Cookies Galore

The Christmas baking began this weekend. Cookies and more cookies, of course. I bake them ahead of time, freeze them, and when the time is right, give them away.

I started baking when my six kids are little. Now that they are

Ever-popular ginger snaps ready for the freezer.

adults and live away from us, I bake them for my co-workers and neighbors, and for any kid who makes the trip to Taos for the holidays.

I usually bake six kinds: five tried-and-true and then something new. Ginger snaps from the Joy of Cooking is a standard. Then years ago, a grocery store gave out recipe booklets for the holidays. No thanks on the Spiced Cranberry Orange Jell-O Mold but yes, on many of the cookie recipes. Then there are the recipes I tore out of magazines and printed from the Internet.

I use a hand-mixer (brand new, a gift from daughter Sarah to replace one that went after 12 years of service) although in the past I’ve resorted to a wooden spoon. A Kitchen Aid mixer? Sounds lovely. I just put the butter on the windowsill and let it soften a bit.

I also chill all the cookie dough before it’s baked. And use parchment paper, a must for high-altitude baking.

A former co-worker once said, “they’re nothing but sugar, butter, eggs and flour.” Uh-huh, these are Christmas cookies after all. But then there are nuts, dried fruit, chocolate and other ingredients. I just use the best quality I can find.

Biscottis ready to be dipped in melted chocolate.

So this is what I am making this year: gingersnaps, of course; Mexican wedding cakes, which are called a variety of names; lemon butter cookies; rugelach with poppy seeds; and walnut and chocolate biscotti, which are baking as I write this. One end of each biscotti will be dipped in melted chocolate when the batch is cool.

In the past I’ve made super chocolate chunk cookies, chocolate walnut bars, acorn cookies, jelly thumbprints, the list goes on. I’ve also make baklava.

I am on the home stretch. I baked two kinds last night. Two more are chilling in the fridge. The biscottis are half-way done.

This afternoon I will search for something different. I am thinking of something with dried cranberries and almonds. I’ll let you know how I make out.


A Logical Meal

Sunday: All that is left of our Thanksgiving meal three days ago are two tiny pieces each of pumpkin and pecan pie. That’s a good sign. 

It wasn’t a big crowd at the table this year. My sister, Christine, and her husband, Larry, cordial guests, drove to Taos from Marin County. So we kept the turkey to 12 pounds. I brined it over night in a cooler per TV foodie Alton Brown’s recipe.

As I put the meal together, I realized Thanksgiving is such a logical meal. The featured entrée is a turkey. Then, there’s stuffing although I no longer stuff a turkey since we’ve been sufficiently warned about the dangers if we do. I make mashed potatoes instead of the pan-roasted potatoes my mother makes. We do have roasted brussels sprouts now that I’ve learned to love the vegetable again. We need a salad, of course, gravy, cranberry sauce, and pies. 

It’s a lot of food but putting the menu together carries a certain rhythm. Pies and cranberry sauce are made the night before.  I simmer the neck and innards for stock for the stuffing and gravy.

The next day, the turkey goes in the oven. And in the 2 1/2 hours — more or less — it roasts, I prep the dishes. Everything is ready at about the same time.

I predicted eating dinner around 3 p.m. That’s what we did.

Yes, we had leftovers. I gave half to Christine and Larry to take back in a cooler. It took them two days to drive home, and my sister says she was thankful to have the food when they arrived.


Squash Takes Over

This year’s garden experiment: Plunking a few seeds of buttercup squash into the newest bed. To my surprise the plants overtook the garden and produced a good crop.

I also grew native New Mexican calabazas from seeds my late friend Jerry gave me. That’s them to the right.

I harvested the squash well before the killing frost, let them harden a bit in the garden and now, because there is nowhere else to put them, they are stored beside my writing desk. It’s also the coolest room in the house.

We have eaten one buttercup squash so far. I sautéed and steamed chunks for separate dinners, and most recently, pureed them for soup.

The fall eating has officially begun.

We eat winter squash until we are sick of it, which actually takes a long time. I only grew buttercup, but I am fond of butternut, which I can buy locally. I skip acorn because it is just not that flavorful. Then there are the calabazas, which I have yet to try.

When we lived Back East we traveled to a local farm and bought a crate or two to last most of the winter.

