made with artificial flavoring and cheap chocolate and cheap flour. Take a couple short hours away from the television set, the computer or the phone and make some cookies. Even a mix where you add your own oil and eggs is better than those things that are pumped out in some crummy old factory, wrapped in plastic and stored for months before you get the chance to eat them.
In our family, meaning my whole extended family, too, there are a few basic cookies that just put the icing on the cake for the holidays. Roll out sugar cookies, of course. Those will have to wait until next weekend, because I'm low on nice sprinkles, and I need to go the dry goods store for the really pretty ones. My grandmother makes these things that everyone just calls "those horn things. You know the ones with the cream cheese." I believe they also involve chopped dates. I would add pizelles, but I haven't had a good iron for years and I usually only get them at Christmas pageants. Also, I love the anise ones, and the other people in my family don't care for them, so pizelles have unfortunately fallen by the wayside.
The number one, only at Christmas, we-expect-these-or-there-will-be-trouble cookies are pressed spritz Christmas trees and pressed molasses camels. Obviously, they require a cookie press, but other than that and maybe a few spices, there isn't anything really exotic about them.
I currently have a Wilton Cookie press, and you can get these absolutely anywhere. Usually in the cake and candy making section at any big craft strore. Also, they carry them at kitchen shops, but I'm really spoiled because I live near an incredible kitchen shop that has almost every pan, gadget, and tool you can imagine. And if you're at a loss as to what you can buy at the tenth Pampered Chef party you have been to this year, check for the cookie press. But I remember passing up on that one because it was mostly plastic, and I didn't think it would hold up to my kitchen of destruction. Also, dig through the cupboards of older relatives' houses and borrow theirs!
I used an electric press all through the eighties, of course! I started out with a Wear-Ever before that, I do believe, with a hand crank at the top. This is where the camel shaped press thingy came from. My most recent Wear-Ever really sucked and I threw it out dough and all a few years ago, which is why my sister bought me the Wilton, which is nice (but doesn't have a camel) a few years ago as an early "birthday present" but mostly because she wanted cookies. She used to have a sweet little French cookie press which went by the wayside during one of her moves which may have been my favorite cookie press ever, but that may have been all in my head because it was French and I am a hick. A real, French cookie press, ma! It's a distinct possibility.
A cookie press, which I should have mentioned earlier, is bascially a tube that shoots out shaped pieces of dough. You need special recipe dough. There is usually a book that comes with the press to give you the right dough consistancy, but both the recipes I use are the old ones that I've had since I was a kid. You fill the press and pick a round disk with a shape punched in it to fit at the bottom of the press. Then, you hold the press straight up and flat to the surface of the cookie sheet, pull the trigger (or twist or whatever) pause a second, and lift the press straight up. If all goes well, you have a little, shaped cookie waiting for you.
Cookie pressing takes a little practice. If the dough is not right or isn't mixed well, it can be a disaster. But there is a little bit of practice and knack to it, also. You have to know how much dough you really need, even if the press has clicks or sizes or gradations marked on it. You need to get the feel for how much dough to shoot out. If you get a malformed cookie or two, just peel the dough up, toss it in with the unused dough, and when you go to reload your press, pop the rejects back in with the unused dough. Your first try with the cookie press should not be on an evening when you are expected to bring five dozen cookies to a party in an hour and a half, and you still haven't fixed your hair! But that should be no problem with the second batch! It's that easy and that much fun to make these little, attractive and yummy cookies.
This is the recipe I use for the little Christmas trees. I like to decorate them with a "star" on top. Either those little sugar flowers you can get just about everywhere or the silver or gold balls that I get in bulk at the Amish store. Finish with any kind of sprinkle you choose. Decorate before baking.)
Heat oven to 375 Degrees. You do not need to grease the cookie sheets. The fat content in most cookies is high enough they won't stick!
2 1/4 Cups Flour
3/4 C. White Sugar
1/4 teaspoon Baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt (I always leave out the salt)
Cut in with pastry blender (or fork, knives or mash in with fingers):
1 cup Shortening (or half shortening and half butter or all butter)
Crack an egg into a 1/4 cup measuring cup. Add water to the 1/4 cup line. Add to mixture.
1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
You'll also want to add food coloring at this stage.
Mix, mash, squish and knead until consistant. Don't chill!
Load the press. Shape cookies. Decoration is optional.
Back 10-12 minutes until edges are just barely tan.
Press Molasses Spice
These are my Christmas camel cookies. I also have a dog shaped plate for the press, and I've made spice dogs at other times of the year. In high school, a friend of my sister's was baffled by Christmas camels, so I guess, outside of my family, they might not be traditional. I also don't decorate them at all.
A note on ingredients:
These cookies call for just a little bit of a lot of different spices. While nutmeg can be substituted for mace, I recommend trying to use the ingredients in the recipe. My dad says that these cookies taste exactly like ones he remembers his grandmother making. Is that not worth the extra effort? Instead of breaking the bank buying big bottles of wierd spices that you might never use again, try to find a health food store or co-op with bulk spices and just get a little scoop of the ones you need.
Now the recipe:
Preheat oven to 375. You still don't need to grease the sheets.
1/2 Cup Shortening
1/2 Cup Sugar
1/4 Cup Molasses
Now sift in and work by hand:
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
1/4 Teasp. salt (I always leave this out)
1/4 Teasp. ginger
1/2 Teasp. cinnamon
1/4 Teasp. allspice
1/4 Teasp. cloves
1/4 Teasp. mace
Mix, squish, knead, until consistant. Press and Bake 10-12 minutes
There are some fun recipies. I love these cookies, and a lot of people I know do, too. Now, I'm going to go and actually do some things instead of sitting at the computer writing about doing things, and you should, too!