Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On Vacation

We're hibernating for the week. We'll be back on January 3rd. Happy Holidays everyone!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Gift of Trust

Any artist, musician, or writer will tell you their best work comes from their most frustrating, often most gut-wrenching endeavors. As my fellow contributor, Marcy wrote, “ripping the scab off” is when the genuine writing begins.

Working with a critique group exposes a writer’s most intense work to an intimate group of people, and it can be a scary thing. But a writer’s critique group can also be an inspiration, a solace, and place of celebration.

When I first began meeting with my present critique group I was quite intimidated. I had met a number of the members before, but that didn’t help my jitters because I knew them all to be dedicated, professional writers. And, not only was I new to this already functioning, proliferate group, but I was smack in the middle of a manuscript and almost immediately had to start sending them chapters to read.

Yet, I knew I needed more eyes on my writing, so I gave them my trust and they came through for me. Their comments weren’t always what I wanted to hear, but that’s why a writer works with a critique group. If I wanted only positive feedback, I’d have asked only my family and BFFs read my work.

For all the above reasons, I want to take this opportunity to thank my wonderful colleagues for all their great advise and their unstinted friendship and inclusion in their group. Trust works both ways and even as the butterflies danced in my stomach I knew they also had to adjust to a new member joining their warm, loving circle.

Now, lest we get overly sentimental, let’s celebrate with rum balls! My family found this recipe more than ten years ago and it’s been a Christmas hit ever since. But caution! They tend to dry out if left for more than a week. So they must be consumed almost as soon as they are prepared! This, however, never presented much of a problem for my family!

Rum Balls
2 cups either vanilla wafers or graham crackers
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup finely chopped nuts
2 tablespoons white corn syrup or honey
¼ to 1/3 cup rum or brandy

Roll the crumbs fine, add sugar, cocoa, salt and nuts. Combine liquid ingredients and slowly add to dry mixture. Use just enough liquid to hold the ingredients together nicely. Shape by teaspoons into firm one-inch balls. Roll in confectioners’ sugar or cocoa and store in tightly sealed box 24 hours.

*** I like to roll them in granulated sugar to give them a sparkly look.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

All I Want for Christmas is...

     Last night I was in my local Barnes and Noble for about the 17th time this holiday season.  The staff knows me well as I am a local author as well as a 'frequent buyer' and constant browser of books. The line at the information desk in the children's section was particularly long this evening with two grandparents, two giggling girls, my daughter and myself.  I didn't mean to be eavesdropping but of course I did, which led me to wonder just exactly what kinds of books - children's books in particular - were being snatched off the shelves this year.  With special thanks to Timothy and LeeAnn, here is what I found out.
The most requested books this year, according to my friendly Barnes and Noble elves, are Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series.  The most recent book in the series, as well as related merchandise was hard to keep in stock.  Second in popularity as far as requests go would be any of the books in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.  Grandparents comprised a big buying population who come in and ask what the staff would recommend as they are not up to speed on the latest publications.  I wondered about people coming in to ask for the classics? Nope, most adults are interested in the books that they read as a child.  Most unusual request? A book about dinosaurs, but with photographs. Hmmmm.
As the stock of related games, plush figures and puzzles increases, so do the requests for these as well, so that if an "Olivia" book is not available, at least one does not have to leave empty-handed.
The most heart-warming story I heard, however, was that of two recent masses of fifth grade students from a local public school who had come in search of  The Arrival and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  Apparently there is a marvelous fifth grade language arts teacher out there who reads regularly to his students and inspires such a hunger for the books he shares that his boys and girls cannot wait to get their own copies.  The books are not required reading, but the children are eager and willing to snatch them up.  Hearing that a teacher still reads aloud to his students made my day.

