Friday November 30, 2012

Now that Thanksgiving has passed and all of the leftovers have been eaten or popped into the freezer, it feels as though the December holidays are hurtling towards us. Retail stores have been hammering away at consumers for a couple of weeks now, so none of us can claim ignorance. I've seen more and more Christmas trees lashed to the tops of cars with both in and out-of-state license plates displayed and numerous holiday bazaars are springing up, promising community catch-up time while you peruse the seasonal wares.

This year, for a change, I feel a bubbly anticipation as I look at my calendar and count the weekends between now and Christmas. I promised myself early on that I was going to be actively engaged in deciding how my holidays are shaped this year, instead of feeling like I am riding on an out-of-control roller coaster. Far too often I have made lists of things to do and places to go only to accomplish few of them, leaving me feeling glum and decidedly un-festive. Not this year!

I want our home to feel warm and full of cheer throughout the season, not just in the last week or so before Christmas when that warmth and cheer would be tinged with a bit of panic. I was determined that this would be a natural process, and while ‘planned,' it should feel effortless.

I found web sites that send along a daily email with some suggestions for various kinds of holiday cheer, mostly in the form of great pictures that appeal to my visual side. Better Homes and Gardens does a good job of covering everything from food, to décor and crafts, with most of it being reasonably priced and do-it-yourself-ish. Yes, it has been a barrage of emails, but the thing I found was that even if I deleted most of them, there has still been one or two that I have had the time and the interest to look at. I have taken a minute or two with a cup of tea and let my creative side dream a little. Not only have I come up with some great ideas, but I have also had reason to slow down and engage in a way that often doesn't happen often enough in our busy family life.

There are crafts to do with the girls, none of them so hard that frustration has taken over. It's been nice having the dining room table covered with sparkly, gluey items and kids coming and going with projects in various states of completion. As well, my husband and I have decided to have some friends over for a gathering, something that we've often thought to do, but have never quite gotten off the ground. I'm also thinking about easy, new ways to use our collection of holiday decorations around the house.

And then there are the cookies. In recent years I have gotten my list down pretty pat. Gingersnaps, Russian teacakes, jam thumbprints and sugar cookies for decorating (although after finally admitting last year that I don't actually like our ‘old family recipe', the hunt is on for a new one!). Seeing all of the various cookies and sweets suggestions really got me thinking about new varieties, and I decided to give a couple a try.

If you read my column last year at about this time, you may remember my friend Jill who, with her sister, bake all of their Christmas cookies in one long, enthusiastic and joyous session lasting for a couple days right around Thanksgiving. They give their cookie gifts early and then freeze what is left to use throughout the season. I was determined to go and be a part of the baking madness, regardless of what else was on my schedule. And I was going to bake some new cookie choices, a simple but delicious looking almond butter wafer as well as a cherry crinkle surprise, mostly chosen for its ability to use up the maraschino cherries still in the fridge from family sundae night (their bright red color frightens me a bit), but also as I thought they might bring a bit of color to a cookie plate.

The baking was well under way when I arrived. Jann was busy rolling hundreds of peanut butter cookie balls getting them ready for the oven. Jill was doing clean up and preparing for the next batch to go in.  I put my already prepared logs of almond cookies in the fridge (they needed to chill for 3 hours prior to baking) and got started on the cherry crinkle surprise, forging ahead even with Jill and Jann's raised eyebrows arching my way. I wasn't sure about them either, but was committed to seeing them through, even if for no other reason than to use up those ridiculous cherries.

More friends arrived, Lori, who had kindly taken a group of our older children skating at the town rink and Suzanne with her daughter and niece, coming just to be part of the scene. A neighborhood girl and friend hiked up the hill knowing that today was baking day. Our littler girls popped in and out between playing to check on the cookies and maybe even lend a hand. Lots of laughing, clashing of cookie sheets, shooing of children, shepherding the dogs; it was a wonderful way to spend time with dear friends and usher in true holiday cheer.

And the cookies? The cherry ones were about as good as we expected; more ‘interesting' than delicious. They will not be making an appearance again. The almond wafers were another story. Thin and crisp with a toothsome crunch at their golden edges from being rolled in coarse sugar, I can now feel as though my goal of adding to the cookie repertoire has been accomplished!

Almond Breton Biscuits as found at bhg.com

1 cup butter, softened

One-half cup granulated sugar

One-quarter cup powdered sugar

One-quarter teaspoon salt

2 egg yolks

One and one-half cups flour

One-half cup finely ground almonds (or pecans ñ I used the food processor to grind mine)

Coarse sugar and egg white for rolling

With a mixer on high speed, beat butter for 30 seconds to incorporate air. Add sugars and salt, beating until combined, scraping down sides of bowl for even mixing. Beat in egg yolks until combined, then beat in flour and almonds. If using a hand mixer, you may find that the dough becomes too stiff to add all of the flour, but you can mix in any remaining, as well as the almonds, by hand.

Divide dough in half. Roll each half into a log about 8 inches long and wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap and chill at least 3 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Unwrap dough, brush with egg white and roll in coarse sugar. Slice logs into quarter-inch slices and place on cookie sheets about 2 inches apart. Bake about 12 minutes, or until the edges start to brown. Cool on wire racks. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

What brings you joy? Take a few minutes to jot down a list of some things that you would like to do this season. A hike on a sunny, frosty morning? Some caroling? Helping at a soup kitchen? Sleeping late on a wintry morning, or getting up early to read uninterrupted for an hour? Baking with friends? Make the space in your schedule to sprinkle in a few of these things and you'll find that your holidays will be merry and bright.

Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn't have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at j2m2glen@comcast.net.