In an effort to reduce the stress of your holiday season, I thought I would keep it simple this week.
I'm offering advice to help increase your chances of success when baking.
You might not need to bake numerous dozens for a cookie exchange, but I would bet that even if you aren’t keen, someone in your household is.
Why not enjoy it? After all, who doesn’t need some holiday cheer…
WORK SMARTER, NOT HARDER
if you’re not much of a baker, don’t take on too much. Try something straight-forward like lebkuchen. (They’re hard to pronounce, but easy to make), or squares that can be baked in a pan.
If you’re really stuck, buy some gingerbread and decorate them. (If you are listening to carols at the same time, you can give yourself bonus points.)
KNOW YOUR OVEN
Let's hope the temperature is at least accurate; f you’re not sure, use a thermometer inside to check.
Do you know the difference between regular baking and convection baking? (Convection will give you a crisper, browner crust on your baking.)
Is there more heat at the bottom or top of your oven? You can always double-up your baking pans if you find your cookies burn on the bottom.
If you try a new recipe, even if it’s a type of cookie you know well, follow the directions to get an accurate representation of the cookie.
Baking is more of a science than savoury cooking most times, because of the chemistry involved with leaveners and spices.
Once you have a consistent result, it’s easier to judge what changes will work with the recipe.
USE A SILICONE MAT
Save yourself the hard work of scraping baking sheets with baked-on sprinkles and burned bits by using one of these nifty things.
It also saves the extra calories from greasing your sheets. (They can be used for savoury items, too – this is an excellent gift for a cook!)
BUY GOOD INGREDIENTS AND TREAT THEM WITH RESPECT
You are making something special, and it’s taking precious time to do it, so don’t skimp out on ingredients, and don’t make do. If the recipe calls for dark chocolate, don’t use a Hershey milk bar.
If you are using nuts, try roasting them for a few minutes before adding them to the recipe and you’ll get a richer flavour.
THERE IS NOT JUST ONE GOOD CHOCOLATE CHIP (OR SHORTBREAD) COOKIE
Don’t be afraid to try more than one recipe for the same style of cookie, or to think outside the box with an old favourite.
Just because Grandma used walnuts in her cookies doesn’t mean you can’t try making them once in a while with pecans, or dried cherries, or using white chocolate chips.
TRY ROLLING THE DOUGH BEFORE YOU RE-FRIGERATE IT
This tip comes from Dorie Greenspan, one of the cookie-baking gurus out there. Her latest book, Dorie’s Cookies, has 170 cookie recipes.
It's a sensible tip, when you think about it – the dough is harder to roll when it’s cold and also when it’s too warm (think sticky).
Roll out the dough between sheets of parchment paper and then refrigerate it.
LET THE KIDS (OR THE PARENTS) HELP
There is no wrong way to decorate a cookie. Share a memory, and let everyone pitch in.
If you need to have a holiday cocktail to help you chill out first, then so be it. Take photos of the mess, and let yourself laugh when Junior or Grandma comes up with something goofy.
Just remember, the holidays – and cookies – are about sharing.
DON’T BE AFRAID
Just because some cookies are hard to pronounce, or take lots of steps, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try them. Remember, it’s OK to think outside the box, or even the cookie jar.
SHARE YOUR COOKIES
You will be rewarded many times over. You don't have to enter in a cookie exchange, but if you’re keen, fill your boots.
Even a few cookies shared at the office, or with the neighbour’s kids, or a roommate, will bring smiles and a twinkle in the eye of even the hardest heart.
If the Grinch had been given a cookie, he would have been able to carve the roast beast many years earlier.
Happy baking, and bon appetit!
With the snow on the ground, it really feels like Christmas is coming, so I peeked at old food magazines to see what might inspire me for a column.
Nothing fuels the festive spirit like visions of homemade cookies.
As I looked through the mountainous pile of pages and clippings, I realized I didn’t need to come up with anything new.
The Internet is full of new twists on old favourites, and there are Facebook pages spewing non-stop videos with new trends in cooking and every other kind of domestic pastime.
Perhaps the best thing would be to go back to basics. I was lucky enough to do some holiday baking with my mom this year, and we made the first recipe she ever taught me – shortbread cookies.
They tasted full of memories, just the way I like them. Sharing them with my mom before she journeyed to Mexico for the winter was a special treat.
My mom used to say there wasn’t much a cookie couldn’t cure, and she was right. Maybe that is why cookie exchanges and bake sales still work.
There is a small community in Pennsylvania where many of the women get together every Christmas to bake thousands of cookies for the church fundraiser.
They are three generations into their history and the money they raise they admit is no more than what is raised by passing the collection plate, so why do they do it?
