The tree is trimmed. The stockings are hung. Most of the holiday shopping is done, which is good, because I’m really tired of spending money. I’m tired of navigating busy stores, dealing with cranky shoppers, and trying to dodge maniacal drivers who seem intent on running down pedestrians while driving vehicles wearing window antlers and red grill noses.
Fortunately, I have very little Christmas prep left that requires me to venture out into the madness. I should have the remainder of my errands done in another day or so. And then I can settle in at home, where it’s quiet and crowd-free and there is no piped-in holiday music, unless it’s of my own choosing.
And there’s still work to be done. I’ve got a shit-ton of baking left to do. Baking has become something of a lost art, and I’m trying my best to bring it back into fashion.
It’s been my observation, over the last few decades or so, that hardly anyone prepares homemade baked goods anymore. When my kids were in school, homemade goods were not allowed at class parties and events, but I sent brownies to “unofficial” gatherings like cheerleading practices and theater rehearsals, and everyone appreciated it. My kids’ friends would often tell me that I was the only mom they knew who baked.
Of course, it would have been just as easy for me to pick up a few dozen cookies at the grocery store instead, but where was the fun in that? What made that special?? “Here, kids! Here are some nice cookies that the giant cookie conveyor system at the giant food conglomerate made, just for you!”
Screw that! My kids deserved better, and so did their friends.
Now, before you accuse me of being an elitist cookie snob, think about it. Which would you rather have: some dry blob of hydrogenated, processed sugar and chemicals, or a rich, gooey brownie, with chunks of dark chocolate and pecans that you can actually see? Of course you’d take the brownie. Don’t even try to deny it!
You’re not the only one. I’ve taken homemade goodies to countless potlucks at work, or parties, or political events, set them out on the buffet tables next to store-bought desserts, and watched as my offerings were snatched up, while the store-bought items were ignored like wallflowers at a school dance. And do you know who was scarfing up the homemade stuff first? The people who brought the day-old cakes from the clearance rack at the grocery store, that’s who! Hypocrites.
Since homemade baked goods are seemingly so rare, and always well-received, they make nice gifts. I’ve done a variety of things over the years – cookie trays, bundt cakes, mini loaves of breakfast breads, muffins, you name it. Bundt cakes can be made in any size or shape these days, and in every flavor imaginable. I have recipes galore. The possibilities are endless.
When I began my current job nearly 10 years ago, I wanted to do something nice for my co-workers at Christmas, so I made little gift bags for everyone. Each bag contained a half-dozen cookies and a little bundt cake. This was a pretty easy process back when there were only about 15 people in my department. But then we moved to another location and expanded, and then a few other departments moved into the building with us. I didn’t want to overlook anyone, so I always overestimated and planned for extras.
Baking for 15 little gift bags is not a terribly onerous task; it takes the better part of a Saturday, but no biggie. Baking for 70 plus, however? That takes some planning. And plenty of freezer space. The last year I did the gift bags on a large scale, I baked 35 dozen cookies of all types, and about 75 mini bundt cakes in multiple flavors. I started baking around Halloween. And this was just for my office. I still had more baking to do for family and friends.
It was a lot of work, but I loved doing it. And it was all very gratifying, until some of the recipients began to behave badly. How would you like to put your all into something, and then get these responses?
“You didn’t give me any of the lemon squares! I don’t like these mint ones.”
“I already ate all mine, do you have any extra bags?”
“Next time, just give me all cookies. I don’t like the cake part.”
“Can I take a few extra bags home? My in-laws are coming to visit.”
And finally, my favorite, when I didn’t bring the bags soon enough: “Where the hell are my cookies?”
Even though the majority of the recipients were delighted (and grateful), the ones who were not made me rethink things. I scaled back the project the following year (to more complaints, I might add), and then cut it back again to just the folks on my team. I admit it. I’m not a perfect person. It’s hard for me to be gracious in the face of bad manners.
If someone gives you a gift, even if it’s not one you would have picked for yourself, I think you should be polite and just say thank you. A gift doesn’t require effusive response, but an explanation of why it doesn’t suit you is just poor form. That’s your problem, not mine. “Thank you for thinking of me.” How’s that for simplicity?
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t bake for the praise or the kudos. I bake because I love it. Time in the kitchen is sacred time to me. I feel at home and at peace. I love to prepare something for someone to enjoy. And if they truly enjoy it, that’s just, you’ll pardon the pun, icing on the cake.
Not everything is a success, either. While it’s true that I see more kitchen wins than failures, I tank a recipe occasionally. You may remember my ill-fated attempt at chicken and dumplings. When you have to throw out cookware, it’s a bad day.
My first experiment with crème brulee recently was also pretty bad. I’m still getting the hang of the kitchen torch, so the sugar tops were, shall we say, more charcoaled than glazed. Thankfully, I fixed it for family who knew they were the guinea pigs. And everyone was supportive, despite the fail. I can keep practicing, and as a bonus, I have a really neat weapon on hand if there’s a zombie apocalypse.
When I have a success, however…
I fixed a tiramisu recently, and served it to a small gathering, following veggie lasagna and a rosemary garlic bread. Everyone dug into dessert, and suddenly, the table went quiet. “Omigod! This is fabulous,” said one guest. Looks of bliss on every face at the table. Even my husband, who isn’t a dessert guy, was wowed. That, for me, was a home run.
And every home run reminds me that when the time comes, I’ll be Foo-worthy. But I’ll keep practicing until then. Let me know if you want to be a guinea pig.