Every year, I put the strength of my marriage to the test by proclaiming it’s time to do holiday baking. In the past, this edict has elicited eye-rolls and groans from my husband. Not without merit.
Since my late teens, I’ve made dozens and dozens of cookies every year to send to friends and relatives, give to neighbors, contribute to work potlucks, and eventually freeze, judiciously allowing my husband to consume one bag of cookies or candy per month.
This year, as October rolled around, on the precipice of my next baking extravaganza, we had three large bags of cookies left in the freezer, and four smaller bags of candy in the refrigerator. Also, in the refrigerator was last year’s biscotti, which I couldn’t bear to eat because they turned out amazing with anise seeds and slivered almonds. They’ll probably languish in the refrigerator until 2020 (or when I make an equally delicious batch).
Nevertheless, with the holidays approaching, it was time to roll up my sleeves and type up the details for the 8-12 types of cookies and at least 8 types of candies I wanted to make. Realizing cookie-baking can be stressful, over the years, I’ve learned how to mitigate my husband’s baking anxieties, narrowing the endeavor to just one day, the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
The week before, I make all the cookie dough, carefully labeling and placing them in the refrigerator. I also compose a “work sheet” that provides information on each cookie from type of cookie – drop, form, roll, etc. – to baking instructions, time and temperature.
On baking day, I clear everything off the counters and assemble cookie sheets, cooling racks, metal spatulas, rolling pin, sprinkles, parchment paper, cookie cutters, and other baking essentials. It’s my job to “place” the cookies on baking sheets. My husband is responsible for shuffling the racks from the oven to the cooling racks, and then to remove the cookies. He also places the cooled cookies in special storage containers, which are only used for housing cookies.
For the most part, baking day runs like clockwork, except for my fussing over cookies that don’t meet my expectations. This year, it was ghastly green cookies that taste like Crest toothpaste. Years ago, I stopped putting food coloring in spritz cookies because green and red dough look fabulous before being cooked, but unappetizing afterwards.
So, what did I do this year? Turn lovely ivory dough with minty-green chips into lumps of Crest: The perfect cookie before going to bed.
Sweet tooth or maybe no tooth
What tests my marriage is candy making.
Several years ago, in a moment of temporary insanity, I decided it would be easier to make candy than cookies. I was wrong. So very, very wrong.
First, I don’t have the patience to make candy, which means my husband becomes the default chef, painstakingly stirring and using a flashlight to verify the temperature on the thermometer, which inevitably becomes unreadable with the steam from the bubbling saccharine slurry.
Second, making candy is hard. Failures are unforeseeable and unavoidable. We’ve made peanut brittle at least a dozen times, and I can recall only one time when it was perfect. One of our first attempts resulted in such a horrific failure and furious exchange of words that my husband stormed out of the house, pot in hand, and poured the entire batch on the lawn.
At the time, we lived in Texas, where rain is infrequent and often runs across the parched land, barely soaking in. For months, we had a splotch of burnt brittle on our lawn until it eventually melted, and the birds swooped up the peanuts.
Third, candy making is messy and to a certain extent, prone to injury. Obviously, heating any liquid above 200 degrees is dangerous. Taffy requires temperatures of 270 – 290 degrees, and then you’re supposed to pour it on a cool slab of marble and start gingerly pulling. We tried taffy twice, both times it turned out so hard you could use it for patching holes in the wall.
To make lollipops, you need to heat sugar, corn syrup, water, flavoring, and a dribble of food coloring to 300 degrees and work furiously to pour just a tablespoon or so of molten magma into prepared molds. No matter how fast you work, the mixture hardens on everything from stirring spoons to the inside of the pot, thermometer, counter-tops, and exposed skin (leaving red welts).
To dissolve rock-hard magma, you need to soak the utensils and pot for days or resort to blowtorch to soften it. With a garage full-of-tools, my husband has used his heat gun, chisels and other tools to remedy candy catastrophes.
Speaking of cooking pot remediation efforts. When we remodeled our kitchen, we chose an induction cook-top. Most of my beloved pots had to be given away because they weren’t the correct composition of metal, including my Emeril Lagasse heavy-gauge aluminum, anodized pot, which I only used for candy-making, a holiday gift from my husband when we lived in Texas.
This year, I had to choose from a repertoire of induction-friendly pots, together don’t weigh as much as my tried-and-true Lagasse pot. Weight is important because it more evenly heats the candy. In addition, my Lagasse pot had straight sides; whereas, the pot I chose was rounded like a large tea kettle. Pretty, but not great for making candy.
As a result, we burned two batches of candy. Burnt candy is minor compared to the “elbow grease” necessary to scrub the pan in-between pouring boiling water over the blackened patches of burnt candy. Nothing initiates a heated exchange of words than spending half an hour scrubbing a pot.
Actually, equally aggravating is making caramels, which are so hard, you need Olympus-sized muscle to wield a large butcher knife to cleaver the caramel into little squares. This year, the caramels turned out too soft, necessitating having to cut little pieces of special plastic wrap to individually wrap each square.
We live in trepidation of someone biting into one of our caramel creations and either pulling out a tooth because it’s so sticky or cracking a tooth because it’s so frink’n hard. But, that’s a discussion for another day.
Marriage is give-and-take
Humorist and author of Good Spousekeeping and If You Want Breakfast in Bed, Sleep in the Kitchen, Dave Meurer wrote, “A great marriage is not when the perfect couple comes together, it’s when an imperfect couple learns to enjoy their differences.” In a sense, cookie and candy-making has enabled us to focus on our strengths, overlook our imperfections, and together make a wealth of tasty treats for the holidays.