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Feature Thu Dec 06 2007
It all started innocently enough when Katherine, my office buddy, suggested we organize a holiday cookie contest for staff. Early on, a cooperative vibe prevailed. Lunchtime conversations revolved around warm and fuzzy holiday baking memories, and we even flirted once or twice with the notion of submitting a joint cookie, a symbol of our shared belief in the power of the baked good to bring joy to our harried comrades.
Our coworkers’ wild enthusiasm for the contest buoyed our spirits in those early days, the days when cookies were cookies and coworkers friends.
Things began to unravel as we established the rules of the game.
Entries would be critiqued by a panel of three guest judges and prizes awarded in three categories: taste, appearance and texture (or crumb, for the foodies among us). Ballot box voting by coworkers would determine the Tasters’ Choice Award. Most importantly, for the sake of our judges’ stomach linings and dental bills, each contestant would be allowed one entry.
With that decision, reality set in. One cookie, one chance at glory.
My competitive side seized on the thought of what it would be like to win. The early days in my training ground, Mom’s kitchen (We had no KitchenAid mixer, only a hand mixer – but we had it all). All the burnt cookie bottoms and sticky messes, all those wasted pounds of butter, sugar and flour, the nights spent studying cookbooks and silently judging Food Network Challenge losers: It would all be worth it.
I was confident in my entry, for I had been guarding the perfect recipe for months, not even knowing why. The December 2006 copy of Gourmet even made it in our last move, spared from the Blue Bag for one reason and one alone: the Seven-Layer Cookie.
It had it all: beauty, chocolate, tradition and sophistication. The magazine declared it “cosmopolitan.” Apricot filling sandwiched between three layers of rich, buttery, almond-infused batter tinged red, green and white, all nestled between a top and bottom of dark chocolate.
I got cocky. I declared to my competitors – er, coworkers – that I had a lock on the appearance category, maybe even taste. Katherine gave me a sidelong glance. “I’ve never seen this side of you, Mandy,” she said, “but I guess this is the way it's gonna be.”
Looking back, I can admit it was wrong of me to be so bold. For one, I’d never tasted these cookies and certainly had never made them. I had no backup plan in case they failed. Most critically, my competition was fierce. Among my coworkers are many fine amateur chefs, and some who have even served stints in bakeries, as I have. I’ve seen their handiwork at our monthly wine and cheese gatherings, and I know they’re the types who step it up when presented with a theme or a prize.
In this case, we had both.
Everyone’s pride was on the line. In my defense, I wasn’t the only one to get swept up in the competition. A woman whose last name is the same as a certain perky Italian Food Network star threatened to call in her “cousin” as the ringer. Heritage was bandied about, as if being Southern or Polish inherently makes one a superior baker. Even our interns got uppity. One of them hung the cookie contest rules near her desk, emblazoned with a fluorescent green message clear as day against her otherwise gray, gray cubicle wall: Bring It!
By now, of course, any talk between Katherine and I of submitting a joint cookie had ceased. We would be lone rangers like the rest of them, Christmas joy be damned.
Three days before the big day, as we sat together eating our lunches, Katherine said she needed to ask me about her cookie. She wasn’t sure it was a cookie, she said, more like a bar or even a torte. While the regulations didn’t explicitly rule these out, who knew what the judges would think? She needed an opinion, she said. Could she show me her cookies?
My thoughts raced. In three-and-a-half years as coworkers and friends, we had shared many secrets, Katherine and I. It is not a stretch to say we know one another’s hopes and dreams.
But this? I wasn’t sure it would be a good idea.
Yet, my curiosity was piqued. And Katherine has always been there for me. Besides, my confidence in my recipe could not, would not be shaken. I agreed.
She pulled a festive tin from her lunch bag, popped the top and slowly peeled back a layer of wax paper. In an instant, my face was a cliché: jaw agape, eyes bugged out. I would have broken out in a cold sweat if the office heat hadn’t been cranked up to tropical.
There, in all of their red, green and white perfection, were my Seven-Layer Cookies!
“Those are my cookies!” I said.
“No!” she replied.
We went through all of the stages together: shock, disbelief, confusion, denial – then, inevitably, laughter. Of all the cookies in all the cookbooks in all the world, we had chosen each other’s!
Katherine came by way of the cookie through an entirely different route. Her friend tasted one at a bakery in New York City and raved, and Katherine hunted down the recipe on the Internet. In fact, hers even had a different name, Rainbow Cookies, and she found the recipe on Epicurious.
We considered entering the same cookie in the contest, but quickly rejected that plan as boring. I offered to choose a different cookie, but Katherine insisted she wanted to try another recipe anyway. Regrettably, but with no backup plan and in no position to be the bigger person, I thanked her profusely.
On the day of the contest, Katherine didn’t bring her Seven-Layer Cookies, but she did bring her A-Game: hand-formed, teddy bear-shaped, black-and-white cookies made from chocolate-pepper and cardamom-almond dough. She took runner up in the appearance category, and her carefully packed tin of Rainbow Cookies were delivered to her sister.
And my Seven-Layer Cookies? They edged out Katherine’s teddy bears to take first place in appearance and a prize of two lovely dish towels.
Seeing as how I stole her recipe, I decided I’m giving my prize to Katherine.
Oh, and by the way, if you’re looking for winning cookie recipes, we’re so done with these:
Seven-Layer Cookies from Gourmet
Note: Pay close attention when adding the sugar to the eggs. Only add one-quarter cup of sugar to the whites. The remaining three-quarters cup is added to the almond paste later. Also, I needed about 40 drops each of red and green food coloring to achieve vibrant colors.
Cardamom Almond and Black Pepper Chocolate Pinwheel Cookies (adapted from a Maida Heatter recipe)
Note: Rather than create pinwheels, Katherine rolled the dough into balls and constructed adorable teddy bears. Be creative!
Photos by Anna Barnes