Monday, January 3, 2011

Martha Stewart Makes Me Hyperventilate

I’ve loved magazines ever since I was a little girl.

I can still see the stack of Woman’s Days and Ladies' Home Journals piled up on the family room coffee table, dog-eared from Mom scouring them for the latest weeknight recipe ideas or shoestring home decorating tips. On weekends, I’d sit curled up with her, pouring through every page, reading about things from health tips on hot flashes to the miracle of modern microwave cooking.

We’d usually have an old Shirley Temple rerun on in the background and systematically organize our piles of plans for making over a room or transforming my next homemade birthday cake into some kind of gravity-defying masterpiece.

One of many Barbie cakes...

Every now and then we’d come across an especially inspirational tip and set it aside in a special pile reserved for enterprises sure to make us millions if we could just get them into mass production. I think my favorite was the DIY greenhouse I spotted one spring in Sunset Magazine and attempted to build, by myself, with a staple gun, scrap wood and sheet plastic. I think I was twelve and it lasted a whole summer until it buckled then collapsed under the weight of the macramé plant hanger I hung from the inside “beams” to make it look homey.

Making my macrame...check out the wallpaper.

When I turned thirteen I started to receive my very own Seventeen Magazine and a whole new list of must-dos materialized. The prom issue, of course, was the highlight of the year and arrived just in time for me to dream about my eighth grade graduation dance dress (the first Catholic school-sanctioned boy/girl event of my elementary career).

My favorite dress in that issue was a peach eyelet number with a halter strap, empire bodice and a floor-length tiered skirt…dreamy! Mom and I marched down to the fabric store and picked out a pattern, fabric and trim and set out to create our own couture piece. It was fabulous (although a bit maternity-looking in hindsight), with matching shawl…too bad my hair was growing out of a Dorothy Hamill wanna be debacle and I didn’t quite achieve the overall swingy, flowy, carefree, Seventeen, off-to-the-prom look I was going for…do ya think?

That's me in the pink...I wore it to freshman homecoming too. Doesn't my date look impressed?

That summer before my freshman year, there was an article on how to organize your high school locker with a handcrafted, pocketed fabric hanging door contraption (remember, this was the olden days before magnetic Container Store gadgets). I did my best to replicate the ingenious plan using only my wits and my Montgomery Wards starter sewing machine, and arrived the day before school to install my masterpiece. I remember being so proud as it “sort of fit just right” on the inside of my first locker door. I can’t remember how it attached but, being that it was before Velcro really took off, that thing flapped and swayed every time I opened my locker. I stubbornly suffered with it daily as my pens, pencils and Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers regularly flew into the breezeway, until the last day of freshman year.

Then came Martha Stewart…

I thought my plate was full before, but in walked Miss Martha with her monthly list of must-do’s from laminating just about every piece of paper in the house to breeding, drying, labeling, storing, sprouting, growing, harvesting, canning and then cooking with her extensive collection of heirloom tomato seeds. Oh, the guilt when I go to open a jar of generic marinara sauce and pour it over reconstituted, store-bought spaghetti. Let’s not forget that I still need to build that chicken coop and create handcrafted hot water bottle cozies out of last winter’s outdated cashmere sweaters. Did I mention the Hefty bag full of discarded men’s silk ties that I am unable to part with because I am supposed to use them in a five step, three day process that will  transform lowly eggs (from my imaginary chickens, of course) into spectacular Faberge-style Easter decor? How can I live without those in my life?

So, you get the idea. I have issues (no pun intended). Aren’t magazines designed to provide escape and entertainment? Not for me. When I open my mailbox and see that a new issue has arrived, I get that same feeling in the pit of my stomach when yet another box of See’s chocolates arrives at our doorstep over the holidays; on the one hand, I can't wait to dig in and devour what's  inside…on the other hand, I anticipate what will grow after my gluttonous feast. In the case of the chocolates…it’s my hips…in the case of the magazines, it’s my list of magazine, must-do’s.

So, “why,” you ask, do I bring this up now? Well, it is that time of year again and, even with my vow to keep it simple, I still managed to send myself into conniptions as I attempted to create homemade edible gifts for some of Charlie’s friends in business…one that would put a grin on even Martha’s pursed little lips.

After a few lackluster experiments with new recipes, Charlie suggested that I just share some of our family favorite Christmas cookies. Sounded reasonable enough and I did like the idea of going with the “tried and true.” What I forgot was that there is a reason why I only make these creations once a year…it takes forever!

Our sweet minions...
Ready to "ship out"...
Each recipe is really no biggie…it’s just when you have to make 240 of the little buggers, prepared and packaged in sanitary conditions (no licking the spoon), all delivered fresh and in tact…that’s when I remembered why my original plan of a simple bag of Cashew Brittle dumped in a cello bag and tied with a ribbon may have been the better way to go!

Here's the package we did end up with...

Oh well, after the first three batches, I knew I was in for it but the "toothpaste was already out of the tube," so to speak, and I knew there was no turning back. Carly helped me decorate the Fresh Ginger Boys and Girls, thank God, but she was also in the midst of finals so that was about all I could squeeze out of her. I was on my own for the next 180 little darlin’s.

Sugar and spice and everything nice...thank heavens for my little girl!

A bald ginger girl just won't do...
The Russian Tea Cakes were the easiest, I think. I love them any time of year and by any other name. I’ve also heard them referred to as Mexican Wedding Cookies and my neighbor Laura says her family calls them Swedish Heirloom Cookies.

Just one more sprinkle of powdered sugar...

Who doesn’t love a Thumbprint Cookie and this is my favorite recipe for them…another one out of my Mom’s old Betty Crocker cookbook (the Russian Tea Cakes are from there too).

Roll 'em in nuts and bake 'em for a few minutes...

Make the thumbprint, then bake 'em again...

Fill 'em. Eat 'em.

A while back I taught a holiday baking class for kids and added chocolate to the dough, deleted the nuts and used red jelly in the center divot. I called them Rudolph the Red-Nosed Cookies and the kids loved them even more!

What would I do without this cookbook?

Then, there are the infamous Candy Cane Cookies. I have no idea where this recipe originally came from but no Christmas is complete in our house without them…but they really are a pain in the patooty to make. The dough is easy enough (just a few ingredients)…it’s just that they are so labor intensive, each one needing to be hand rolled and twisted. The dough is super soft to work with and it takes a while to get the hang of twisting the two colors together without the cookie becoming a big gooey pink blob.

Gee…I bet you can’t wait to get started! It’s worth it though…trust me. They’re beautiful and delicious, albeit fragile (as carefully as I packaged them, I wonder if any of mine survived the ride in Charlie’s car as he made his deliveries).

Here they are all snuggled up and ready to be boxed...
Well, it's New Year's Eve as I write and I am happy to report that the last of the Christmas cookies has left the building. Much like out of town relatives, we loved them while they were here but are happy to see them gone! I think I'll go clean the fridge and get ready for all of that organic produce I plan to buy tomorrow.

Tonight's another is New Year's Eve after all and we must ring in the year with a beautiful feast. As I reach to make my shopping list I find myself thinking WWMD (What Would Martha Do?). I start to gasp for air...fight it, Donna, fight it!

I think I've found my New Year's resolution!

For my cookie recipes, go to the following link.

There you'll find tattered copies of the four recipes mentioned frills, handwritten notes and all. If I had taken the time to retype these, all pretty-like, I'm not sure if they would have made it to you by next Christmas. Tip: double click on each recipe to enlarge. Happy New Year!