Birds and Baking

the baking tableI just returned from a really pleasant five days with my sister, her family, and my parents. I drove down to Maryland on Wednesday, picked up some last-minute Christmas gifts, mailed a few more, and then went to the local Giant supermarket to buy baking supplies. My super-kind sister was letting me use her kitchen to do my holiday baking, since mine is completely gutted.

After cleaning the Giant out of butter and sugar and cookie cutters, I headed to my sister's house. My plan was to make cashew cookies and sugar cookies on Thursday, and pumpkin cookies and bird ornaments on Friday. I found no one home when I arrived, but my sister had set up the kitchen in style: she'd put every baking item known to man on a tablecloth-covered fold-out table and set up her Kitchen Aid stand mixer on the counter. My sister rarely bakes, but she loves kitchen gadgets—which was great for me. It meant I didn't have to find the box with the mixer in it and the one with the rolling pin and haul those items down to Maryland.

my sister's stand mixer. I have one almost exactly like it.I figured since I didn't have anything else to do while waiting for my sister and the kids to get home, I'd start on some Oreo snowmen. (I'd brought down some white fudge-covered Oreos and bought some spice drops for the purpose, just in case I had time to make them.) I cut 20 pairs of spice drop earmuffs and several orange slice noses and started glueing them on to the Oreos with frosting. Midway through, my niece arrived and asked to help, which was fun.

It was still early when we polished off the snowmen, and my sister mentioned that she'd be volunteering at the kids' school on Thursday, so I made a batch of peppermint brownies (ingredients also brought along just in case) for her to distribute, along with the snowmen, to the teachers and office staff. I doubled the brownie recipe, which was probably a mistake; they had to bake longer, and the center never cooked all the way through. Next time I'm sticking with a 1.5 batch, my usual amount.

Between baking the brownies and frosting them with a dark chocolate ganache, I went to the Weis Market in Hampstead to try to find the white chocolate chip cookie mix that the cashew cookie recipe called for. (Aside from being delicious, the main appeal of the cashew cookies, and why they've been made two years running, is that they're super-simple, not-quite-from-scratch.) Whereas the Giant had at least reserved a(n empty) spot for the white chip mix, the Weis didn't even stock it. Hmph. The cashew cookies would have to move to Friday.

On Thursday I had the house to myself from about 10am on, so I got to work on the sugar cookie dough. It has to be refrigerated, so I figured I'd make that first and stick it in the fridge while I worked on the pumpkin cookies. I find that my scratch recipe for sugar cookies is a little floury, and pre-packaged sugar cookie mixes are a bit sweet, so I make one batch of each and mix the resulting doughs together. This time I was paranoid about having enough cookies for the kids to take to school—I'd hate to get all done baking and find that I was two cookies short or something—so I doubled my usual amount. This means four recipes, or 144 cookies, if the recipes actually yielded the amount they were supposed to (which, in my experience, they never did). Of course, this time I was using the only three cookie cutters I could find at the Giant, which looked small to me but which were apparently the size you were supposed to use. Thus, the quadrupled dough did indeed yield nearly 150 cookies. The pumpkin cookies didn't take long at all, but I was running back and forth from cutting board to oven with the sugar cookies for the next few hours at least.

some of the sugar cookies I decoratedWhen I finally reached the end of the sugar cookie dough, I got to work making frosting for decorating. My original plan called for my niece to help me decorate when she got home from school, but it turned out that she had a pre-arranged doctor's appointment after school. My sister and her husband took her together, and, along with their son, ate dinner out after a little Christmas shopping. By the time they arrived home at around 7pm, I'd decorated nearly 100 cookies and was running out of steam. J and M ran up to their rooms to do their homework, but M came down a few minutes later to ask if I could save her a cookie to decorate. I said I could save her about 40. She came back a bit later and started smearing on frosting. J, who's older and therefore has more homework, came down later still, and I gave him my seat at the decorating table.

When all the cookies were decorated and the frosting was set, I counted out 32 cookies for each of them (just to be safe) and put them in portable containers. I think M got the box with the kid-decorated ones, and J got ones that I'd done. There were still three other containers left! It occurred to me that even if I'd had a kitchen to bake in, I didn't have anyone to give cookies to this year. Well, I take that back; I could have distributed some to our neighbors, the contractor, the plummer, and the tile guys. I was thinking of the people I've given cookies to in past years: my neighbors in Truckee, my friends in the Bay Area, and my officemates at Macromedia. My sister really liked the pumpkin cookies (though my brother-in-law, who has an aversion to raisins, wouldn't get near them—he wanted to know if I had anything in a chocolate chip), so I told her to go ahead and freeze them for herself. The rest of the sugar cookies we distributed among J's lacrosse team, the guests at my mom's Christmas brunch, and my sister's family.

