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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

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I have a confession to make. I can't bake. Give me a handful of savory ingredients a pan and some time in the kitchen and I'll turn it into a meal. 25% of the time it will be a kick-ass dinner that I'll make again, 70% of the time it will be something that is okay and tasty, but not desirable enough to make again. 5% of the time it will get scraped off the plate and a pizza will be ordered. But each time I make a horrible error, I learn something.

But give me a recipe for something that's supposed to be sweet and tasty and light, and you'll get stones suitable for paving. The reason for this? I can't follow directions. I like to improvise when I cook, and I never measure anything. But, with baking, you have to measure. The truely die-hard bakers actually weigh items and take into account the moisture of the flour before combining wet and dry ingredients. I consider a recipe a suggestion, a starting point. It's rare that I end up including every ingredient called for, let alone the correct portions.

I knew the moment was coming, but I dreaded it anyway. I knew that Andrew's mother would put her arm around me and ask, "What kind of cookie are you going to make this year?" A week ago, I got the dreaded question. She smiled when she asked it, but there was a grimace behind that smile. After four years of making hard, dense, inedible doughballs that everyone felt obliged to try but everyone was happy to see get thrown away, I couldn't take it. I panicked and blurted, "I can't bake. I just can't do it. I screw up every year." Andrew saved me by saying, "It's okay, Mom. I'll make cookies this year." He can bake.

But Christmas and cookies go hand in hand. Long after we give up on St. Nick/Santa Claus and stop leaving a tray of cookies, a glass of milk, and a carrot for Rudolph on the table before going to bed, we continue to look forward to the joy of cookies. Every family has a recipe for cookies and several Gapers' Block writers (who bake much, much, much better than I) are willing to share their sacred cookies with anyone willing to pay attention to directions.

Super Snappy Gingerbreadmen -- Paul McCann, staffer emeritus

"This recipe has double the amount of ginger and allspice than you'll find in normal recipes, to give the little men some real snap."

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 T. ground ginger
1 T. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsulphured molasses
1 shot of bourbon
1 large egg yolk

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.

In a larger bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the molasses, bourbon, and then the egg yolk. Then, gradually beat in the flour mixture, mixing just until incorporated.

Divide the dough into quarters, shape into logs and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours. To speed things up you can put them in the freezer for about a half hour.

Preheat the oven to 350°.

Cut one of the pieces of dough in half and keep the remaining pieces refrigerated. On a generously floured surface, roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out cookies using a cookie cutter. You can make your own out of cardboard, or shape with your hands. Resist the temptation to make them anatomically correct. Place the cookies about an inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake for about 8 minutes, or until slightly firm.

Transfer the cookie sheets to wire racks. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet for 2 minutes. Then transfer them to wire racks to cool completely. Decorate with icing or just eat.

Mary Carlton's Ol' Fashioned Christmas Cookies -- Amy Carlton

"This is my mom's recipe. The cookies taste like a mouthful of my childhood. Just the smell of them makes me feel 5 years old again. I don't make them anymore (almond extract + nut allergy = no), but I'm happy to share. They're so delicious." (Makes about 60 cookies)

1 cup of butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract
3 to 4 cups flour

Cream butter until fluffy, then gradually beat in sugar. Beat eggs in one at a time. Add nutmeg, vanilla, and almond. Gradually beat in flour to form a stiff dough (you may not need the full four cups). Knead the dough on a floured board until smooth. Chill for one hour. If you want, you can stop here and just eat the cold dough by the fistful. If you want to make cookies, preheat oven to 400°. On your floured board, roll out chunks of dough to 1/4-inch thickness, then cut into festive shapes. Bake 8-10 minutes on an ungreased cookie sheet, until just slightly golden. Frost (see below) and decorate with redhots, jimmies, nonpareils, icing gel, or whathaveyou.

1/2 box confectioners sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 to 3 T. milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Combine ingredients in a large bowl, beating with mixer on low until creamy. You can add a litte more milk to get the right spreading consistency.

Aunt Becky's Famous Cake Cookies -- Ellen Hayes

"This is my best friend's famous recipe for Cake Cookies -- they are incredible."

1 cup Crisco
1 cup sugar
1 cup sour milk (made by adding 1 T. vinegar)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 egg
3 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. vanilla

Mix sour milk and baking soda, then Add remaining ingredients. Drop spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet. Bake at 375° in a preheated oven for about 10 minutes. Cookies should start to become golden brown around the edges.

1/3 cup softened butter
1/3 cup Crisco
4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2-3 T. milk
food coloring (optional)
colored sugar sprinkles (optional)

Mix using an electric hand mixer. Ice cookies only after completely cool.

Kanelkakor (Swedish Cinnamon Cookies) -- Ruthie Hansen

"This cookie recipe came from Brigetta Gaud, the Swedish mother of a nice boy I used to work with. She would send her son care packages of cookies in the mail, which he was kind enough to share. These delicate, crispy, cinnamony cookies were always my favorite."

2 sticks butter, softened (1/2 cup)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 3/4 up flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon

Cream together the butter and sugar, either using an electric mixer or by hand. Add the egg and vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and cinnamon. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture. Blend. Chill the dough in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350°.

In a small bowl, combine:
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 T. sugar

Form chilled dough into walnut-sized balls. Roll each ball in the cinnamon-sugar mixture before placing on a greased cookie sheet. Flatten each ball a little bit with the palm of your hand. Bake 10-12 minutes, until the cookies just begin to turn golden. If the cookies spread out too much on the pan, work a little bit more flour into the dough. Cool cookies on a wire rack. Store them in an airtight container.

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paul / December 9, 2003 9:35 AM

Some excellent recipes there.

While you can't improvise with baking, you can experiment. That's what led me to knowing just how much ginger you can add without it getting overwhelming. The next batch I make will probably have a less molasses, and the sugar will be half brown sugar.

Also use the best spices you can get. It makes a big difference.

Cinnamon / December 9, 2003 4:17 PM

I highly recommend the best spices, bit. Especially Cinnamon. Get the real stuff at The Spice House and you'll realize you've been missing out for years. I have to say that your gingerbread recipe has me inspired to buy a little cookie cutter and give another go. I have all the stuff, all I need is the patience. I'll let you know how it goes.

paul / December 9, 2003 9:42 PM

I searched for a medium size gingerbreadman cookie cutter, but surprisingly, couldn't find one. I have a plastic one that does okay though.

I bought my stuff at the Spice House too. That China One Ginger is awesome.

Ruthie / December 9, 2003 9:50 PM

All of these cookie recipes look amazing. I love getting people's family recipes passed along to me, it's so much more intimate than just finding a recipe in a cookbook or magazine. Yum, cookies.

Rebecca / December 15, 2003 11:52 AM

I made the Swedish Cinnamon cookies (being of Scandinavian descent, I felt I had to) and they are excellent. The only downside is that it doesn't make a lot.


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