After a long day of shopping and toting those precious parcels, what could be better than a steaming mug of hot chocolate? Nothing that I can think of. So here's a special recipe for anyone who agrees with me on that count:
1 cup milk, 1 cup half and half, 8 tsp sugar, 1 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped, 1 oz unsweetened choc, chopped, 1 tbsp brown sugar, 1/2 tsp vanilla
Heat everything in a sauce pan except the vanilla until the chocolate melts and the sugar dissolves.  Pour 1/2 into a blender and mix until foamy.  Return to the sauce pan and add vanilla. Stir briefly.  Top with dollop of whipped cream if desired.  Sit back, relax and enjoy!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Gift of Waiting

We are in the fourth and last week of Advent. For Christians, Advent is the liturgical season of awaiting the coming of Christmas - the birth of Christ. While outwardly, we prepare for Christmas with decorating and cookie baking and shopping for the perfect gift, Advent is more about preparation of the spirit. Advent is a season of waiting.

Writers are familiar with waiting. And waiting. And waiting. We wait for the muse to strike as we stare at the blank page. We wait to hear comments from critiquers. We wait to hear back from agents and editors. We wait for our book to inch its way up in the Amazon book rankings (how could there possibly be THAT many books ahead of my unique and precious book that I worked so hard at?). Raise your hand if you've ever casually walked past the mailbox and just happened to glance over for the tenth time in a day to see if the mail has come. Or developed carpal tunnel syndrome from hitting the send/receive button on your email too often. Not that I've ever done that, but I've heard rumors from other writers. It would be hard to find a profession that has to spend more time waiting than writers. Maybe being a personal buyer in the former Soviet Union. Although at least at the end of their wait they got to purchase a few onions or eggs. We get form letters.

Back to Advent and waiting. Whatever your religious persuasion, Advent can teach you something about waiting, because the waiting in Advent is not merely waiting in line to buy onions. It is a deep longing that requires us to change; it requires waking up; it requires paying attention; it requires preparation for that which comes.

In my early days of submitting picture book manuscripts, I used to think how wonderful it would be if I had my first attempt accepted and published. I now know how awful that would have been. I would not have been ready. If by some fluke my first manuscript had been accepted, I would not have known how to revise or how to follow up; I wouldn't have really known my own voice. I needed so much more preparation.

Standard advice for a writer waiting to hear back from an agent or editor is to work on your next story. It's good advice, but not just so you can stay busy and be distracted from thinking about how many more minutes/hours/days/weeks/months/years (decades anyone?) until you hear back. It's good advice because in waiting, we need to wake up and prepare; prepare our craft, prepare our insight, prepare our very selves for whatever comes out of our writing - whether acceptance or a form letter.

I think writing is both more and less than we sometimes think it is. More, because it has value no matter what rejections we receive, no matter how inconsequential or mundane we think our writing is. Even if no other eye reads what we have written, it is worthy of our full attention. Less, because even if the whole world reads what we have written and we are on the NY Times Best-Seller list for 2,000 weeks in a row, our writing is less important than our families and our character. Both of those things make the outcome of our waiting - the acceptance or rejection - not as important as our preparation, our own working and re-working.

If all of that sounds just a little too high-minded, and your index finger is dying to click on email or on your latest Amazon stats or Google Alerts, most of the time I'm there with you. And really, being obsessive has its good points too, especially if you write kidlit. How better to channel that 10 year old who can't keep from shaking the Christmas presents one more time and is up at 4:00 am on Christmas morning, or the 16 year old who will die if she doesn't hear back VERY SOON from the cute guy she asked to Sadie Hawkins, except she'll die even if she does hear back...

So waiting is a gift. And no, you can't peek under the wrapping.

For those of you looking for Advent decorations, I made the lanterns below based on some instructions for Star Lanterns at Guusje's Appeltaart website. I prefer to wait until a week or two before Christmas to do the full Christmas decorating, but I still have the decorating bug after Thanksgiving. I painted these purple for Advent (even though they look pink in the photo).

