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Granny’s Shortbread Cookies

 

I’ve been waiting to write this post for almost a year now. It’s the reason I started this blog; I was baking these cookies last Christmas when I got the idea to start writing about what was going through my mind – the regret of never spending more time with my grandmother, my love of baking, and the desire to actually start embracing it.

If there’s one recipe that makes me think of my grandmother, it’s these shortbread cookies. They were her absolute specialty. She made them every Christmas by the dozens. If you dug through her cupboards any given day in December, you’d find five or six containers of them, always cut into triangles with a dollop of icing and half a cherry on top. She had them perfected, so they were always the perfect flaky, melt-in-your-mouth texture with a hint of almond.

My whole family loved them, and she was so proud when she shuffled out of her kitchen with a tin to pass them around. I get a little butterfly in my tummy just thinking about it.

Christmas always seems like a bigger deal when you’re a kid. You wait all year for it to come, and it seems to last forever. Sure, there were family fights and crises along the way, but nothing could subdue that feeling I got on Christmas Eve, lying in my bed willing myself to go to sleep so Santa could come. Even when I was a teenager, Christmas still gave me that tingly feeling inside. It was the one time of year when my whole family would get together, crammed together in my grandparents’ sweltering house on Prince Edward Island.

We drove each other nuts, but it was Christmas, so we made it work. We’d laugh till our sides hurt, eat till our pants stretched at the waists, and in the evening, my grandmother would inevitably haul out the Rook cards and smoke us every round.

Christmas hasn’t been the same since Granny and Pop passed away. I used to get really upset over it, almost to the point where I dreaded Christmas because it made me miss them so much. That’s why I started baking her shortbread cookies; it was like a part of her was still there when you opened up a tin and found those shortbreads.

It’s been four years, but I still miss my grandparents a lot this time of year. I don’t think I’ll ever really get over it, but I’m at the point now where I can look past the fact that they’re not here. Now when I think of them at Christmas, I remember all the times they made me laugh, or how happy they’d be just to have the whole family there.

My shortbread cookies aren’t nearly as good as my grandmother’s, and I don’t make nearly as many as she always would, but making them always brings back memories of her. I smell her kitchen when I mix the almond extract into the icing, and just looking at the glossy red of the maraschino cherries puts me right back in her living room, surrounded by my family at Christmastime.

Tools

mixing bowls
hand mixer
measuring cups
measuring spoons
wooden spoon
plastic wrap
rolling pin
cutting board
cookie sheets
cookie cutters, or a small cup to cut out shapes
wire cooling racks
icing kit, or a sandwich bag with the corner cut out to apply icing

Ingredients

Shortbread
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup icing sugar
3/4 cup cornstarch
2 cups flour
pinch of salt
splash of almond extract

Icing
1/3 cup butter
1 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract
pinch of salt
4 cups icing sugar
4 – 5 tablespoons warm milk

Instructions

Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, cream butter, shortening and icing sugar. Gradually add cornstarch and flour, mixing well with hand mixer. Add salt and a splash of almond extract, then blend well.

Knead dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for an hour, or until firm enough to roll out.

Once dough is chilled, roll out on a floured cutting board until 1/4 inch thick. Cut into desired shapes. Place on ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 18 – 20 minutes, or until bottoms start to turn golden.

Let cool on the cookie sheets for five minutes before transferring to a wire cooling rack.

For the icing, cream butter, vanilla or almond extract, and salt until fluffy. Blend in icing sugar and some milk (not too much at a time), alternating until smooth.

When cookies are cool, top each cookie with icing and half of a maraschino cherry.

Enjoy!

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Santa’s Favourite Sugar Cookies

I didn’t always like that I liked to bake. Ever since that one fateful day when I disastrously attempted baking blueberry muffins, I’ve been attracted to the idea of making something from nothing, and then sharing it with people.

Maybe that’s why I love writing so much; I can take a blank page and turn it into something that makes me smile, or cry, or brings back a memory that I’d forgotten. If I’m really lucky, that story does the same for someone else.

But baking used to be a sore spot for me. I was never very good at it, and my baking screw-ups tended to outweigh the few times I made something that actually got eaten.

Baking was, and still is, volatile: it’s unpredictable, and following the rules doesn’t fix everything. You need to wing it most of the time, and you need to accept failure and work past it. Neither of those things are my strong suits. I like routine and planning, but in the trenches of the kitchen, even the best planning won’t save crusty dough or watery gravy. You need to deal with the trauma, and honestly, that freaks me out.

I didn’t latch on to the idea of cooking or baking; even though in the moment I loved the serenity and repetition, I couldn’t get over the possibility of failure. After finally succeeding with the muffin recipe, I stuck to it, and didn’t bother trying to make anything else. I made them at least once a month, never straying from the recipe. They were good muffins, mind you, and my family certainly appreciated them, but the fact that I never dared to venture outside of that recipe was emblematic of my own self-esteem issues. I was afraid of failing again, so I didn’t bother trying anything else.

Except at Christmas – there was this one recipe for sugar cookies that came in a kid’s book someone gave me, and for whatever reason, I insisted on making them every December. Truth be told, they were awful. I always burned the bottoms and they were hard as rocks. Everyone knew they were dreadful, too, and they sat in the tin for weeks after I made them, until eventually someone would throw them out sometime after New Years. The only ones that ever left the tin were the few that I dug out and put on a plate beside the fireplace for Santa every Christmas Eve.

The only reason I made them was because I loved to bake, always had, but never had a reason to, other than those blueberry muffins. Christmas was the perfect excuse, because I knew that I had to make those cookies for Santa.

