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November, 2010:

Cookies: When Things Don’t Turn Out as Expected

pistachio sugar cookies

PlateOfBlobs4It’s been an awfully long time since I made a post to this blog. I last wrote on October 4, and that was the end of a series of sparse entries. Things got a little crazy this fall; blogging fell by the wayside. It’s now just over a month to the end of the year and I have 18 more books to cover. Right. I decided to ease myself back into the effort with my remaining cookie book, Cookies, CookieIngredientswhich I got from Sears when my sister was working there years ago and the booklets were part of a special holiday promotion. I thought it would be easy to add pistachio sugar cookies to my holiday baking for this year.

The cookies are simple: a basic sugar cookie made of butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, baking powder and salt. I mixed the flour CookieDoughwith the powder and salt and set it aside; I creamed the butter with the sugar, then beat in eggs and vanilla, and then gradually added the flour mixture. The mixing got a bit messy; this was the last of the doughs for my  holiday baking, and my three-speed mixer suddenly decided to operate at only the top speed. This is not ideal. But I managed to form a dough without CookieDough2spraying too much sugar and butter around the kitchen, and wrapped the dough in wax paper to chill overnight. I then chopped some pistachios, and set them aside for the cookie shaping.

The next day, I rolled out the chilled sugar cookie dough and cut it into shapes as directed. I’d gone through my cookie cutter collection and decided that I PistachiosChopped3wanted to have a fair number of pigs in the mix; I’d dub them “pig-stachio” and take pride in the cute, silly presentation. When I’d arranged cut-out shapes on parchment on the baking sheets, I sprinkled the cookies with the pistachios, and put them into the oven to bake: 5 minutes at 375, “or until edges start to brown.” I checked the first set at 5 minutes expecting them to be underdone. CuttingOutPigsWhat I didn’t expect was for them to be spread out, having lost the distinct shapes I’d cut. No pig-stachios here; blob-stachios, more like. And yes, they were slightly underdone, but adding a minute or two to the baking time was not going to change misshapen blobs back into diamonds and pigs and bells. Ugly, I thought. Disaster.

CuttingOutBellsSeething with frustration, I removed the baking sheets from the oven and let them cool briefly before moving the cookies to cooling racks. I dropped a few of the cookies, to my exasperation. What had I done wrong? Too much baking powder, or too little, or too old? My other cookies with baking powder had turned out fine. Too much butter, not enough flour? Were the eggs too big? It CookiesToBakedidn’t seem to matter how long the dough had been out of the fridge when I cut it; pigs and holly leaves cut from chilly dough were no less distorted and unrecognizable than those cut from warmer, re-rolled dough. I’d just wanted these to be simple and cute; why hadn’t I succeeded?

As I juggled cookies and sheets in CookiesToBake4the kitchen, I could hear my husband coughing in the next room. This shifted my attitude a bit. You see, back in early October — about a week after my last blog post — my husband came down with a fever and what seemed to be flu. By that weekend he was tired, hot, and miserable, and we made an early-morning trip to the ER (on a day that I should have gone to a CookiesToBake5knitting festival, because illness is funny like that). He was diagnosed with “flu-like syndrome,” which a friend later told me might just mean they hadn’t done a definitive test to confirm that it was the influenza virus, but it probably was. The blood test and X-ray showed no signs of pneumonia, and several hours later — after he’d been given two bags of IV fluids, some BakedBlobs2breakfast, and directions for alternating prescription-strength ibuprofen with Tylenol to bring down the fever — we came out into the bright sunny midmorning feeling grateful that he was on the mend. And he was getting better, for nearly a week, until suddenly he became weak and achy again and developed a violent, uncontrollable cough. Another ER visit brought a new BakedBlobsdiagnosis of pneumonia, and admission to the hospital for what turned out to be a four-night stay. This was pretty alarming, in an age when people with broken bones and birth complications barely get to spend one night before getting the boot. But Scott was very sick, and the hospital was where he could get IV fluids, IV antibiotics, and frequent monitoring of his condition.

BakedBlobsCoolingOur second ER visit was in the evening, and by the time Scott was diagnosed and admitted, and I was able to go back to see him before heading home, it was nearly 11 pm. I stopped at a corner diner to wolf down a burger, not having eaten since breakfast, then went home and briefed our houseguest on Scott’s condition. Oh, yes, did I mention our houseguest? I did mention BakedBlobsCooling2her in the last blog post. She and her cats had arrived on Sept. 10 after her place was smoke-damaged by a fire that gutted the restaurants adjacent to her building. Now it was Oct. 26, and her building management had finally completed the work that needed to be done before they could send in professional cleaners to eradicate the smoke residue. Who had to work from PlateOfBlobs2bottom to top, and did I mention her apartment was on the top floor? So we had become accustomed to having our friend occupy the couch; we’d worked out a good balance for sharing the bathroom, and had prepared some terrific dinners together. Our cats had gotten pretty comfortable with one another; my girl was still a bit indignant at interlopers in her territory, but HolidayBakingProgress2otherwise they were one big happy family. And as I headed home, I thought, I need to make sure she’s OK. I need to wash all the blankets tomorrow, clean the bathroom. Good grief, I need to throw away Scott’s water bottle, it’s got to be a cauldron of disease. I need to make sure everyone stays healthy.

