It was pretty much understood in my family what trips to the laundry room during Christmas week were really about. Stacked on both the washer and dryer were Tupperware containers upon Tupperware containers, each layered with the best cookies on the planet. "I think I'll just get a glass of milk," one of us might say and drift into the small room off the kitchen to (quietly, quietly) pry open a lid and pop in a Hungarian nut roll or a spritz cookie or an almond crescent. When it came time to package the cookies in plastic wrap and ribbon and deliver them to our Los Angeles friends and neighbours - some years a dozen varieties for two dozen families - my mother must have noticed the depleted supplies. Maybe my memory is going misty, but I don't remember her ever saying too much about it. She'd just bake another batch.
Those cookies were my mother's way of showing the people around her how much she loved and appreciated them. We didn't have a ton of money growing up, and with four kids with long Christmas wish lists, hardly the funds for gifts for all those important "others". But there were always cookies. Those paper plates heaped with buttery confections are still a holiday tradition among our nearest and dearest.
They also taught me something about baking, making and taking time. Because while gifts from the kitchen benefit the receiver, they give so much back to the maker. Holidays can be stressful, harried, not a whole lot of fun for those "organising" them. Time in the kitchen - rolling dough, melting chocolate, stirring jam - restores a sense of calm, equilibrium and perspective. It can restore the spirit of the holiday, which after all, really isn't about buying a single thing.
In recent years, I've made mountains of cookies (many from my mother's repertoire), mini-loaf cakes, tins of spiced nuts, bottles of fudge sauce, herbed olive oils, almond brittle and vats of jam. One year I baked baskets of scones and tucked in jars of home-made red currant jelly with a small, decorative knife. Here in Abu Dhabi there's no red currant bush or sour cherry tree in my backyard to harvest. But there are lots of people to thank, remember and celebrate.
Karin McMillen of Dubai is already gearing up for the many goodies - I counted 15 items on the list she e-mailed me - which she bakes every Christmas. It's a job McMillen has relished since she was a teenager growing up in the States. "By the time I was in high school, my mother had me baking all of the cookies for our holiday meals and for gifts for our friends and teachers," she remembers. "There were about 12-15 standard recipes that we used. My mother even put an extra kitchen in our basement for this and other big holiday cooking adventures." One season McMillen actually counted the number of cookies she'd baked. "I got to 97 dozen and gave up counting," she says. "My sisters and dad always ate through a good portion of the gifts, so I always had to make more."
At Vivel Patisserie, "more" is the operative word during the holiday season. "For Christmas, we get massive orders from five-star hotels for our cookies," says Anna Vladimirova, the company's retail manager. Ginger cookies, chocolate crisps, star anise cookies, Milan cookies - these seasonal standbys are packaged in tiny gift pouches, put in every guest room and set on every tea tray. They also now fill the cases at Vivel outlets in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and throughout the Gulf. While this five-star bakery specialises in Iranian sweets, many of their Christmas cookies are European in origin. For people who believe they're all thumbs in the kitchen or feel they don't have the time, Vivel's miniature handmade Christmas cookies would make a sweet, personal gift.
But better yet, why not try making Vivel's famous star anise cookies yourself? McMillen says no one need feel intimidated by the process of baking. Start slowly and do two recipes the first year, adding one new recipe every year, is her suggestion. "Make a day out of it. Turn on holiday music," she says. "Light a candle in your kitchen. Be relaxed and know that it will take all day." Other tips from this long-time baker: "Stick to the recipe. Don't add more chocolate or more sugar because you think it will be good. Baking is a chemical reaction and the quantities and proportions make a big difference in the outcome."
Of course, McMillen and I both know that even after years of baking, culinary outcomes can be calamitous. As an exhausted university student, home for the holidays years back, McMillen accidentally turned on her mother's mixer with her fingers inside the beaters. "I have a two-inch scar on my wedding finger, but I did get out of baking that year!" she says. And since we're confessing - I ended up with half the molten contents of a pot of marshmallow (a lot like napalm) on my kitchen floor a few days ago. I had to run out and buy the ingredients for fudge all over again. It's all part of the process and another story to tell loved ones when giving them something you made with your very own hands.