A Dash of Pepper: Cookies with an Edge

Or, the Pittsburgh Cookie Table--Christmas Style, part 5

These pictures give a taste of the Minnesota Dance Theater's Nutcracker Fantasy, celebrating its 46th birthday this weekend. I judge this version, choreographed by Loyce Houlton, to be the most dramatic and witty Nutcracker ever.
(Hint: the Mouse King loses the battle, but wins the war.)
The original E. T. A. Hoffmann Nutcracker is perhaps not quite a children's tale. It's a little less sweet, a little more complicated, and has some unexpected twists.
So do today's cookie recipes. These cookies can be lifted from the dessert buffet to form a sub-set Grown-up Cookie Table next to the cheese board at Happy Hour. The unexpected ingredients include thyme, bourbon, and black pepper.

I got this recipe from a friend, so the origin is unknown—but the dry, cakey bite and the prep method make me suspect that the recipe might originate in Italy. If you use commercially-ground black pepper, most people won't be able to guess the mystery ingredient. If you grind fresh peppercorns, the flavor will be more assertive.
I prefer the un-glazed version for those I serve with wine and cheese.

  • 1 cup butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 cup milk
  • 6 heaping tablespoons of cocoa
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon or more of ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon or more of ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon or more of ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon or more of [finely] ground black pepper
Mix all dry ingredients together. Make a well in the middle. Add cooled butter and milk. Work together until smooth. Roll into ¾" balls. Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes, or until firm.
If desired, frost with a simple glaze of confectioner's sugar and milk. Makes 3-4 dozen.


I found this recipe in the 2007 Better Homes and Gardens Christmas Cookies magazine.
Besides being beautiful and presenting unique flavors, this cookie has an earthy texture that comes from adding cornmeal.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 ½ teaspoon dried sage, crushed
  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/3 cup [seedless] blackberry preserves
  • Small fresh sage leaves (optional)
Preheat oven to 350. Combine flour, cornmeal, dried sage, and baking powder in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Beat butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add brown sugar. Beat until combined, scraping side of bowl occasionally. Beat in egg yolks, lemon peel, and vanilla. Beat in as much of the flour mixture as you can with the mixer. Stir in any remaining flour mixture.
Shape dough into ¾-inch balls. Place balls 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Lightly press the tip of your thumb into the center of each ball. Fill each center with about ¼ teaspoon blackberry preserves.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until bottoms are lightly browned. Cool for 1 minute. Transfer cookies to wire racks and cool completely. If desired, garnish with small fresh sage leaves. Makes 60.

Simple, elegant, and not too sugary—kinda like Martha Stewart herself. She's published this recipe on the Web and in print.
You can't tell from the photo, but I always cut mine with miniature cutters—that way they make the perfect cracker-sized nibble for cocktail parties.

  • ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup bourbon
  • ½ cup dried currants
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 4 tablespoons heavy cream
Heat oven to 350. Cream together butter and sugar. Add egg, flour, bourbon, and currants; mix well.
Roll dough ¼ inch thick and cut into desired shapes. [Make glaze, using the lightly-beaten egg and the heavy cream.] Brush cookies with egg-glaze mixture.
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool.

LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED. Mom always insisted we make our Christmas cookies small enough to eat in one or two bites. As a greedy young person, I hated that. But she was right. Smaller cookies mean that everybody can sample lots of different kinds. I also end up with fewer half-eaten discards abandoned (and often hidden—especially under furniture in carpeted rooms) by persons whose eyes were bigger than their tummies.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Thoughts on Plotting

I’m wrapping up this year with frantic dashes out the door for last minute gifts (yes, oh young ones, the madness continues, even as your children approach thirty). At the same time, I’m mentally preparing myself to move on to a new writing project. Which project I choose is still a mystery to me. Will it be the half finished (or is it half begun) YA novel I started, shockingly, in 2002? I had no idea it had been so long ago until, looking for the most current version, I revisited the ten or so early ones in a folder on my desktop. Should I maybe choose the historical fiction novel I’ve been mulling over for years, partly because I know I would enjoy the research it involves? Or will the winner be the new idea that hit me last month completely out of left field? (a definite warning sign of a possible passing fancy) To make things even more complicated, I listened to a segment on NPR this morning which discussed the new multi-platforming movement in Kid-lit and realized, after bemoaning feeling like a techno-dinosaur, that my “passing fancy” idea may adapt itself perfectly to this format.

