Baking and Christmas went hand in hand in Mom’s mind, a rather unfortunate mindset considering she couldn’t bake. I grew up believing chocolate chip cookies were supposed to be black on the bottom. Nevertheless, every December, Mom dusted off her baking pans and soldiered forth.
Perhaps her most ambitious –and legendary—attempt was the Buche de Noel she made for the first Christmas with Dad. You know Buche de Noel? They’re those Yule Logs made of whipped cream and chocolate cake that grace the cover of Better Homes and Gardens every December. A hallmark of the perfect homemaker.
According to the vivid recollections of both parents, Mom baked a beautiful chocolate cake and whipped mountains of frothy cream. However when she tried to roll them together into the correct log shape, it fell apart. And so did Mom. “My BOOOCHE de Noel!!! My BOOCHE de Noel!!!” she shrieked as Dad tried to console her. (Did I mention that Mom notoriously butchered the French language? A remedial French student, she over-enunciated all words and her voice took on a pretentious soprano tone. Try traveling through Paris with her and that accent.) Apparently, Dad figured out a way to transform the broken “Buche” into a lovely parfait. Christmas was saved.
By the time Ezra and I came along, Jeanne had given up her lofty baking dreams and settled for gingerbread cookies. The process was super fun, despite somewhat disappointing results. Luckily, Mom joined baking forces with her friend Laura, the master of all things baked.
In many ways, Laura is the anti-Jeanne. Effortlessly organized and fiercely intelligent, she can figure out how to perfect any task. Laura would move through our kitchen with precision –as Mom bumbled about— marveling at the lameness of our baking equipment. “How can you measure without measuring cups?” Laura would ask. Mom would smirk at Laura like she had just been busted for chewing gum in class, and the two of them wound up laughing. Mismatched as they seemed, Mom and Laura were a killer team.
Considering they had five kids in tow, I doubt that Mom and Laura produced much more than flamboyantly decorated gingerbread men. The same confections that flow from my house every holiday season –covered in melted colored sugar and often missing limbs. I give them as gifts to our doormen, who pretend to look pleased.
However, Laura’s repertoire extends far beyond gingerbread men. Each Christmas, she hands out a basket of spectacular cookies that include chocolate balls rolled in powdered sugar, almond cookies, and –my personal favorite—peppermint sticks.
A few years ago, I asked Laura how to bake her famous peppermint sticks, and she sent me this beautifully crafted recipe posted below. Unfortunately, I tried to do this with my kids last year. Big mistake. Their eager, hot little hands screwed up the temperature of the dough, and I had to abort the mission entirely.
I’ve gotten a bit smarter in my old age. This year, the kids and I will dress a few gingerbread men like Joseph in his Technicolor Dreamcoat. Then, after I put them to bed, I will attempt the peppermint cookies alone. If I bomb –who cares?— I’ll throw the botched ingredients in a parfait cup and call it a night.
Candy Cane Cookies
1 cup shortening (half butter or margarine if you want)
1 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar
1 ½ tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla
2 ½ cups flour
1 tsp salt
½ tsp red food coloring
½ cup crushed peppermint candy
½ cup granulated sugar
Heat oven to 375
Mix shortening, sugar, egg, and flavoring thoroughly.
Measure flour by dipping method or sifting.
Mix flour and salt; stir into shortening mixture.
Divide dough in half. Blend food coloring into one half.
Roll a 4” strip using 1 tsp. dough from each color. For smooth, even strips, roll them back and forth on lightly floured board. Place strips in side by side, press lightly together, and twist like a rope. For best results, complete cookies one at a time –if all the dough of one color is shaped first, strips become too dry to twist. Place on ungreased baking sheet. Curve top down to form handle of cane.
Bake about 9 min. until lightly browned. While still warm, remove from baking sheet with spatula and sprinkle with mixture of candy and sugar.
NOTE FROM LAURA: I have learned over the years that it is much better to double the recipe and color one batch than to try to divide the dough in half and color one half –I couldn’t get the color even, it was just a mess. Another thing is I roll the strips on wax paper and, when I have an assistant, I masking tape the wax paper to the counter to keep the paper from moving around. The floured surface dries out this and the strips fall apart.