Friday, December 28, 2007

A Freezer Full of Cookies and Cakes

I have been putting off writing this for two reasons. One - sheer laziness. And two - I've been waiting on my chocolate Kahlua fruitcakes to 'marinate' for the proper amount of time to test them. I know, I know "fruitcakes - horror!" But more about them later.

I began my baking this year a hair later than I'd planned - last Wednesday morning to be exact. Our cable had gone out in one TV and in order to stay happily married throughout the holidays, Kris spent a total of about nine hours (I wish I were kidding) on the phone with Time Warner to get someone out here to fix it (we also wasted an entire day waiting on a phantom cable guy who never arrived but that's another story.)

So, in day two of waiting for the cable guy, I decided to knock out my baking. Shortly after whisking together my first batch of the season - five mini chocolate Kahlua fruitcakes - I remembered there would be no 'knocking out' at all. My oven, the size of most children's play ovens, was only going to be able to handle one sheet of cookies at a time. This was going to be fun.

But back to the fruitcake. What in God's name inspired me to make fruitcake, you ask? Well, it was chocolate for one thing and destined for a bath in Kahlua straight after being removed from the oven. I was intrigued, maybe even a little cocky about the whole thing, thinking that I was going to be the one to make the world's first actually good tasting fruitcake. I only strayed from the Southern Living recipe a little. Instead of pitted dates, I used dried cranberries. Otherwise I was faithful - using the suggested chopped pecans and apricots.

I have to admit, these smelled so good coming out of the oven, I broke down and sliced into one. Holy Lord, it was good. Kind of like a brownie cake with the nice tang of the cranberries to balance out the chocolatiness. Emboldened, I decided to try a slice on Kris. Now, if I had even mentioned that they had fruit in them, much less the word 'fruitcake', he'd have put his fingers to his chest in the shape of the cross to ward himself from whatever evil spirit had possessed me. So instead, I simply offered him a slice of 'cake.' He liked it, making only a small grumble about the apricots. I was onto something.

Now onto part two - the Kahlua bath. I was supposed to dip a pastry brush in Kahlua and brush the tops generously while the cakes cooled, then wrap and refrigerate them, brushing them with Kahlua once a week for up to a month. I felt slightly bad putting these gorgeous things through a veritable fraternity hazing and at the last minue yanked one aside to freeze just the way it was (i.e. sober.) The rest got a nice alcoholic shower and off to the fridge they went.

Next on my baking list were a holiday twist on chocolate chip cookies. The batter had a tablespoon of cinnamon added to it along with a cup of dried cranberries and a cup and a half of dark chocolate chips (my own addition.) I have to say, these were the cookies I was least excited about baking, but they ended up being the dark horse of the bunch. We couldn't stay away from them. The cinnamon is barely detectable if at all on the tongue, they have a nice chewy texture from the oats, and the dark chocolate makes best friends with the cranberries in every bite. We each ate one for our breakfast the rest of the week (I'd take these over biscotti with my coffee any day.)

Next we got a little fancy pants. Chewy chocolate chip ginger cookies. I had had these years ago (a Martha Stewart recipe) when a girlfriend who wasn't such a girlfriend after all had made them for a party of mine (she was bizarely Natzi-ish about the recipe and it was years before I stumbled upon it myself in of all places,!)

Then we got a little exotic, if not out of season, with a citrusy sugar cookie, also of Martha origin. These were actually my personal favorite as far as treats go, but by the time these babies were born I was 'cookied' out.

By now I was on day two of the baking process (evening two, to be exact) and because of the slow going of my oven, we hadn't even made it to the post office yet to mail them. It would have to be Friday morning, Lord help us.

The next day Kris, love him, headed off early to our local post to gather priority boxes while I filled out cards to the intended recipients. He came back within moments, his mouth in a grim vertical line. The post was 'temporarily closed' in a sort of sick and twisted joke on holiday goers. We'd have to hoof it, cookies and cakes in toe to the one all the way over on Sixth Ave. Kris, in a flash of rational yet self preserving common sense, suggested we forget the whole thing. "NEVER!" I replied scaring him with the whites of my eyes and a spark of estrogen that instantly raised the temperature in our apartment by at least ten degrees.

We packed up the cards and pastries and hoofed it over to the post. Only, in classic Village style, it wasn't exactly where we read it'd be, and we had to ask some locals where the hell it was, lowering our heads in shame as we did so. Finally, we were there. In another Village moment, our local midget cracked a joke at me as we popped in the line that went out the door. "Maybe save it for next year at this point, eh?" he said. Ha! Funny!... I sent Kris to get the priority boxes while I checked addresses and zip codes. He came back less than a second later - the same vertical line down his face.

They were out of priority boxes. We'd have to upgrade, which meant at least $30 a pop. Holy Lord - he and the midget had been right. It was time to pack it in. We headed home and sent the precious bundles to the freezer.

Now, any normal person would have had enough of the whole baking thing for a while. Not me. There was one (okay, two) recipes I was still dying to test out. The first, a vanilla bean loaf cake, again from Southern Living and the second, a dark chocolate pudding from Nigella Lawson.

First - the vanilla bean cake. The recipe said to marinate the sugar overnight with a scraped vanilla bean (with the seeds and pod itself.) I wasn't that patient so I split the difference, marinating the sugar for four hours and adding a splash of vanilla extract. I also decided to make little mini loaves instead of one giant one so Kris and I could pull one out of the freezer for a Saturday breakfast of a Saturday night trifle.

They were embarassingly easy to make, and I couldn't help thinking that as they baked filling up the apartment (and even building) with such a tempting, luscious buttery vanilla scent, that they actually reminded me of being a little girl again, dazzled by the smells my mother could produce from a couple of sticks of butter, flour and sugar. Then it hit me - these were the adult version of a child's fantastical, awe inspired love of all things sweet and homemade. Their intense (albeit expensive) vanilla bean laced base batter pricked the grown up senses the way a simple cake mix awakened a child's senses. They tasted even more lovely with such a delicate yet buttery crumb, I might even make them my signature cupcake recipe. Kris pointed out another bonus - the beans gave them a teeny tiny crunch in each bite - remniscent of my childhood favorite ice cream - Blue Bell's vanilla bean.

Now for the final report on the chocolate Kahlua fruitcakes. I pulled them from the fridge yesterday, alarmed that they weighed at least as much as my biggest purse (a frightening thought for such tiny little loaves. Their weight had at least doubled since their alchoholic binge!)

I was excited - there was no way these babies wouldn't be good. They'd been super yummy coming out of the oven, and they'd had Kahlua poured on them twice since then! How could they be bad?

I took a bite. My mouth went slack, not knowing what to do with it. It was dry, yet sticky at the same time. I tried chewing, thinking that would wake up the flavors. It only made me want to spit it out. The only thing that seemed to have plumped from the liquor was the fruit, and in a bad way. They were the only tender morsels left amidst the now dry, papery cake. A terrible, horrifyingly familiar thought struck me - FRUIT CAKE!

I threw the loaves away, right then and there, so depressed I hadn't just enjoyed them fresh from the oven when they were good.

So there you go. The verdict on the chocolate kahlua cakes is - they make a good 'fruitcake', as long as you skip the whole hazing and aging process. But for my money, I'd stick with what you like baking the best at the holidays. And my vanilla bean cakes.

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