A long time ago when I was someone else, I baked batches upon batches of Christmas cookies. The cookies were really an outlet for the sons–and me a break–for their Santa Claus mania. Flour snowed in drifts and the chocolate chips disappeared, tiny hands furred with batter, bellies burst licking the beaters and bowls. They and the husband emptied the tins before Christmas even arrived.
In my eyes, though, the cookies were a disgrace to the whole Christmas cookie kingdom–bland, too hard, too soft, misshaped, devoid of any semblance to the fancifully decorated versions thrown in my face by magazines and newspapers’ food sections from November onward. The truth of the matter was I didn’t even try. For me, cookie baking always encompasses too much effort and pressure with not enough reward. At the bottom of my cookie failures is the truth that I’m not a good baker. The form requires an exactness that is foreign to me. I’m impatient, too easily distracted from the required concentration to accurately measure and follow precise steps. I sail through complicated recipes for every other category of cooking because they’re more forgiving–there’s always a way out of a mistake. But 2020 screams for all the ribbons and bows of the season and I really want to at least try.
So I call Lisa. She bakes cookies between making gifts and decorations and preparing for multiple family feasts. She bakes at night after working eight hours straight as the graphic designer who, besides her own huge workload, takes on last minute unreasonable assignments yet manages to create incredible designs (I’ve never seen her take a proper lunchbreak). Lisa once brought in a box the size of a small dog carrier that overflowed with what seemed hundreds of different kinds of cookies. She was also seven months pregnant.
Lisa is also the friend who drops everything when you need her, the only one who accepts and appreciates when I go off the rail and the best person in the world to sit at a bar and have multiple martinis while solving all the world’s problems. I’m not in the least exaggerating. She’s a truly exceptional woman.
It was no surprise, then, that when I asked if she could help me over my Christmas cookie phobia, she immediately texted back Yes!!!
Now, here we are together, Zoom baking on a Sunday afternoon!
She starts pulling out recipes and sends four, two written on paper printed with Christmas lights and candles, all slightly creased by storage but, unlike mine, stainless. How does one do that, I ask myself.
After one of those marital “you’re in the way, honey” crackling moments when the husband and I can’t get Zoom working, with Lisa on the phone patiently waiting although laughing at me, she sends me an invite and there she is in my kitchen! We haven’t seen each other in months so there’s a good long squeal session.
“Okay, what are we doing?” She asks.
“I was thinking two, the nut thing and the layered.” I think I have all the ingredients and she claims the layered thing is tantamount to cheating, i.e., idiot proof.
And off we go. I have made the nut batter earlier not just because it needs to be refrigerated for an hour but because, at the end of the day, I really wasn’t interested in baking cookies. I just wanted to have a long stretch of uninterrupted time to talk to Lisa.
First conversation revolves around convection vs. regular oven. Lisa’s old stove blew up on Thanksgiving Day. It’s a hilarious story involving the oven rack collapsing which caused the turkey and juices to spill onto the bottom and producing a grease fire. Luckily they had a fire extinguisher but it resulted in a smoky dinner and the requirement of a new oven that a friend of a friend brought over the next day. Lisa notices for the first time it’s convection.
I have a tiny convection toaster oven. I decide to test mine out.
But first we have to have a toast. She already has her Santa mug filled. I grab a juice glass and we give ourselves a generous toast, then start mixing and chopping and another story explaining why my doctor prescribed the coconut oil I’m using for shortening, and the reason I have a huge tub of it in my cabinet (see post on crone sex).
There’s more stories: work, mutual friends, getting her friend to the airport for a trip to Florida where she has been instructed to find us a sugar daddy who won’t mind us not sleeping with him, just fund our business plans.
Cookies are ready to go–one of my sheets slides into the convection, the other in my oven. In seven to eight minutes, we pull them out again.
“I read the recipe again, and I used baking powder instead of baking soda!” she says.
Oh, well, what’s the difference? We show know this. But we don’t. Wait, we don’t care because they don’t look bad. Lisa’s convection cookies are perfect, mine browned faster and formed little banks but were still delicious.
(The recipe for these are in yesterday’s post.)
On to the seven layer, which I’m very excited about because I finally get rid of a can of condensed milk.
“What does your milk look like?” I ask Lisa.
She holds up her can. “White.”
“What’s going on over there, Pat?” She sounds concerned but not surprised when I tell her it’s caramel color with the consistency of play dough. The expiration date passed three years ago.
“Expired or used by?”
Used by and some website says it should be okay.
Always upbeat, Lisa laughs, “We’ll find out!”
Seven layer bar is, indeed, easy, especially if you have the right ingredients. I forgot graham crackers for the first layer. What about smashed cookies?
“That should be okay,” she says before I process a bag of shortbread.
Next comes the two kinds of chips, pecans, coconut and the condensed milk. When that proves too thick to even spread across the top let alone sink to the bottom, Lisa suggests corn syrup–another ingredient that’s been hanging out in my cabinet for awhile but for only a year so we’re good.
Out both of ours comes
Later, after letting it gel in the refrigerator, my seven layer isn’t that bad, and I have one for breakfast. The cookie crust is fine. The condense milk doesn’t kill me. Still, so much for it being idiot proof.
The nut balls remain but it’s getting on dog walking/dinner time and frankly the seven layer experience is reminding me that even with Lisa’s expertise, I’m a lousy cookie baker. We promise each to bake again.
The next day Lisa sends me several more recipes, two from her mom–pignolli cookies and biscotti. Her mom taught her well and she’s going to keep on baking. I intend to try my mom’s sugar cookies. I can sprinkle green sugar crystals on them and pretend it looks just like one in a magazine and that there’s hope for future Christmas cookie baking.
Seven Layer Bars
1 stick unsalted butter
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 12 ounce package bittersweet (or semisweet) chocolate chips
1 12 ounce package butterscotch chips
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup shredded coconut
1 14 ounce can condensed milk
Preheat over to 350 degrees
Melt the butter and pour into a 9″ x 13″ pan. Sprinkle on graham cracker crumbs and then, in order, chocolate chops, butterscotch chips, pecans and coconuts. Pour milk evenly over the top and bake on the middle rack for 30 minutes.
Let cool thoroughly before cutting. Lisa recommends cutting them into small squares because they pack a sugar rush punch.
Makes 30 bars.