(I grew up calling the delicate ones biscuits, and the ones with chocolate and other chips in them, cookies. I still try to stick with the English I love and grew up with, though it has hybridised into the English I hear every day in the country I now call home. So sometimes it is neither here nor there. England and America may be two continents divided by a common language, but India taught me that divisions exist only as long as you let them. With that, I invite you to continue on into my biscuit-cookie meanderings. For the purpose of this post, they mean *exactly* the same thing. The title? I’m sorry but cookie monster rolls off way better than the alternative, biscuit zombie)
Christmas, it seems, is right around the corner. Can’t quite claim it crept up quietly. The subtle-as-a-hippo-in-tights signs have been everywhere since Halloween. In the past weeks, you couldn’t turn a fraction of a degree without having your senses assaulted by holiday commercialism. (Wait, did I say commercialism? I mean holiday spirit. I seem to be (un)intentionally channelling Festivus.) But then I take a deep breath and open my eyes; all you see is glimmers of hope and quiet smiles. Everyone wishes that this year will sound clear, high notes when it ends compared to those began with.
In this season of renewed hope, I thought I’d try something I don’t necessarily do, making holiday season sweets. Do I hear you gasp in shock? Hold on, before you follow it with disappointed heads shaking, allow me to explain. Every year, Diwali shows up about a month or so before the December holiday season. This is one time when I sorely miss being back in India. I go overboard trying to recreate the spirit of the festival, with the lights, and the food. This leads to an unavoidable surfeit of sweets. Setting about making them again seems impossible. But this year I decided to go for it. More importantly, I decided to make holiday cookies. This is significant for another reason. Everyone has their nemesis. Sherlock Holmes (yay! Sherlock Holmes!) had Moriarty. I have cookie-making.
I didn’t take naturally to baking. Early attempts used to often find me ending up on the kitchen floor, whining in unabashed Julie Powell fashion. Baking is precise and proportionate, sort of like engineering. There are certain rules you need to follow and it doesn’t forgive mucking around with its basic ingredients. It is also unyielding. It may be too late to salvage a mistake once the ingredients are mixed, even before the heat of the oven has begun working its magic. Cooking on the other hand, like architecture, you can design as you go along. You can choose to be precise and follow an initial plan or you can start at a point and find your way as you move through. You might end up creating something different from what you visualised initially, but it will still be good.
True to this philosophy, my early days of cooking involved quite a bit of tossing around of ingredients. More often than not, it worked. Baking was a practiced effort and rite of passage in patience and attention. I learned in time that there is a certain calm pleasure in knowing that if you followed directions in the correct fashion, you will get results. Even so, the one thing that steadfastly refuses to come to me, is baking biscuits. There is only so much I could blame ovens and whisks before I accepted the obvious truth; the problem was me. For some reason, flavour and texture became strangers to me when I took on cookie making. After many attempts that came out of the oven resembling so many pieces of rubble, tasting of clay, I hung up the cookie cutters for a while. I would have had no problem giving it up for good. Amey however, was not so thrilled. He loves biscuits. His favourite snack is biscuits, preferably with jam. Finally I gave in to the silent reproach in those brown eyes and geared up to tackle them one more time.
Following the recipe (see below) as precisely as I could, I began by creaming room-temperature sugar and butter together. Right away, drama reared its ugly head. I had one stick of soft butter and a half stick of fairly soft butter. I do not have a stand mixer so I thought of using the stick whisk I own, normally reserved for beating eggs or cream. Everything proceeded to stick to the whisk in large lumps, which then gave a sad little whirr and began revolving around the butter instead of rotating in it, in a jerky teenagers-waltzing sort of way. With much coaxing, it finally started to rotate, only to over-heat and begin melting the butter in earnest. There was a bit of business of high-pitched yelping (me) and shoving into the freezer (the mixing bowl) and holding of breath (the husband waiting for the inevitable explosion from hyperventilating wife). In a few minutes though, the goddess of the refrigerator worked her magic and I was presented with a fair lot of half-creamed butter and sugar. Calming down, I then proceeded to (carefully!) continue to cream the mixture. Next, there was the adding of the egg yolks (with bated breath), but this was thankfully uneventful. Now, there followed the business of adding three and a half cups of flour, half a cup at a time. (See what I mean, seven places to screw up, why? WHY?) More drama. *Flour flying off whisk into eyes. More yelping followed by thump of falling stick mixer, sacrificed in favour of sprint to sink. Rapid splashing of water into said eye. Taking a minute to wipe sopping face and breathe deeply* As I turned back to the bowl, I had to take another few minutes to rack my brains, as aforementioned drama had made me lose count of how many half-cups of flour I’d already added. With a heartfelt prayer, I added more relying on memory. I was rewarded with what looked like fairly decent dough. So far so good.
Then came the flattening out of the dough and the covering in plastic, followed by an hour of cooling off in the chill chest. I whiled away my impatience to be getting on with things by watching Andrew-Lee Potts play the Hatter in Syfy’s Alice for the gazillionth time. Just about the time Alice was running into the Queen of Hearts at the casino (this is not Wonderland as you know it), I pulled out the dough to find that it was now firm. It was, however, thicker than I expected. Attempting to roll it – in a misguided attempt to thin it out – achieved nothing except a spectacularly pulled muscle in my upper arm. (Maybe there is something to this cooking-as-exercise theory).
Displaying remarkable self-possession, I let the dough soften a bit, rolled it thinner, put it back into the fridge & watched more TV. I pulled it out again just as Andrew-Lee Potts was introducing himself as Robinson. This time I was dealing with a workable thickness. I punched out cookies with the cutter shapes I had, racing against the ever-softening dough. I moved one batch into the pre-heated oven and the second into the fridge for safe keeping. Then I turned my attention to the jam portion, which is simply a reduction of store-bought black raspberry preserves. Pulling the tray out of the oven at the end of the allotted time, my worst fears were realised. Despite my herculean (!) effort, these were not the masterpieces I had hoped for. The star resembled starfish. The moons looked like corpulent pac-men. The colour was all over the light brown spectrum. I had hit an all-too-familiar low.
I still had to finish what I had started. There was slathering of spoonfuls of jam to make unwieldy sandwiches out of the lot after they cooled. While a few broke into crumby pieces as I handled them, others held together with the gluey jam. When I was done, they looked like something that could have come out of Monica’s easy-bake oven. Tentatively, I handed a couple over to my husband. He took a bite, and there spread on his face, what could only be described as a smile of unbridled joy. He is still sitting there, hugging his box of jammy biscuits, with the same silly look on his face that I imagine crosses mine when I laugh at Andrew-Lee Potts’ hilariously cool & expressive Hatter. Only in Amey’s case that look will last a while. I’m done watching Alice (for today) but there are a lot of these cookies. He has threatened unspeakable consequences if I mention the word “share” in their regard, and he doesn’t seem to care that he’s eating starfish instead of stars. The little piece he parted with and bestowed on me tasted of butter and sugar, reminiscent of Shrewsbury biscuits from back in India. Unbeatable when served with jam.
Maybe I’ve conquered half of the nemesis. The taste seems to have worked out. Amey insists the texture was great. I think it could be improved upon more into a true shortbread. But to turn out cookies that actually tasted fine? It feels righteous! A tiny little Christmas miracle.
(The recipe I used was from Saveur’s 12 days of Holiday sweets special: Raspberry Sandwich cookies. My very first far-from-complete-disaster cookie. That alone wins it big kudos.)