To hear the NPR article go here.

However it ends up, I’ve decided that my musing time might be a good opportunity for a refresher course on the basics of writing, especially since, to quote the NPR article, “As fun as the online missions” (i.e. multi-platforming) “may be, everything still revolves around the books.” Whew! So I dug out a number of “how to write” books from my shelves and decided to wrap a few suggestions on plot development into a neat little package for you. Though each author offers their own treasure trove of thought and insight, I’ve chosen Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s straightforward, The Craft of Writing the Novel .

And for a second little gift, check out Auntie's Light As Air Sugar Cookies, the lightest, most delicate sugar cookie you'll ever taste!! (Don't be mislead by the word light)

Happy Holidays
Fran McDowell

Problems of Plot
In Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird she refers to a manuscript she had submitted and which her editor rejected.
The passages are from her chapter on Plot Treatment.
"The editor went on to say, I had in effect created a beautiful banquet but never invited the reader to sit down and eat. So the reader went hungry." "The book felt like a house with no foundation, no support beams, which was collapsing in on itself . . ."
Some truths about plot:
Plot comes into focus by perpetually asking yourself “what if . . .”
Plot delineates your main character’s journey toward change.
You can learn a lot about your plot by summarizing it in twenty-five words or less.
Theme and plot are two different things. Define your theme, keep it before you, and refer to it often.

Some necessities in plotting:
Keep your Main Character (s) your central focus. Other great characters might be important, but don’t allow them to shift focus from your MC, (I almost always end up with a main, and a supporting, character. And my supporting character almost always emerges as the more engaging of the two, something I then have to correct)
Give your MC a problem that is important to him and that is fraught with obstacles. Then find a way in which only he can overcome them. (note a comment further down on credibility)
Create each obstacle as pitting the MC against something within himself.
Increase the emotional tension by giving your MC the burden of having created the obstacle, at least in part, himself.
Recognize the climax, or turning point, in your story (I’ve been shocked to find that my own stories have occasionally fooled me when readers describe the turning point for a character differently than I intended)
Know your hook—the suspense that compels the reader to keep reading.
Include intriguing subplots that feed into the main plot, but never let them steal the show. For fellow subplot freaks . . . control the urge!!
Auntie's Light As Air Sugar Cookies
1 C powdered sugar
1C white sugar
1C butter
1C salad oil
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
41/2 C flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cream of tartar
Oven 350
Cream sugars, butter, oil & vanilla. Add eggs. Beat until fluffy. Sift dry ingredients and add to creamed mixture, mixing well. Chill. Roll into balls, then flatten with a glass dipped in sugar.
Bake 10 to 12 min.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

An Editor's Advice on Creating the Perfect Cookie (or Cookie Table)

Or, the Pittsburgh Cookie Table—Christmas Style, part 4

Today's gift to you is a delightful forest to wander in—Brooklyn Arden. It's a forest of words--the blog of Cheryl Klein, an editor at Arthur A. Levine Books.
Here's one of her newest books. Are there cookies on that cover? Everywhere Klein works, I spy cookies. I suspect she's almost as obsessed about cookies as I am.
Consider, as evidence, these two selections from Klein's writings.
Words, Wisdom, Art & Heart: Making A Picture-Book Cookie is a talk Klein gave at a 2007 Los Angeles SCBWI Speakers' Day. Read it at http://www.cherylklein.com/cookie.html
I do hope Klein's Picture-Book Cookie recipe will be included in her forthcoming book Second Sight: An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children or Young Adults. Alas, this book is still pre-published, so I can't give (or receive) a copy this year. But I'll announce it on this blog as soon as it's out of the oven.
Klein's an essayist as well as an editor. Her light take on how to design/select sweets gave me lots of . . . food for thought. Two years later, Klein's Hypothesis of Sweets still makes delectable reading: http://chavelaque.blogspot.com/2009/01/hypothesis-of-sweets.html.
Brooklyn Arden is found at http://chavelaque.blogspot.com; we offer a quick link at right. But before you leave Route 19, take a look at this recipe.