The answer is simple: it is a way to bring the community together with a common goal.
By now you know me well enough to understand I love the corny nature of small town logic and old fashioned morals. Well, this one is about as close to the centre of the universe as you can get, if you ask me.
Baking cookies (or sewing quilts or building a barn) was a way everyone could help out and be a part of something bigger than themselves.
That is a wonderful feeling and we are often too busy these days doing our own thing to have that anymore.
You might be thinking I am trying to start a grassroots, cookie-baking movement here.
As much as I think that would be cool, all that really needs to happen is that you invite one friend or relative over.
Maybe, like a friend of mine, you invite someone who is not very handy in the kitchen and you let them make a mess.
Then you smile when the mixer finally gets turned off and take a picture so you can both laugh about it years later.
That is a great memory and a great friendship. Or perhaps you set the kids loose in the kitchen.
My brother and I used to discuss which decorations were right on shortbread as if the fate of the world depended on it.
My mother had comments for both of us on why each of our designs was appropriate.
My father would even eat them, and he claimed not to like shortbread (I think that was just for added effect).
If you do have the time to make a whole mess of cookies, then they might even come in handy for the school bake sale or an office treat or even a special holiday offering for a mission or other charity.
It’s amazing what a bit of butter and sugar and flour can become with some love mixed in.
Have you seen the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life? If not, you might want to rent it and sit down with a cookie or two to watch.
Jimmy Stewart does a great job of reminding us and himself that life is truly a wonderful thing.
The best way not to forget is to share it with those we love, and having a tangible reminder helps us to keep doing that. Not all of us have Zuzu’s petals, but we can all have a cookie.
Here is that shortbread recipe we used when I was a kid – it’s a bit different than the usual shortbread but still melts in your mouth.
Decorate them with candied cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, coloured sugar, almonds… as inspiration strikes you.
BROWN SUGAR SHORTBREAD
- 1 cup butter
- ½ cup brown sugar, firmly packed
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2-1/4 cups flour, divided
- ½ teaspoon almond extract (optional, but really tasty)
- Decorations (see above for suggestions)
Preheat oven to 325F.
Cream the butter and sugar in a medium bowl until fluffy. Add extract(s) and mix well. Add flour ¼ cup at a time, stopping after 2 cups are mixed in. Save the last ¼ cup or so for the rolling.
Divide the dough into 3 equal portions. Place one portion on a well-floured surface. Pat it down and turn it over.
Roll out to ¼ inch thickness. (Do not roll too thin or the cookies will burn.) Cut into desired shapes and place on ungreased cookie sheet by lifting them off with a metal spatula. (If you have a silicone baking sheet it works wonders to make clean up easier.)
Decorate cookies on the sheet. Bake for approximately 12 minutes or until golden.
Store in a sealed cookie jar or tin.
Well, the holiday season is upon us.
With the passing of American Thanksgiving, we are officially in the thick of it — decorations and music everywhere you go, treats tempting you at every turn, and reasons offered on all media for spending more money on more gifts.
How does one get through it all? I have an idea. How about we focus on the giving, the sharing, as opposed to the receiving and the stuff?
Giving gifts to loved ones is a lovely gesture, but let's face it: most of us don't really need any of those gifts. What if we looked for those who were truly in need?
Instead of just practising randomness acts of kindness (which are wonderful any time of year), we could plan to make a difference.
I'm going to give you a list of possibilities, all designed to be projects that could be shared with friends or family or colleagues at the office.
There are options to spend large sums of money, but some items on the list involve only time.
I am also trying to give ideas that are less well known, so you won't see some of the more popular charities. They are no less worthy; I'm just working to share the wealth.
I leave it to you to decide what might fit for you this year...
They say charity starts at home, so here are five local opportunities in Kelowna for you:
Gospel Mission — There are many options here. You can donate any sum you like (paying for a Christmas dinner is less than $10), you can shop at their thrift store, or you can volunteer.
The Mission offers many services to assist people in transition and offer them security.
Salvation Army — Of course, you can donate. The Sally Ann, as my parents always called it, has been around for decades.
Food and toy donations are possible, or you can volunteer to be a Santa’s helper by manning one of the many Christmas kettles around town throughout the season.
Fill a Purse — This is a new program in Kelowna, having spread across the country.
It’s a simple project: fill a new or gently used purse with some essentials and donate it for distribution at the Kelowna Women’s Shelter or Gospel Mission, to assist someone who is in transition and needs a hand up.
Inn from the cold — This local shelter offers a place for those “experiencing homelessness and life outdoors in the winter.” They welcome donations and volunteer time.
