Tradition and Baking

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Baking is supposed to be relaxing right?  What part, exactly, is relaxing?  The precise measurements that if deviated from can spell complete disaster!  The timing which if off by minutes results in smoke, charcoal briquettes and the occasional visit from the North Vancouver Fire Department?  The hot oven that requires me to remove my glasses every time I need to open it?  What is it?

My husband’s family has a specific traditional cookie that needs to be baked every year.  And when I say need to, I mean HAS to. In our house it’s not Christmas until we have baked  the “Christmas Tree Cookies”.  They are actually almond spritz cookies.  Bright green tasty mouthfuls of almondy sweetness. I know it’s a big part of the impending holiday season so this year I have agree to suck it up and bake.  I’m showing my holiday spirit.

Half a pound of butter mixed with a cup of sugar then an egg and some flour thrown in to hold it all together.  Oh yes, and green food colouring.  Lots of green food colouring.  Sprinkled with red sugar and baked for a few minutes.  Sound good right?

If only it was that easy.

For starters it’s never just one batch.  It’s at least two, if not more.  Granted the cookies are only a mouthful, but in some ways that makes it easier to grab, say, a half dozen and snack away.  The huge mound I make each year disappears like St. Nick up the chimney.  So the kitchen becomes a bit of an assembly line of measuring and mixing the squishy dough.

Then  there’s the actual art of “pressing” them
out.  This involves a cookie press, a strong hand and some patience.  About sixteen or seventeen years ago I was given my first cookie press by my mother in law.  It took a little while to figure the contraption out but I eventually got the hang of it.  The cookie dough that has been chilling in the freezer needs to be warmed up a bit and then stuffed into the tube of the press.  Then the Christmas tree cutout is screwed onto the end of the tube.  Now that your hands are nice and slippery from all the butter in the dough, you need to squeeze the trigger until a perfectly shaped Christmas tree appears in your cookie sheet.

Sometimes it does…….and sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes your “tree” looks a bit like, oh I don’t know, let’s say a pigs snout.  Or a green cow patty.  Anything but a tree.  So then you scrape that cookie up and dump it back into the bowl and try again.

Relaxed yet?

Over the years that first press has been used a lot and last Christmas I pretty much gave up on it.  After about half a cookie sheet done my hand started to cramp up and the profanity coming out of my mouth was not very jolly.  My husband had to finish up and I swore I would never make Christmas tree cookies again.

Some months have passed now and for some reason I have agreed to revisit the cookie press.  A quick trip to Bed Bath and Beyond and voila I have a shiny new cookie press that promises easy use and perfect cookies.  We will see.

Things start out well.  The dough comes together easily and the new press gets filled with green buttery goodness.  Then human error comes into play.  As I squeeze the trigger and await the outcome the dough oozes out the side of the metal tree cutout.  Damn.Xmas tree Cookies

I try again.  Same outcome.  As I’m taking it apart for the third time my lovely husband hands me a glass of wine and asks if he can help.  I hand him the two pieces  and explain the outcome.  He asks me if I’ve been putting the disk in the right way.  Double Damn!

Not sure if was the wine or the fact that I had finally put the press together correctly but the next 200 cookies came out without incident.  (Pretty much).

The Best Thing in Life is keeping a tradition alive………no matter what.

 

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It’s Just Pastry

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Yesterday my friend Jane and I made soba noodles. We had been complaining about the price of 100% buckwheat noodles so Jane had the brilliant idea that we could make them. We both had bags of buckwheat flour going unused in our cupboards so why not give it a try. As we mixed our dough and started to knead it into cones (why it needed to be a cone we are still not sure) Jane mentioned that I looked like I knew what I was doing and that I must be a good pasty maker. I laughed because pastry is the one item that I have never been able to master. I’ve had people offer up “no fail” recipes and yet still, I’ve failed. Maybe, June surmised, it’s because you are such a perfectionist. Wow, you know what, she couldn’t be right. Later in the day I was thinking about it and thought. Really? I can’t make pasty? Okay, tomorrow I am not going to be a perfectionist and I am going to make pastry.

So I pull out my somewhat ratty copy of Martha Stewart’s cook book that my dear friends Karen and Geoff gave to me twenty years ago. ( yes, she’s been around that long). Holy cow there are a LOT of different types of pastry. Once I figured out which one to use, I gathered the ingredients. Flour, salt, butter, lard and ice water. Five ingredients. How hard could this be? The instructions mentioned that for best results everything should be cold. Bowl in freezer, ice cubes in water, butter and lard, well chilled. Okay, ready to go. Am I really this nervous about making pastry? Given my past record of doing it, I think I’m just afraid or failing again. Come on. It’s just pastry right?

cookbook

Everything goes as planned. Sift flour and salt together. Cut in lard and butter and crumble together until it resembles a course meal. The next step is typically where things don’t work out for me. My expectation is that I will add the water and the dough will magically come together in my hands and form a lovely smooth ball. As I tip in the ice water I try to remember that it doesn’t need to be perfect and once it forms a ball I should just wrap it up and put it in the fridge. As Martha points out, you shouldn’t overhandle the dough. And then it happened. I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway except instead of fire, I Had Made Pastry! Okay, so it was still just a ball of dough, but I had never felt this confident before that it actually might make it into the oven as a pie.

crumbleball of dough

I moved on to making the inside of the pie. This, for me, is the easy part. A bit of this and a bit of that. Sauté the onion and garlic, make a rue and pour in the chicken stock. Taste the gravy and throw in the chicken and the veggies. If it isn’t quite right, adjust and taste again. There is room for personalization. The insides can have lots of sage or just a little. Be spicy or slightly sweet. Be chunky or more refined. You get to pick the ingredients and season it to your taste. Lots of room for interpretation. Pastry seems so…..exact. Either it is or it isn’t. Not a lot of wiggle room.

And now the true test. Rolling the dough out and actually making a pie crust. Flour the board and turn the chilled dough out. It starts out a bit wobbly as I think it should be a bit less cracky and I start to knead it smooth. No wait, Martha said not to overhandle it. Let it go, let it be cracky. Let it be imperfect. And as I rolled and turned and flipped and rolled I realized, after all these years, that it really is “just pastry” and that the end product doesn’t need to be perfect ( see right side of top crust) it just needs to be pastry. I made pastry. Imperfect, buttery pastry. Watch out Martha Stewart, I’m on a roll here.  Yummy chicken pot pie for dinner. Not only have I made pastry, but I have made my family dinner.

pie

So, yes I am a perfectionist and over the years it has probably held me back from doing things and driven more than a couple of people (mostly my family) a bit crazy. The Best Thing in Life is that it is just another piece of who I am. A perfectly imperfect person who can now make pastry.