As I grew older, I still baked sugar cookies every Christmas, but I got a little more confident in my baking abilities. Rather than sticking to the recipe book, I played around  a little bit, adding more or less ingredients depending on the consistency of the dough. And rather than sticking them in the oven for the prescribed amount of minutes, I watched them obsessively, pulling them out of the oven the minute I sensed they were done.

Just like the muffins, the sugar cookies improved. I no longer need my mom to help me knead the dough because I mixed it all wrong or didn’t add enough liquid, and I only really use the recipe notes for guidelines; for the most part, I go by what looks and feels right. And best of all, people actually eat them.

Once I got over the sting of my original failure, I was okay. I think I realized that one failure doesn’t mean I’m doomed forever. It just means I have to work harder the next time, and the success will be even sweeter.

Tools

two mixing bowls (medium and large)
wooden spoon
measuring cups
measuring spoons
plastic wrap
wooden cutting board
rolling pin
cookie sheet
spatula
wire rack

Ingredients

2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup softened butter
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon milk

Instructions

In a medium size bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream butter until soft, either with a wooden spoon or a mixer. Slowly beat in sugar, egg, vanilla, and milk. When well combined, stir in dry mix, a little at a time. Add remaining 1/2 cup flour, just until the dough is stiff enough to roll into a firm ball.

Wrap dough ball in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours. Once dough is chilled, let sit at room temperature until it softens up a bit to the touch.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll out dough on a floured board until 1/2 inch thick. Cut dough with cookie cutters and place on ungreased baking pan. Top with sprinkles and bake for 6-8 minutes, until bottoms start to turn golden.

Let cookies sit on the baking sheet for 5-10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.

Enjoy!

2

Blueberry Monster Muffins

I was seven years old the first time I went away to summer camp. Other than the constant praying and the kid who ate toothpaste on the bunk above me, I don’t remember a whole lot about that week of my life.

Rather, what sticks out in my mind is a day two months before I left for that dreaded Circle Square Ranch. My mom and I were sitting in the Harbour View Café, a tiny little family restaurant attached to the local convenience store. It’s the kind of place you see in the movies: waitresses wearing rubber shoes and aprons with pockets to hold their notepads. The curtains were outdated (even back then) and the menu hasn’t changed in the last 15 years at best.

Mom was filling out the application for me to attend the summer camp, and was going through a checklist describing my personality. She appropriately ticked off the boxes for “shy” and “soft-spoken,” but hesitated when she came to the final trait.

Sensitive.

“Are you sensitive?” she asked tentatively. I asked her what that meant. She said it meant I got upset easily, bringing up some recent examples in which I ended up crying and storming to my room after my big sister said something silly.

Ironically enough, I got mad. Furious even. I refused to talk to her while we finished up our fries and hot dogs, and I remember starting to cry halfway through the meal, insisting that I was not the least bit sensitive – that my sister was just a bully.

In middle school, I came home from school bawling at least once a week because of something some kid in my class said or did that for whatever reason undermined my own sense of self, replacing it with thoughts of the pimples on my chin or the weird colour of my hair.

I thought it would get better as I grew up, that somehow self confidence was something that developed with age. If anything, it got worse. The slightest criticism from a high school teacher left me silenced and shaken, while anything less than an A in university was a surefire sign that I was a complete failure.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told I’m too sensitive, that I should develop the elusive “thick skin.” At first I brushed it off, again assuming it would come with age. Then I started refuting it, insisting that my sensitivity was what made me who I am, that I shouldn’t try and stifle an integral part of my personality.

Well, I’m on my own now. My parents aren’t going to call someone and make it better, and I can’t just grin and bear it through a semester like I did in school. This is my life, and my sensitivity is beginning to eat away at me.

It’s not okay to come home everyday in knots, and it’s not a normal part of my personality to take to heart every little throw-away comment.

I wish I could brush off the insults. I wish I didn’t care so much about the bad things people say to me. I wish I believed in myself enough to not let anyone undermine my confidence. I wish I wasn’t so sensitive.

I’m trying really, really hard to overcome this. I’m getting better at standing up for myself in all aspects of my life. I’m beginning to see myself as not a victim, but as someone who’s perfectly capable of existing on my own, without the compliments and encouragement of others.

I’m working on it because I have to. Because I know that if I continue like this, I’m going to wear myself down now that I have no one else to stick up for me. I hate it, absolutely hate it, that I have to change, because it’s hard, and it’s a lot easier to fall back into the old habit of beating myself down.

I chose this recipe because it carries a lot of meaning for me. It was the first thing I ever baked, and it’s one of few recipes I’m able to make without having to haul out my hand-scribbled cookbook. It’s part of who I am, but it took a long time for it to get that way. These muffins were originally a disaster when I first made them more than 10 years ago; they were green, blobbish, and emerged from their cups like ghouls retreating from some kind of swamp, hence the name Monster Muffins. But I worked on them, and I kept making them, no matter how weird they tasted for those initial trial runs. Eventually, they got better, and I’m now able to say without hesitation that I’m better for them. Sometimes change is good.

Tools

large mixing bowl
wooden spoon
measuring cups
measuring spoons
muffin tin
muffin cups

Ingredients

1/3 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup milk
2 cups flour
2 cups frozen blueberries

Instructions

Soften butter in microwave, or leave it out at room temperature until softened. Combine butter and brown sugar until smooth, gradually mixing in eggs.

Add vanilla, baking powder and baking soda and mix well. Pour in milk, then slowly stir in flour. Once combined, add blueberries and pour into muffin cups.

Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the centre of a muffin.