It follows Klein's hypothesis that the ideal sweet combines two (but no more than two) sweet tastes. In this case, the flaky pastry wrapper is the dry crisp, while the fudge filling is the creamy.
The first version of this recipe I ever made appeared in a 1980 Ladies Home Journal, under the name Auntie Mary's. I loved their unusual shape and their fudginess. But the pastry was a misery to handle. This version, found a few years back in a Taste of Home magazine collection, makes a dough that is still tender and flaky, but rolls and shapes easily. So that's the recipe I'm presenting here.

The recipe is officially named

But my family still calls them
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 cups chopped walnuts
  • Confectioners' sugar, optional
[In my view, the confectioners' sugar is essential.]
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and cream cheese until fluffy. Gradually add the flour. Turn onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth, about 3 minutes. Divide dough into [equal] fourths [I use a kitchen scale and shape the dough portions into rectangular patties]; cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours or until easy to handle.
In a heavy saucepan, melt chocolate chips in milk. Stir in walnuts. Cool to room temperature.
On an ungreased baking sheet, roll out each portion of dough into an 11-inch x 6 ½ -inch rectangle. [I make a template on a piece of parchment, and roll on that.] Spread ¾ cup chocolate filling down the center of each rectangle. Fold long sides to the center; press to seal all edges. [Remove the parchment template.] Turn over so the seam sides are down.
Bake at 350 for 27-32 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove to wire racks to cool. [Sift a generous amount of confectioners' sugar over them at this point.] Cut [while still a bit warm] into ½-inch slices. Makes about 3 dozen.

LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: Recipes often call for softened butter. But softened doesn't mean melted. Your butter is ready as soon as you can dent it with a gentle push of your finger. If your finger sinks all the way in, or if part of the butter is liquefied, the butter will not yield perfect results. Use it for a melted-butter recipe instead.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Magic of Christmas

Last weekend my family and I traveled about an hour north of Pittsburgh to cut down our Christmas tree. We’ve been going with my brother and his family for the last several years to cut down our trees together. The first few years were rough. Trudging through the snow carrying one son wrapped in blankets in the snugli baby carrier, while balancing the other on my hip because he was too tired or cold to find the perfect tree. One year I thought my husband would have a heart attack after he used a dulled handsaw to cut down the ten foot tree, then drag it by himself from the valley all the way up the snowy hillside to our car. I nearly caved several times and picked the tree already wrapped and ready to go. Almost. But that was seven years ago. My kids are four and eight now, and we’ve all become seasoned tree hunters. We use a chainsaw, a handheld GPS (marking the perfect location of our favorite trees), walkie talkies (in case we get separated), a digital camera to take photos to compare our favorite trees and a measuring tape to ensure we have the right size before we make the cut.

We drive our truck down the hillside and let the kids sit in the warm car with hot chocolate while we cut the tree and lift it into the truck. Not to sound cliché, but we live and learn. It’s the struggles and the triumphs that bring magic to holiday stories like these. If we simply bought a tree every year at our local greenhouse, that would make for an awfully boring story. And our tree would cost $85.00 instead of $20.00. The magic lies within the colorful details and the special memories we’re making for our family.

It’s the same with your writing. You have to get your character from point A to point B. While the beginning and the end are important, it’s the magic that happens in the middle of the story that the reader will remember. All too often as writers, I believe we have a clear visual or written outline of our story, and we don’t want to stray from that structure. But sometimes, if we don’t let the characters choose their own paths, the story becomes contrived and forced. You simply lose the magic because as the writer, you’re not able to give up the control and allow the characters to take over. One time I wrote a scene where the girl reached over and kissed the main character. He was surprised at how forward she had become. So was I. It wasn’t something I had planned for her to do. And that’s a good thing. As writers, we need to give our characters enough independence to get into trouble and create their own magical stories.