A few winters, I ate so much yellow squash the palms of my hands got yellow.

So how do I prepare winter squash? Sauteed alone or with other vegetables. Steamed. Baked. In soups, stews and beans. Muffins. And, of course, desserts like pie. 

The other vegetables that compliment winter squash, at least for my palate, are onions, corn, string beans, and carrots.

I will admit the squash I grew this year is not the sweetest I’ve had. Perhaps I should have cut back the vines so the plants focused their energy on the squashes. I certainly will grow them next year in richer, more established soil. But it is gratifying to eat the food you raise.


When You’re Not Up For Making Pie

Pie is a big favorite in our home but sometimes I feel like making a no-fuss fruit dessert that doesn’t require the artful handling of pastry crust. That’s when I make a crisp.

Crisps — or crunches as some cooks call them — were a mainstay when our six kids were growing up. They still are, especially if we have vegan guests. Yes, butter can be used in the oat flake topping — I don’t use flour — but the dessert is fine without it. I’ve also used a variety of sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey, agave (now that we live in the Southwest), and natural sugar. 
I prefer whatever fruit is in season. Apple and pears in the fall and winter. Peaches, cherries, blueberries, and apricots in the summer. Other ingredients can be flexible as well. Dried shredded coconut and nuts can be added to the crisp portion, raisins and dried cranberries to the fruit. It’s hard to go wrong with a crisp.

Our son, Zack, is visiting for few days. So today I made a peach crisp with dried cranberries. We’ll top it with frozen yogurt.
Here’s how I made it.
Fruit filling: I washed and cut eight peaches into thick slices.  I placed the sliced peaches in a bowl, then mixed in 1/3 cup dried sweetened cranberries, 1/2 cup natural sugar, plus 1/2 teaspoon each of dried ginger and cinnamon. I poured the fruit mixture into an 8-inch square glass baking dish.
Then, I mixed 2 cups rolled oats with 1/2 cup good quality vegetable oil and 1/3 to 1/2 cup natural sugar, plus a pinch salt and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. (I would like to have added dried coconut but I  didn’t have any.)
I poured the oat topping over the fruit evenly, and then covered it with foil. The crisp baked for 45 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Then, I removed the foil and let the crisp bake 15 minutes more so the topping browns.

Cooking While High

The chocolate cake looked like it was going to make it. The batter was rising nicely in the oven, and then, it dropped in the middle like a sinkhole.

Here was a cake I baked so frequently, I didn’t need to look at a recipe. Ah, but that was at sea level. I was now living in the high desert of Taos, at 7,000 feet.

That meant, I discovered, I had to contend with a drier atmosphere, lower boiling points, and a quicker expansion by such leavening ingredients as baking powder, soda, and yeast. Baking, after all, is often science.

I did all right by reducing the leavening agents a little and sticking to pies and crisps instead of cakes. But then, my daughter, Sarah, sent me the cookbook, Pie in the Sky — Successful Baking at High Altitudes by Susan G. Purdy. Now, my guesswork was eliminated.

The hard-cover book is filled with useful information and recipes for baked goods from muffins to soufflés. Purdy, bless her heart, adjusts each recipe’s ingredients and instructions for kitchens at sea level, 3,000, 5,000, 7,000 and 10,000 feet. How? She tested each recipe at those elevations.

So for Anna’s Butter Cake, bakers at sea level will use 1 teaspoon of baking powder, but at 3,000 feet, 1 1/4 teaspoons. Likewise bakers should adjust the sugar from 1 1/2 cups to 1 1/3 cups.

She also recommends using parchment paper besides greasing and flouring a baking pan. It works. (My one gripe: I wish parchment paper came in circles that fit baking pans instead of rolled sheets.)

Any recipe I’ve tried from this cookbook has been a success. You can tell the ones I like the most by the pages stained with batter. Here are a few: the Daredevil’s Food Cake with Mocha Buttercream Icing; the Chocolate Buttermilk Cake with Bittersweet Chocolate Icing; and the Classic 1-2-3-4 Cake. I even made them at sea level when visiting family this spring.

Her lemon meringue pie while labor-intensive is the best I ever made — or ate.

You can find Pie in the Sky at book stores, cooking supply shops and online at the usual sources.

For more of my writing, visit