Kelowna Community Services — This local resource publishes a yearly list of various events and efforts by a large number of community groups; such as dinners, sponsoring a family, volunteering or donating with various groups, etc. It also lists free holiday events.
If you’d like to think more of the big picture, here are three wonderful causes that are global in nature:
World Vision — The holiday catalogue this organization puts out is creative and inspiring.
Instead of just asking people to donate sums, they attach a specific value to it. Don’t you feel more involved if you know you are giving two chickens and a rooster to a community that needs more safe food and sustainable work?
As with Salvation Army, there is a Christian foundation to World Vision, but they do not demand any such alliance from participants or donors.
Amnesty International — If you consider yourself politically active or concerned about human rights, then this is a good cause for you. There are many ways to get involved here, including simply taking action such as writing a letter or signing a petition.
World Wildlife Foundation — Here’s another creative fundraising and gift-giving combination that will warm almost anyone’s heart. After all, who wouldn’t want to adopt a panda, or a caribou? (Did you know caribou are the same as reindeer?)
And with this kind of animal adoption you don’t need to worry about how big your house or yard is, or if you have allergies, or even what to do when you travel.
This provides a great educational opportunity for kids as well, allowing them to learn more about the world as a whole and animals and their environment in particular.
I know this time of year the pressure to help out can be overwhelming.
All you need to remember is that every little bit helps. If we can all give a little bit of ourselves, think of the power of all that good karma.
When I was a kid, eating was different. Food was sometimes fun, and other times, it had a certain reverence.
More things were exotic, because the world wasn't as small as it is now; you couldn't get everything everywhere all the time.
The biggest difference was that every-day food was more of a priority; sitting down at the table for meals was the norm, not the exception.
But that was a long time ago. I was reminded that we were at the end of that era when I heard the news recently that Richard D. Trentlage had passed away.
Let me guess, you don't know who Richard Trentlage was. Most people didn't, even though he was the creator of a great piece of Americana, a jingle.
He wrote the Oscar Mayer wiener song. It was one of the longest-running ad songs in history, and he wrote it in one night, inspired by an expression his son mentioned: being a hot dog, or a cool kid.
You know how it goes, don't you?
“Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener
That is what I’d truly like to be
’Cause if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener
Everyone would be in love with me.”
Advertisers were often trying to convey "coolness" even back in the 1960s when this jingle was written. That this song was cool in some way up until 2010 when it was retired is saying something.
There was a blue-collar prestige to many companies in those days too, though; products were from family-owned companies, or at least that was what we thought ("Mr. Christie, you make good cookies").
Brand loyalty was a badge that families wore proudly. Trying something new was more likely to happen on holidays when you ate something you couldn't get at home.
I remember spending summer holidays in the United States a few times growing up, and as much as it wasn't really different than home, having Dr. Pepper and a Babe Ruth chocolate bar was certainly super cool.
We could get Rice Krispies at home (everyone knew Snap, Crackle and Pop) but getting to try Cocoa Puffs was a real treat.
Now, kids across the continent can sample all manner of goodies whenever they want. We were much easier to impress, my generation.
Jingles still exist, of course, and sometimes they go worldwide. Coca Cola has done songs for the Olympics that have far surpassed the vintage jingle, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke."
McDonald's has incorporated lots of music into their advertising over the years; you could say they created an early rap ad with the Big Mac song.I can still recite all the words.
One of the cutest jingles of all time was for a product that wasn't food, but it was all about food or rather too much of it.
Alka-Seltzer's "plop plop fizz fizz" jingle was popular for a long time alongside vignettes of people who had overindulged.
I remember Al, a fellow siting on the side of his bed, saying, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." That line became a classic, too.
The jingle was resurrected for an ad that aired during Super Bowl in 2007, in a concert setting ending with fans holding glowing glasses with the famous antacid relief bubbling away.
We don't treat many things seriously any more, and it seems food is the same.
As I wrote about recently, sometimes food is given a false sense of celebrity but on an everyday level it doesn't rate as high. I don't see Facebook posts of people bragging about serving Chef Boyardee or even Kraft Dinner.
The world has moved on, and in many ways that is all for the best. But I'm glad I got to live in an age when it was cool to be a hot dog.
More Happy Gourmand articles
- Let them eat cake Nov 12
- Pleasure principle gone wild Nov 5
- Another 50 Shades of Grey Oct 29
- KGH makes scary decision Oct 22
- Stocking up for winter Oct 15
- Fairy-tale season Oct 8
- Do you fancy farm-to-fork? Oct 1
- Fave thingamajigs Sep 24
- Know thy food Sep 10
- A bite of nostalgia Sep 3
- An appetite for life Aug 27
- A rainbow of vegetables Aug 20