Christmas cookies the kids can roll and the adults will eat

The winter solstice party was cancelled on account of winter weather, and the world failed to end after all, so we spent Friday evening at home decorating sugar cookies. My nine year-old art director had just received a new box of extremely fancy cookie decorations from her grandmother, and so each batch, two cookie sheets’ worth, took nearly an hour.

“You know, in my day, we only had the red sugar and the green sugar.”

(Pause for dramatic effect.)

“If we wanted white, we had to use salt!”

Daaaad.

Sugar cookies with historical flavor

Sugar cookies can’t be too rich and buttery if you want to roll them, and the really good historical cakes and cookies aren’t cookie-like enough to pass for Santa fare. But we can mine those recipes for flavor ideas. Herewith, some historically plausible (1750-1850) flavorings for your Christmas sugar cookies that will kick them up a little without competing with the gingerbread. […]

Fight the power cream of tomato soup

We twenty-first-century Americans are all, whether we like it or not, products of a certain amount of marketing. If we grew up with television, or even with magazines, certain notions of what we ought to eat and when are embedded in our brains, and half of them were invented out of whole cloth by Madison Avenue.

So, for example: it got cold this week, I left the windows open all night, and by lunchtime Monday the house was still cooler inside than most people would heat it in the winter — and felt even cooler than that from the shock of the sudden temperature change. And I felt strongly that I simply must have a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of cream of tomato soup.

Cornbread and the color line

A friend asked for my recipe for cornbread, and a blog craves content, and so I thought I would post it here. But the recipe requires a bit of explanation. You see, over the years my standard cornbread, which I bake every week or two, has evolved from a lightly sweetened cakey thing with half white flour to an all-corn, unsweetened cornbread. That means that I’ve had to change the cornmeal I use, from a medium-ground all-purpose yellow meal to a fine ground white meal. I’m not sure whether white is better than yellow, but fine-ground definitely is. I consider it an absolute necessity for all-cornmeal cornbread, in fact; coarse-ground meal never fully cooks, and without some flour to smooth it out, the bread is crumbly and gritty.

But that simple, pragmatic choice of ingredient appears to be fraught with Deeper Meaning. White cornmeal isn’t just cornmeal that happens to be white.

Ten thousand year tomorrow corn chowder

It is summer, and corn is coming into season. I am not ashamed to admit that I have a corn problem: When I see corn, I have to buy it. I buy a dozen ears, even if I have no idea what to do with them. And though I do love corn on the cob, I have my limits. Sometimes, too, corn deserves to be more than a side dish, slathered with butter, gnawed in and flossed out. Corn deserves a little love.

And so, today, we are going to make corn chowder. We are going to take our time about it. Corn chowder is a simple thing, which means that it deserves to be made carefully, thoughtfully, attentively, because it has no ornament to distract the senses, no frivolity or luxury to excite the mind. Simple food can be only what it is, and so it must be all that it is and should be, else it is not worth eating.

We will make enough to serve eight, because, presumably, we can find some friends to help us eat it. (If not, there’s always lunch.)

Jumbals

In researching historical baking I’ve ignored some old standards — very old standards, I mean, not like oatmeal cookies — and now that I have a lull in the research I’m picking them off. This month it’s jumbles, or jumbals, if you prefer the old spelling, which were formerly like nothing that goes by that name today.

Making fresh noodles

A few years ago I bought some fresh pasta at the farmers market. (Well, frozen fresh pasta, anyway.) I asked how much it cost, and the lady said six dollars. Not cheap for plain noodles, I thought, but ok — let’s try the new business. I handed over six dollars. She handed me a six-ounce package of noodles.

That’s sixteen dollars a pound for noodles, y’all. Silly me, thinking I’d get a whole pound for just six bucks.

As I have since learned, it isn’t actually all that difficult to make fresh noodles. What’s difficult is making them look perfect. That takes equipment and space. But if you are willing to accept the style commonly known as rustic, you can make fresh pasta for a weeknight dinner. Seriously. You need a food processor, but you certainly don’t need a pasta machine. And depending on how you shape your noodles, it only takes about ten minutes of hands-on work.

Enter the Belsnickel

The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own.

Christmas cookies: Speculaas

Occasionally I get to bake cookies without a research agenda, to try something new just for fun. Since it’s St. Nicholas Day, Ivy and I baked speculaas cookies, which is what the Dutch traditionally bake for that festival. I’m not Dutch, I’ve never in my life celebrated St. Nicholas Day, and until today I’d never eaten speculaas. Ah, the joys of cultural tourism! No pressure at all, no expectations, no childhood memories to contend with. Just a damn cookie.

Still, you know, I couldn’t just find a recipe and bake it. I don’t think I’m capable of that anymore. And, anyway, if I did, what would I have to blog about?