If my husband and I weren’t persistent in finding easier ways to cut down our tree, we would still be tired and sore from dragging the tree and the kids or worse yet, given up completely on cutting down our own tree. And where would that have left us? With no traditions or memories to share with our children. The same emptiness a story has without a magical middle. Or the frustration a writer feels getting through a first draft. If you give up, the story doesn’t get written.

So this holiday, my gift to you is five magical ideas to make your holiday special and five magical ideas to make your stories sparkle.

Holiday Ideas
  1. Cut down your own Christmas tree. (Wear boots, gloves and park close to where you’ll cut)
  2. Make ornaments for your loved ones. (Every year my mom and dad gave my brother and I an ornament to celebrate something special that happened that year. I kept the tradition for my sons. Above is a homemade ornament my mom received over 30 years ago from a boy in her cub scout den. It still hangs on our tree today. Here’s a link to a similar ornament. http://kids.creativity-portal.com/d/projects/sled.ornament/
Or pick up the Big Fun Christmas Crafts and Activities (Williamson Little Hands Book) by Judy Press where you’ll find fun and easy holiday crafts to do with your children. http://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Crafts-Activities-Williamson

  1. Mix together reindeer food to sprinkle on the ground Christmas Eve so the reindeer can find their way. Here’s how:
      ½ cup uncooked oatmeal
      ½ cup glitter (sparkly holiday colors)
      ½ cup red or green sugar crystals (used for cake decorating)

Place ingredients in a plastic bag, seal and shake. Sprinkle it on your lawn on Christmas Eve so the reindeer can find their way.

  1. Buy used books at your local library or a used book store for a person who can’t get out to purchase new books or make a wreath like this one. Follow this link to learn how: 
http://www.ilovetocraft.com/holiday/christmas-yarn-wreath.shtml. Take the books and the wreaths to a local nursing home for the residents to enjoy.

  1. Give a gift of homemade goodies to someone. (See recipes below)

Story Sparkles
  1. Write your first draft uninhibited. Tear off the scabs.
  2. Make a bad scene way worse.
  3. Put your characters in unique or awkward situations.
  4. When rewriting, start with a blank page and rewrite it ALL so you’re not tempted to leave in mediocre first draft writing.
  5. Write a story that excites you, and it will surely excite your readers.

I will leave you will my Aunt Lee’s biscotti recipe. She just turned 90 last month (Happy Birthday Aunt Lee!) and sent me her recipe and along with four dozen biscotti to eat. Yum.

Biscotti recipe:

1 C. shortening (if you’re looking for an organic non-hydrogenated shortening, I highly recommend Spectrum)
5 eggs
1 ½ cups sugar
5 tsp. baking powder
4 cups flour
1 tsp. anise extract
1/2 tsp. salt

Cream shortening and eggs. Add flavoring and remaining ingredients. I put my dough (bowl and all) into the refrigerator for at least an hour. The dough will be easier to work with.

Mark the dough into four sections. The dough may be rolled into a log shape. Keep the logs narrow because it will spread when baked. Grease pans (6x12). Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes or until brown.

When loaves are slightly cool, slice and return to the oven to toast. 

I will also share with you my Grandma’s delicious pizzelle recipe:
2 C. flour
1 ½ C sugar
¾ C butter or margarine (melted and cooled)
1 Tbsp. anise extract or vanilla
4 eggs, slightly beaten
2 Tsp. baking powder

Preheat pizzelle iron. Mix flour, sugar, butter, anise extract and eggs. Drop 1 tablespoon onto heated pizzelle iron and close. Cook about 30 seconds or until golden brown.

Both of these Italian cookies go great with coffee.