By Friday I still didn't have any white chip cookie mix, so I was planning to make some Toll House dough from scratch. My sister had some errands to run that I wanted to join in on, however, so we decided that I could skip the cashew cookies this year (especially given that there were already more cookies than anyone could eat). I would make the cinnamon bird ornaments that I'd read about in the December issue of Martha Stewart Living when we got back from the Amish market, BJ's, and Target, and M would help me decorate them after school. Unfortunately, I didn't re-read the recipe before setting out on the errands, or I would have realized that just the mixing, resting, and drying of the dough would take a minimum of 3.5 hours—and this didn't include cutting out the bird shapes with an Exacto knife. I got back at 1:15, wasted about 30 minutes cutting out bird templates (something I could have done while the dough was standing) and started working on the dough. The instructions said to mix together the 1 cup of cinnamon, 1/4 cup of applesauce, and 1/2 cup of white craft glue and then turn the dough over and over until it was smooth and dry. I did this, but I never got a dough to form. All I got was a crumbly mess. I added more applesauce and glue—and finally some water—but still got crumbs. I was ready to call it quits and declare that there would be no ornaments, but I remembered how much M was looking forward to decorating them. I ended up squeezing and kneading the stuff for about 30 minutes, spritzing it with water as I went, until I finally got a (precariously held-together) dough ball.

my cardinal, made with two different red seed beads, copper seed beads, and black glitterI was supposed to let it stand for one hour, but I figured all that kneading took 30 minutes, so I only let it stand for 30 minutes more. I was supposed to take a quarter of the dough and roll it to 1/4" thick. Of course, as soon as I hit this chunk of brown grit with a rolling pin, it crumbled to bits. I added more water, kneaded some more, and then alternately rolled and spritzed until I finally got the stuff to a bit over 1/4". I then set about cutting bird shapes. I repeated this scenario several times with each third of dough (I couldn't get it into quarters) and eaked out 13 birds. I figure I didn't get the 15 the recipe promised because I couldn't get the dough thin enough. Still, M and I counted all the people we needed to make ornaments for, and technically we only needed 12, so 13 was plenty.

I had put the first five birds in the oven as soon as possible, so they could start the 2-hour drying process. M came home from school with about 40 minutes to go on the first batch, so she helped me cut out the last few birds and set up the tiny beads and glitter that we'd use to decorate them. I explained the whole "smallest embellishments first" thing, and demonstrated how to tap the excess beads or glitter off so that it went back into the original supply. When the first batch of birds came out of the oven, we got to work. M had me squirt the glue for her the first time, but she quickly got the hang of the process and did another two birds all by herself. I have to say, her designs were nicer than the ones Martha suggested. (She's been an art prodigy since age 5, so this really shouldn't have surprised me.) I stuck to the Martha suggestions for my first two birds (a cardinal and a chickadee), but I tried the M method after that.

In between bird batches I had to go pick up Al at the train station. We thought M would have to manage the oven timer in my absence, but Al's train was delayed, so I had time to get the next batch out of the oven before I left. There was a further bit of a panic when Al got off at Penn Station rather than BWI, but he caught the next train down, and I eventually got him in the car for the 45-minute drive back to my sister's house.

When we arrived home M had showered and was in her jammies, but her dad let her put a big t-shirt on over the PJ's and decorate a few more birds. M got pretty absorbed in her art and forgot to tap the excess glitter and beads over the original supplies, which made things a bit messy, but I think the results were worth it. Her birds really were stunning. I'm kicking myself now for not photographing them all before we handed them out; I only have the cardinal I made as an example. She insisted that we leave a bird for Uncle Al to decorate, but he chickened out with the glue and just art directed while I did the actual decorating. His color and bead size choices were very nice, though, and the result was a lovely pale blue superfine glitter, green coarse glitter, and read seed bead finch.

The next morning M and I addressed and dated each ornament and set aside the ones for her three teachers before handing a bird out to each female relative at my mom's Christmas brunch. They were a big hit, and I could totally see why: they were beautiful. They smelled a bit more like glue than I'd hoped they would, but I figured the cinnamon smell was what would linger in a room. As long as no one stuck a bird up her nose, she'd never notice the glue.

I'm glad I stuck with the ornament project, but I'm thinking about writing to Martha to ask if she's sure about the ingredient proportions. Al is of the opinion that the craft projects and recipes in Martha Stewart Living are there for your reading peasure only; they're not intended to be made. Considering that I usually only drool over the projects and food photos in MSL and never get around to making any of them, he might be right.

Posted by Lori in food at 5:55 PM on December 21, 2003