While Scott was in the hospital I CookiesBaggedbalanced my time between work and housecleaning and visiting him. His hospitalization actually gave me more flexibility; I wasn’t working from home and punctuating document edits with water-bottle refills and other on-demand requests. I was able to go in to the office, and even to take part in the Halloween cooking contest, for which I’d made pumpkin ice cream over the CookiesBagged2weekend. My original plan was to make a sandwich cookie: ginger cookies filled with pumpkin ice cream and rolled in a combination of chopped pecans and crystallized ginger. But I would have had to do my baking on the night we went to the ER, so that didn’t happen. I thought, I’ll find a ginger cookie with which to make sandwiches. Only I couldn’t find any in the places that were on the way to work. Then I thought, I’ll find something I can serve with the ice cream. And then finally I thought, I made homemade ice cream, for heaven’s sake; if that’s not enough to impress people, cookies aren’t going to help. So I presented the ice cream and helped carve a pumpkin and won a prize (for the ice cream; decidedly and deservedly not for the pumpkin carving), and thought, sometimes things can give and it’s still OK.

One thing that gave was the blog. I didn’t want to take the extra time to choose and experiment with new recipes, especially since the odds of success aren’t great in quite a number of the books that remain. I wanted to make easy, comfortable standbys. I made a lot of chicken soup, which isn’t from any recipe at all: prep your vegetables and chicken, saute onions and garlic, add chicken to brown, gradually add other vegetables until you’re really kind of steaming everything in its own escaping moisture, then pour on chicken stock, cover, and let simmer for about half an hour. Or more, if you like, but half an hour ensures the potatoes are sufficiently cooked. Couldn’t be simpler, and never the same twice. I made roasted chicken breasts from a Martha Stewart recipe, in which you rub bone-in/skin-on chicken breasts with a spice mixture and then roast in a cast-iron skillet, atop onion slices, for about 40 minutes. (Martha says to peel away the skin before serving but I find the skin a decadent indulgence.) I poached fish with our houseguest. We ordered Thai food. I got a lot of take-out empanadas. We even turned to canned soup when it seemed warranted (never as an ingredient, only as a dish in itself). Everything was geared toward comfort and convenience, and we were in sore need of both.

When Scott got home from the hospital that Saturday he was tired, and coughing, and in immeasurably better shape than he had been before. He slept for most of the next day and a half, grateful to be somewhere where they don’t wake you up every 20 minutes to poke you with something. (Well, the cats sort of do that, but he’s used to it.) And then he began to have more energy, and was able to be up and about and take naps during the day instead of sleeping most of the time. And I began to breathe a sigh of relief, because not only was he continuing to get better without relapsing, he was getting strong enough to take care of himself for a few days while I was going to be out of town at a professional conference. I had been distractedly grading homework and doing course prep for the workshop I was co-teaching, afraid to even admit to myself that I was worried he might need me to stay home. I missed Sheep & Wool, and that’s fine, I thought, but I can’t miss this. Can I? At some point a bit more than a week before my scheduled flight, I became confident that he really could manage those few days on his own. Our houseguest was now on track to go home herself — the day before I left for the conference, as it turned out — and while we were grateful for her offer to look in on him during my absence, and quite ready to take her up on it if needed, Scott was also excited at the prospect of resting alone, all by himself, without worrying that his coughing was distracting her, or that he was going to be woken up by one of my phone meetings.

We canceled our Thanksgiving party. Usually we host a big vegetarian get-together, but this year about three weeks ahead of the holiday we took Scott in for a follow-up visit to his doctor, who assured us that Scott was well on track for a very slow recovery, and we would have to be patient. And we realized that we couldn’t be confident Scott would have energy for a day of guests, so we alerted our regulars that they would need to make other plans. We were right to do so: by the time the holiday rolled around, he was doing a lot better — able to get to the neighborhood Starbucks for a writing session during the day and not necessarily have to take a nap afterward — but an entire day of cooking and guests, with nowhere to really isolate himself in our little apartment, would have been beyond him. I kind of missed the company, but was also glad of a chance to rest. It was the first Thanksgiving in at least five years that I haven’t had to set an alarm and basically cook all day, or spend the whole preceding weekend scouring the apartment and cooking ahead. I realized that I needed to recover a little myself.

And so we are continuing to get better here at Chez 107, day by day. Every day I cross a few things off my to-do list and move forward. Every day Scott coughs a little less, a little less often, and has a little more energy. Every day I give thanks for his health, and for my own health (I fought off a cold during all that but managed not to carry some lethal variant of pneumonia to the conference — whew). And I think about the lessons I’ve learned and am still learning, about what really matters, about how people will step up to help when you ask, about how you can’t be too proud to ask when you really need the help.

Oh, and the pistachio cookies? Ugly, I had originally said, but delicious. While I was still frustrated about their appearance I mentioned them in a Facebook post and said I was having second thoughts about whether they’d go into the boxes I was packing to ship to friends. One friend said, “Surely there is room in the goodie boxes for some Charlie Brown Christmas Cookies.” And she was right. To me they were ugly because they didn’t turn out as I meant them to. But objectively — well, they still weren’t magazine-pretty, but they were kind of cute in their way, and they were good enough. There was room.

Verdict: Not up to expectations, but good enough. And I am grateful that they taste good. I’m still not sure why they spread as they did, but I think I might try the recipe again, only instead of rolling out and cutting shapes I’ll try forming the dough into balls, rolling them in chopped pistachios, and setting them to bake that way. It’s worth a try.