Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas Cookies!

It sounds a bit snooty, we admit it is true
But for this exchange, not just any cookie will do . . .
We’ll have prizes for beauty, for class, and for taste
Your extra effort will not go to waste . . .

Well, that’s different, I thought.

An invitation to a snooty cookie exchange. I couldn’t get through the door unless I brought “cookies that look and taste great” (what if I’m a lousy baker?) and “the kind you put on the TOP of your best cookie plate!” (Now I’d have to go out and buy a jazzy cookie plate, too.)

Holy macaroons. What if I showed up with one of those Corelleware plates we got for our wedding forty years ago, and only average looking peanut butter cookies? That wouldn’t happen—I don’t even like peanut butter.

Who sends out an invitation like this? I was betting there’d be a cookie bouncer at the front door, somebody I’d have to bribe to gain entry. 

“Hey, big boy,” I’d say, waving my cookie plate under his nose. “How’s about a little extra something delicious before Christmas?”

Yuck. That’s just all kinds of wrong. I tossed the invite aside.  How twisted can you get, I thought in aggravation. I mean, I think I make some pretty good cookies. My father-in-law told me once that I came home with the short end of the stick after one of those cookie exchanges. (I sure miss that guy and his fondness for my Mexican Wedding Cakes.) Still, I wondered who else got invited. What my competition looked like . . .

Good grief! What was wrong with me? Already I was lowering myself to the level of the snooty cookie invitation. But what if, instead of trading my favorite chocolate chippers for somebody’s hard as rock snickerdoodles, I came home with Paradise Bakery-worthy cookies! Maybe the RSVP was there to keep out the white cookie trash! Well, this was actually a compliment! And weren’t there going to be prizes??  Where did I put that invitation? What a great idea! This would be the best Christmas cookie exchange I’d ever entered . . . that is, been to!

With excruciating precision, I searched every tattered cookie recipe card in my files, read through cookbooks til my eyes blurred, considered and discarded one idea after another until finally—I found it! The Piece de Resistance, the one cookie destined to bring me greatness, my golden ticket to cookie stardom! Lemon Snowflakes! Even now, the very thought of them makes me drool. Delicate, buttery circles topped with tartly sweet lemon icing. Better than shortbread, yummier than lemon meringue pie, I knew they’d put me in the winner’s circle.

It had been a while since I made them, but this wasn’t my first rodeo. I knew I could whip them out after dinner that night. It was, of course, too late to sew a snowflake costume for myself so I could match my cookies, but I felt confident I’d get by the bouncer at the door and win the whole thing. One taste of my melt-in-your-mouth entry and people would think I’d been up all night baking.

Words I was destined to regret.

I forgot you need lemons to make lemon snowflakes. I’d already juiced the lemons my friends gave me, and I needed lemon rind anyway. Please God, I panicked, let there be ripe lemons at the grocery store because I don’t think Pumpkin Snowflakes sound good at all! By the time I got back from the store with the lemons, it was nine o’clock. But that was okay. All I needed to do was mix the batter with the softened butter?! And chill the dough at least ONE HOUR?!

Seventy-two dough balls and four hours later, the hand frosted citrus fruits of my labor sat on a new glass plate and I fell into bed at one a.m. There were no visions of sugarplums dancing in my head anymore. Just angry thoughts like how much I hate contests. And cookies. And Christmas.

Refreshed after five hours sleep (who are we kidding?) I got ready for the early morning “party” and headed out, arriving a little late. I would have been even later if the fabric store was open. I walked through the front doors of the hostess’s home and, instead of being greeted by the cool looks of competitive cooks, fourteen women sat in a circle howling with laughter. Did I miss something? I thought this was a serious competition. With relief I saw that no one had tried to sway the judges with fancy homemade costumes (how low could they go?) There were a couple of ugly sweaters in the room, but they weren’t that funny.

I sat down in exhausted confusion. I thought only dedicated, extremely gifted bakers had been invited. There was absolutely no mention of prizes for comical cookies. Anxiously I surveyed the entire room—yes, a table laden with platters of beautiful baked goods stood off to the side. But nothing had been judged, no prizes awarded, no cookies rationed yet.

So what was so funny?

Finally, as fragments of stories began piecing together, I realized that an entirely different contest had been taking place here for the last thirty minutes. One by one, each guest was given a five minute time slot to describe in her most painful detail the astronomical lengths she’d gone to in order to bake a Top Of Her Best Cookie Plate cookie.

I wasn’t he only amateur baker intrigued by the invite and finally defeated by a deceptively innocent medley of flour, sugar, and butter. Every single person had been so intimidated by the challenge that a few had even refused to come this morning! And now, the brave, if no so brilliant, few who did show up were so emotionally—some even physically—scarred from the experience that we all sat in a circle competing for the prize never even mentioned on our invitations—a Purple Heart.

Suddenly, no one cared anymore how good their cookies looked or tasted. The highest honor was now on the line for the cook with the most tragic story of baking gone amuck. As each of us waited to pour out our bitter tales, each successive narrative became more pathetic, more involved, and more hysterical.

This was a competition of unprecedented proportion. And I was ill-prepared.

I told my tale of late night icing and missing lemons, embellishing my agony as much as possible, but honestly, I’d given everything to forgotten snowflakes sitting on a plate in the corner of the other room. 

I sighed as humility overcame me. More than an hour after the Saddest Baking Experience trials began, the last competitor finished her tale. With an entry of Stained Glass Window Cookies hiding on the table somewhere behind us, she told us how the directions called for Lifesaver candies placed inside a sugar cookie dough. “Bake on parchment paper,” the instructions read.

“I didn’t have any,” she said, “but I figured wax paper would work just as well.”

She held up a mangled length of wrinkled wax paper with three or four cookies glued on in broken sections by the remains of Lifesavers baked at 375 degrees. It was the death knoll for every other woman in the room. The room exploded in laughter, women rolling on the floor as violently as the tears rolled down their faces.

She won of course, Wax Paper Woman. No one could begrudge her the honor. Hers had been the most humiliating episode any of us endured. That is until the seasoned judge/hostess made these closing remarks to our entire distinguished group.

“I can’t believe the way you’ve all carried on about a bunch of cookies for the last hour. You women need to get a life!”

Sour grapes, if you ask me. She didn’t have an entry.

With wishes for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you, and especially Pete Hopkins who graciously allowed the use of his amazing cookie photo.  Thanks, Pete!  The original photo can be viewed at this link: