Saturday, 30 November 2013

Giving Thanks

As I've said in here before, Our Cookie Journal turns out to be about more than cookies. Right now, I'm waiting for a care package from Mom that contains the Chex cereals I need to make Chex Party Mix (or my holiday is not complete!). And I made a lovely Pumpkin Pie the day before Thanksgiving and used an oak-leaf cookie cutter to make cutouts to line the pie crust. 

But it's not just because we've always loved cakes and pies and other holiday treats. Our Cookie Journal is about our friends and family, who become as much a part of these entries as they are a part of our lives. I shared photos of my pie online with my cousins, who had pictures of their pies: cherry, lemon and pumpkin. I didn't see any "nasty" Sugar Pies though. My dad's Buckeye relatives usually have those for Thanksgiving and Christmas and I've never liked them: to me, they're like Pecan Pies without the pecans!

Naturally, I thought of Dad too when I baked Pumpkin Bread because I always consult the journal to double-check the recipe and to fondly recall how much he loved to bake it (and share it) when he was alive. And my sister Lisa, co-founder of Our Cookie Journal, always makes me laugh and cry because I miss her as I bake my way through every season, and I'll never forget her Un-Pumpkin Bread. It's not that I don't think of them throughout the year — I always do — but it seems more keen at the holidays because family is so much a part of the festivities.

Heather, Aunt Mary and Dew

This year, as I look forward to Christmas cookie baking (and sharing) and as I've celebrated Thanksgiving with my son and prepared our feast, I've been enveloped in an aching sadness for my cousin, Heather Brion, who died this week.  Even though she lived in Virginia (where my aunt — her mother — also moved), I always think of her as one of my Buckeye cousins. 

We connected again on FaceBook (it really is good for some things) and I got to see her again at a Baker Bash a few years ago in Gibsonburg, Ohio. I take great pleasure in that. And I find comfort in my memories, particularly at holidays, when my father would pile us into the car and "head up home" to visit his family in Ohio, especially at Thanksgiving or Christmas. There was always a Sugar Pie and I know that Heather loved them as much as my dad did (and she'd tease me about not liking them). And it tasted of love and home and family for each of them.

The "Buckeye" cousins

So despite feeling thankful for my health, my family and all that we have, I couldn't help but feeling guilty for celebrating when poor Heather was gone and my Aunt Mary and Uncle Terry would be missing her particularly sorely. I found some solace in the fact that Heather is no longer in pain, from which she was suffering before her death as a young adult. And my aunt and uncle (and Heather's boyfriend, Dew) have the support of family and friends to help them through this difficult time. 

I find it poignant as we raised our glasses to toast her sense of humor, her fondness for animals, her strong political views and activism, and her love for her family — that she was giving of herself, even after her death. As an organ donor, Heather helped four other people in a massive way that will significantly alter some other lives forever. And those people and their families will remember this Thanksgiving as the best one ever because of the generous heart of someone they'd never met: Heather Brion, my cousin. As another Buckeye cousin, Jeanette (now living in North Carolina), put it: "What a legacy to leave."

Aunt Mary said she was going to a Thanksgiving dinner but she would not be making a Sugar Pie this year like she always has for Heather. I understand that: Mom shoved a tray of Christmas cookies onto  the floor shortly after Lisa died because the grief was just too raw to make merry, or cookies. 

But I know that one day, Aunt Mary will be able to bake a Sugar Pie again — and she'll savor the taste of love and home and family. 

Friday, 29 November 2013

Rustle Up a Pile of Autumn Leaf Sugar Cookies

Thanksgiving came and went too quickly!

I started craving Pumpkin Bread last week but couldn't find time to make it till Tuesday this week! It was time to buy some Philly and get serious. I used Mom & Dad's recipe, of course — dividing the aromatic, amber mixture into five aluminum pans I'd sprayed with Pam. When they were enrobed in foil, I put all but one in the freezer. Neil and I polished off one by Thursday, so I had to have pumpkin pie for breakfast Thanksgiving morning because they were all frozen.

I wound up giving one loaf to the butcher Wednesday when I went to pick up our turkey breast. They knew I'd be celebrating Thanksgiving but I've added a strictly British staple from the Christmas dinner to my Thanksgiving menu: chipolata sausages. They are the perfect combination with the turkey and gravy. And he contributed them free of charge to our Thanksgiving table, as a thanks for the Pumpkin Bread. How nice!

My son doesn't like Pumpkin Pie, which is my traditional Thanksgiving dessert, so I rustled up a pile of Autumn Leaf Sugar Cookies just for him Tuesday. It's a very easy recipe, no frosting or decoration required — just a standard sugar cookie recipe, to which you add seasonal food coloring. You can also add other extracts, zests or flavorings, if you like.

I usually go with Martha Stewart's sugar cookie recipe but I used another one that I found when I made Candy Corn Swirl Cookies for Charlie's Halloween party. They vary very little. I got to use my new canisters that I bought at Sainsbury's too. I bought them to put on the counter, where they'll be easy to use as the holiday baking blitz begins!

I divided the dough into thirds (about 1 cup each), got a gob of food coloring paste onto a toothpick and smeared it onto each dough ball. After kneading the color into the dough, I shaped them into discs, wrapped them in plastic wrap and refrigerated them for two hours (or overnight).

Now for the fun part: I unwrapped the dough, tore off random bits from each color and created an autumn mosaic of dough! There's no way of getting it wrong, really. Just mix up the colors and roll. They're like tie-dyed cookies. I kept the dough I wasn't using in the fridge till I was ready for it.

After getting the dough going on a floured countertop, I moved it to a parchment-lined baking sheet, while it was still easy to handle. Once I rolled it to about 1/4-inch thickness, I put the cookie tray in the freezer for about 10 minutes (while I got another sheet going).

I brought out the cold, kaleidoscopic dough sheets and cut out the cookies, right on the trays, lifting the dough away, instead of moving the cookies from a counter to the trays. This method helps any cut-out cookie keep its shape during the baking process.

After getting all the cookies cut out and the unused dough laid onto the counter, the cookies went back in the freezer for another five minutes before baking.

I always watch sugar cookies carefully, not letting the edges brown, usually going with the minimal amount of time called for in a recipe because they keep on baking on the trays. They cooled on the rack, except for a couple that Charlie and I grabbed while still soft and warm.

The dough that's been laid aside now needs to be rolled out again, forming a new mosaic. Each time it looks different, just like in nature! These are so great because you can't go wrong. Of course, the more times you roll out the dough, the more homogenized the colors become, so after the third time, it's like that cricket-colored brown of yucky leaves that collect near the gutter after it rains. I didn't make any like that but I'm sure they would still get eaten. Each time you roll out a new mosaic, freeze it till you can work with it again.

I used my copper maple leaf cutter and yellow, red and orange doughs. The cookies were cute and colorful and had a yummy, simple flavor that Charlie likes. I wouldn't mind a sprinkling of colored sugar or a citrus extract or zest on mine next time.