Happy holidays!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Deep Freeze: These cookies (and heroines) survive cold storage

Or, The Pittsburgh Cookie Table—Christmas Style, Part 3
A surprising cold snap in North Carolina (we even had snow last weekend, and there are still patches of white in my yard) reminds me of the first time I baked Christmas Cookies. A December snowstorm shut Cleveland schools down for a whole week. To keep us from going stir-crazy, Mom set us to stirring cookie dough. Also rolling, spritzing, frosting, and sprinkling. I still bake most of the recipes we followed.
The cold also sets me thinking about how frequently female MCs must battle Winter along with other antagonists.

My favorite is Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen—I've even produced a stage adaptation—but I'm not posting an image because most book covers feature the ice-hearted Northern Queen, not the doughty heroine, Gerda.
All these chilly memories send me straight to my warm kitchen, to bake two favorite cookies. Both are simple to make, and both will come through a long freeze with tenderness and flavor intact.

Our family votes this the best shortbread in history. These cookies are thin, rich, and so delicate they just about melt in the mouth. Although they do freeze, they're also perfect for those times when you want to bake a quick batch of impressive cookies. You don't even need to bring the butter to room temperature!
The recipe originated in the newsletter The Cuisinart Cook (December, 1986). My sister calculated the versions for the larger size jelly roll pan.
Ingredients for 10" X 15" X 1" pan:
  • I cup frozen unsalted butter (cut into 1/2" pats)
  • ½ cup sifted confectioner's sugar
  • 2 cups flour
Ingredients for 12" X 17" X 1" pan:
  • 1 1/3 cup frozen unsalted butter (cut into 1/2" pats)
  • ½ cup + 1/3 cup sifted confectioner's sugar
  • 2 1/3 cups flour
SET ASIDE 2 cups confectioner's sugar for sprinkling over finished cookies.
Preheat oven to 375.
Insert metal blades into food processor. Place the frozen chunks of butter, sifted confectioner's sugar, and flour into the processor. Pulse-process ingredients for NO MORE THAN 20 seconds, until all ingredients are just blended. The "dough" will be powdery. There should not be any unprocessed lumps of butter.
Pour "dough" powder onto ungreased jelly roll pan, using a spatula to spread evenly. Press lightly with palms of hands, just enough to form the dough in the pan. Use a fork to prick lightly all over dough, but do not expose pan with fork pricks.
Bake at 375 for 5 MINUTES ONLY.
Then turn oven down to 300 and continue baking for 15 to 20 minutes (until dough turns a light golden brown at edges).
Remove cookies from oven and use a butter knife to cut into squares while they are still warm. This will keep the cookies from breaking. Sprinkle them with confectioner's sugar and use a flat spatula to remove from pan. Sprinkle cookies one more time with confectioner's sugar and serve (or freeze).
LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: You do store unsweetened butter in your freezer, don't you? I always do. It keeps well for up to 8 months. I store individually wrapped sticks in their original packaging.

The recipe in my scrapbook is brown and brittle. Judging from the font and format, I clipped it out of a Ladies Home Journal in the late1970's. I've baked it every year since then.
The magazine describes these bars as "rich and addictive." No argument here. In the unlikely event that any are left over, store them in the refrigerator. I make in a larger pan, sizing the recipe up, but these are the original stats:
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 cup unsifted all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/3 cup butter or margarine, softened
  • 1 package (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350. Grease an 8-inch-square pan. [I recommend lining pan with parchment, too.]
In small bowl mix first 3 ingredients. Stir in melted butter or margarine until well combined. Reserve 1/3 cup crumbs. Pat remaining gently into pan. Bake 12 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in small bowl with electric mixer at medium speed, beat cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Beat in remaining ingredients. Pour over crust; sprinkle on remaining crumbs. Bake 25 minutes more until set.
Cool on wire rack. When cool, cut into 2-inch squares; cut each square diagonally in half. Makes 32 cookies.
LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: Like many gooey bars, Cheesecake Dreams cut most tidily after a quick freeze. If you line the pan with parchment, you can lift the whole batch out and cut on a board.