Getting fudge firm enough for easy cutting can be a challenge. The key is boiling the sugar, evaporated milk and marshmallow long enough for it to come to the soft-ball stage. This recipe is an adaptation of one I've made for decades and is based on the recipe (true confession) from the back of a jar of Marshmallow Fluff. I've taken Karin McMillen's tip of beating the fudge for extra creaminess. This recipe, she warns, is incredibly rich. Cut small squares and place in a decorative tin - wax paper between layers - for gift-giving. Makes 36 pieces.
1 jar (213g) Marshmallow Fluff Ingredients 400g caster sugar 170ml evaporated milk (small can) 60g unsalted butter 2ml salt 275g semi-sweet chocolate chips 5ml vanilla extract
Method Butter a 20cm x 20cm pan. Scoop the Marshmallow Fluff into a large, heavy saucepan. Add the sugar, evaporated milk, butter and salt. Begin to cook over low flame, stirring to mix ingredients. After the ingredients are well blended, turn the flame to medium, stirring continuously until it boils. Let the mixture boil - still stirring - for five minutes. (Cooking the sugar this long will allow the fudge to set.) Take the pot from the heat and immediately add the chocolate chips and vanilla. Stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate the chocolate, then beat with a hand mixer for two minutes. Pour into the buttered pan, evening out the top and corners. Let it cool before scoring into six pieces lengthways and widthways. Do not refrigerate.
You don't even need to turn on the oven for this easy, giftable dressing for greens, vegetables and potatoes. The recipe, adapted from Rick Bayless' wonderful Mexican Everyday cookbook, uses either red salsa or green tomatillo salsa (available at LuLu). Each is so yummy, I'll be making and bottling both Christmassy colours this holiday. Makes about 375ml, enough to fill two small glass decanters with cork tops.
Ingredients 175ml extra-virgin olive oil 120g good-quality (bottled) tomato salsa or green tomatillo salsa 30ml fresh-squeezed lime juice 20g chopped coriander leaves (one bunch) Salt to taste Method In a blender combine the olive oil, salsa and lime juice. Process until smooth. Add the chopped coriander leaves and blend until they become tiny flecks. Season with salt to taste. Pour into gift bottles, cork and refrigerate until ready to give. (Tell your recipients to be sure to shake the jar well before pouring, and offer suggestions on a gift card for ways to serve.)
These tiny "crowns", a staple of any Swiss Christmas cookie platter and a favourite at the Vivel Patisserie, are the perfect antidote to the usual laden-with-butter cookies. Light, delicate, not-too-sweet, they are infused with the distinctive aroma and taste of star anise. You can find the whole "stars" in the spice aisle at Abela, then grind them into powder for this recipe. Package in small cellophane bags and tie up with curly ribbon for gifts. Makes eight dozen.
Ingredients 3 eggs 300g icing sugar 500g all-purpose flour 5g baking powder 10g star anise, finely ground Method Preheat the oven to 230°C. Fit a sheet of parchment on two cookie trays. Using a hand or stand mixer, whip the eggs with the icing sugar in a large bowl until thick (about three minutes). In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and star anise.
Add the flour mixture in thirds to the egg mixture, until it forms a pliable, non-sticky dough you can shape with your hands. Lightly dust a clean surface with flour and your hands as well. Working with a tennis-ball-size piece of dough, roll it into a cylinder on the floured surface until it is 1cm in diameter. With a small sharp knife and a ruler, measure off 4cm pieces of the cylinder. Then make four small cuts - not slicing all the way through - along the length of each small piece. Place each on the prepared cookie sheet, fanning it out in a semicircle so the cookie resembles a small crown.
Fill both trays - these don't grow too much in the baking, so you can fit quite a few on a tray - and bake for five minutes. Tops will be white, bottoms a pale brown. Cool on racks and store in airtight containers.