Sunday, December 21, 2008

Recipe secrets too dark to share

I am waiting. I just slid the glutinous mass of flour, egg, sugar and sour cream into the freezer; a shortened version of "refrigerating for 3 hours," and the timer is set, things will be set in motion in just 30 minutes or so. But it will be later, when friends will taste what may be the lightest, fluffiest, most delicious sugar cookies they have ever had in their lives, that I will be obliged to make the big decision; to share or not to share the recipe. I don't think that I can, I don't believe I should.

This is a recipe capable of doing permanent damage. It can rip apart families; damage mother-daughter relationships, make a fool out of you in front of cousins or in-laws, stretch to the limit the love between a husband and wife. I have made my peace with it, I make the darn things, year after year, but this is the very first year I have been able to surrender to what I must have conveniently forgotten; what those cookies are going to put me through.

I woke up completely at peace with my project this morning. After attempting spritz with a cookie press last night, most likely nothing else could faze me. The dough would not come out of the cookies press. When the dough did come out, it stuck to the press and had to be scraped off with a knife, rendering the pressed image obsolete. I did refrigerate it, for a few days actually, between the first time I tried with limited success and this time. So I made a fresh, unrefrigerated batch of dough, at 8:00 at night, which is bedtime. I had promised the kids cookies. My husband is staring at me incredulously, and not in a good way, wanting to know what I am doing, not making more dough? What about the other dough?

The first disk I tried maybe wasn't the easiest, I went back to the Christmas tree. Still no luck. I simultaneously googled "cookie press instructions and called my mother. Online I read encouraging comments along the lines of, "I HATE MY COOKIE PRESS!" and; "Mine went to the trash man, and I put a hammer to it to avoid some poor other fool suffering the same fate." Hmmm, what had I gotten myself into. My mother came to the rescue with her observations of, "Your generation doesn't seem to have the same level of patience as mine had. Yes, they are a pain, you have to work with a press to get the hang of it. Grandma made even more types than I did; she would make wreaths with the ribbon-shaped one; around for a wreath, then a bow on top." I remembered them, they were even dyed; green for the wreath and red for the bow. That settled that. I loved both my mother and my grandmother, but I did not require some remnant from the 50's housewife era to make my time here on earth meaningful. I declared it a most unfortunate experiment and made the rest of the batch up as "smashed spritz," which consisted of pinching gobs of the stuff onto the baking stone and smashing them down a bit to look like what was coming out of the cookie press to start with.

But my epiphany came because there is more to it than that. I know that one person's nightmare is a labor of pure love for another. Each year up until now, these "fat sugar cookies," everyone's favorite, have been the bane of my holiday baking existence, yet the only ones anyone really wants to eat. They were always my favorites, so I guess I thought it only fair to share them with others.

The first attempt was made on a trip to Paris. I was visiting my husband to be who was working for a company there. We stayed with his uncle, aunt and their three young daughters. It was very kind of them to make room for us in their home and I wanted to do something nice in return. I had no job, no gifts, but I had my recipe with me. It was almost Christmas, and what could be better than cookies at that time of year.

I made a mess, a mess that took a long time to become a mess, and even longer to clean up. The sour cream was not the right consistency. Heck, it wasn't even sour cream, it was "creme fraiche," which technically means the exact opposite of sour cream. I had no Crisco, no experience with making this recipe, and no pastry cutter to at least get things moving in the right direction. Years later, I would also discover, via the wisdom of the great Julia Child, that the very consistency of French flour is different than American flour, and the percentage of fat in American butter also differs, which means recipe modifications beyond my wildest imagination.

The year my mother tried to teach me to make them we will leave out of this discussion.

I would eventually figure out a version of these that worked in France, still no pastry cutter, and make them year after year. I made them in a tiny toaster oven, six at a time, all for love. Each year it was a struggle. Each year I would threaten to throw the whole thing out the window as the dough warmed up and became stickier and stickier, then more and more full of flour to compensate.

Now that I have a great big ol' American oven, and a pastry cutter, and even shortening, life is pretty luxurious, but these fat sugar cookies are still a thorn in my holiday-baking side! I guess it's time to go unwrap the dough and get started. The recipe? A family secret, I'm sorry.

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