Baking is how I relax, how I shut out the Twitter trolls and the negative nancies and — most of all — the soul-crushing barrage of the news. When I need to decompress, it's time to turn off the TV, turn up the music, put on my "Let's Get Baked" apron, and start sifting my way to nonpartisan nirvana.
You'd think, then, that I love it when December rolls around and it's time for my annual cookie swap with friends. But here's the reality: I hate it. Because every year, I head into the season more optimistic than Cindy Lou Who, my eyes and heart as big as sugar cookies, but by the end, I'm grinchier than the Grinch.
"Why?" You ask.
"What could make cookies so unChristmassy?"
Come, join me in the highs and lows of the The Great Cookie Congress.
I start off with such grand hopes and pure anticipation. The process begins by pouring a glass of wine and settling down to cull through Pinterest with a fine-tined fork in search of the perfect recipe. I select 10 or 12 pictures that look good, then I go through and weed out any that don't make the cut. Some criteria: If a recipe includes margarine, it's a no-go. Vegan and gluten-free are not part of my lexicon. And anything that includes a Saltine does not, in my mind, constitute a cookie. I want good, old-fashioned, hard labor cookies.
Next up is the shopping. This would be a whole lot easier if ingredients could all be sourced at one store, but that's not the case, as the local grocery store is a wasteland of mediocrity. I start with the store farthest out — usually the spice market 25 miles away — where I purchase whole nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and — fingers crossed — Madagascar vanilla. (I keep a close eye on the vanilla market. This year, prices have skyrocketed due to all sorts of — pardon the pun — unsavory reasons). I always get carried away. If the receipt is less than $100, I'm thrilled.
Now it's on to the small specialty store where I find whole and sliced almonds, walnut pieces, pecan halves, and various forms of chocolate: chips, blocks, and the best Dutch-processed cocoa powder. I briefly consider the European marzipan, but I know I must rein myself in.
Lastly, a stop at the big box store where I stock up on bags of unbleached organic flour, sugar, organic eggs, and European butter.
Every cookie exchange has its own rules and regulations. For ours, each person gets six dozen of each cookie and then there's an extra dozen for sampling and voting.
Oh yes, even at the cookie swap there's voting. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Every year, without fail, we go through mathematical gymnastics. It's a race to see who will be the first to post the question: "How many cookies do I need to make again?"
There are nine of us. Nine times six plus the extra dozen equals 66 cookies. That's a lot of cookies, even for someone who loves to bake. By the end of a marathon day of baking, I have cookies cooling all over the house and dishes piled high in the sink. But it's hardly over. I then have to package up each half dozen. How will I do it this year? I could just stick them in bags and tie them with a ribbon. But they'd look so cute in bakery boxes tied with twine. Or maybe a little basket lined with a festive tea towel.
At this point, what should've been a relaxing, festive activity has worn me completely out. I haven't eaten anything but raw cookie dough, my feet and legs hurt, and I wish I was snuggled up on the couch, sipping eggnog and watching Babes in Toyland. For a brief moment I consider tossing all the dishes in the garbage and asking Santa for new ones for Christmas. But surely my reward will come when I'm given the honor of Best Overall Cookie.
After all, I've just spent who-knows-how-much on the finest ingredients and given up a whole Saturday to craft some magical, melt-in-your-mouth, picture-perfect treats.
Or have I?
Here's the reality. Year after year, after all my effort, my cookies come out … okay. I mean, they've always been good, but I have yet to stumble upon that one perfect recipe, the one people beg for. On a dazzling platter of assorted Christmas cookies, mine get lost in the crowd. Still, I present my creation with great pride and excitement. We all go around and sample the cookies and the judges (usually husbands and kids) give each cookie a score based on appearance and taste. The grand prize winner, the cookie that surpasses all other sweets, the Commander in Chief of Crisp and Crunch is always — always! — a last-minute, easy-to-make cookie that was assembled between a basketball game and a band concert on a weeknight after work. I'm talking the kind of cookie that involves a package of cake mix, an extra egg, and some red and green M&Ms. Or crushed Oreos, coconut, and melted chocolate chips. Or, the worst of the worst, chocolate-dipped pre-made cookies with crushed candy canes on top.
"But I just made gold-dusted pecan snowballs with five pounds of real butter and ethically-sourced nuts!" I want to shout. I spent 12 hours slaving away in the kitchen and now all I've got are chocolate-covered pretzel rods and star-shaped Rice Krispie treats.
Of course, it's not the cookies that really matter. It's time with friends and our many laughs and memories. Still, this year, I'm doing things differently. I'm bowing out of the cookie swap. I'm going to take the money I would've spent on ingredients and buy myself a nice bottle of wine and a single fantastic cookie from my favorite bakery. I'm going to settle into the couch and binge feel-good Hallmark movies all day. But don't worry. When Christmas comes, I'll still leave a plate of cookies for Santa. Only this year, they'll be from the store. That's probably what he wants, anyway.