Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Guest Post - Christmas Cookie Bake

Things have been a little crazy the past few days Chez Ninja - we had some illness in addition to our other Christmas activities that threw the household into a bit of chaos.  But, as promised, and not too late, here is the guest post crafted by CodeNinja himself, to explain the tradition that is his family cookie bake.

Merry Christmas from the Ninja family to yours, and in case you are wondering, yes, I finished the stockings in the nick of time.


And now, I give you, in his own words, CodeNinja and the Great Christmas Cookie Bake.

A Brief History of Cookie Bake

Since time immemorial, we’ve always baked cookies at Christmastime, and given them away as presents.  Growing up, I’d take in a plate to my teacher, GeekBoy (my brother - a self-selected title) would take a plate to his, and CodeMama and CodePapa would take some in to their respective offices.  When young, my brother and I would ‘help’ more than help – Mom wisely incorporated a couple of recipes where the two of us could go off and be ‘productive’.  The mouse cookies were a particular standout – they required hand-rolling and shaping for the body, with licorice tails, chocolate chip eyes, and extra little bits of dough for the ears.  Needless to say, with two young boys doing the shaping, the first tray or two would be relatively plausible – but then our nature would take over, and the mice would become increasingly mutated.  Three eyes, multiple tails, two-headed mice….later trays would not be suitable for inclusion on gift platters.  Aside from that, though, it was a fairly normal thing – we’d bake a few batches of cookies and give most of them away.

Cookie Bake Unleashed

As time went by, cookie bake began to…evolve.  Expand.  Grow.  When we hit high school, there were suddenly a lot more teachers who needed cookies.  And GeekBoy and I were able to actually help more.  By this time, cookie bake consistently involved a dozen or more batches of cookies, expanded from one day to two, and was getting into “this is sort of ridiculous” territory.  In 2001, we added a supplemental chapter to the family cookbook with the recipes we made that year.    Over the last few years, it grew even larger – featuring several days of prep work, multiple stand mixers going concurrently, and extensive use of my parents’ convection oven (which was bought essentially solely for this purpose – the ability to have 3 sheets of cookies in the oven at once.)  The last two years saw Cookie Bake exceeding two thousand cookies.

Cookie Bake: This Year’s Crop

We did end up scaling things back a bit this year – my job has been completely nuts, so my ability to help out with the prep was limited, and the rest of the family is likewise busier than normal.  Mom had to make the entire grocery run herself:
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Things got going around 10 AM, when I showed up at my parents’ place.  First up were David’s Dream Bars - one of my favorites. A full recipe involves more than a pound of high-quality chocolate (milk, white, and dark), along with coconut and pecans. 
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Once those were done, I made the fudge, while my brother started on all of the batches that needed refrigeration:
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(From left to right - hazelnut sandwiches, cranberry shortbread coins, and world peace cookies.  Not shown are the two types of spice cookies, which came along later and also needed a stint in the fridge.)

The last thing we took care of before lunch were the nutmeg logs.  At this point, we could tell we were behind schedule - the table only looked like this:
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Fortified with pizza, we started working on the rest of the cookies – starting with the Russian tea cakes.  (These are one of CodePapa's perennial favorites.)  In the last few years, we've also added a chocolate variety of these - I'd be hard pressed to decide which one I like more.

CodePapa also wound up taking a more active role than usual this year – his normal job is simply chief tasting officer and president of emergency grocery runs, but we actually handed him a cookie scoop and made him lay out the trays of peanut blossoms and molasses cookies.  As it turns out, this eventually lead to a backup that not even three sheets at a time in the oven could keep up with:
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Once we finished up with those, we basically declared ourselves done for the night - except for decorating the nutmeg logs.  These are one of the cookies we’ve been making since forever – a lightly-spiced cookie with icing on the top.  Growing up, my brother and I would spend hours making detailed decorations on a batch – writing holiday words/phrases using jimmies, arranging tree-shaped sprinkles with snowflakes falling down on them, carefully applying colored sugar in diagonal stripes to make candy canes.  We still make these every year, though we make far fewer of the extremely carefully decorated ones than we used to (and even less than normal this year - we were all kind of tired by this point!)

By this time, we were all wiped out and called it a night.  It'd been a long day of baking:
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CodeMama and GeekBoy finished dealing with the roll-‘em-out cookies on Monday, and we packed everything up over the next couple of days.  Basically all of the cookies have been given away by this point - mailed out to friends, taken in to offices, or eaten by us.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Busy busy busy

Our Christmas preparations continue.  I was so excited to decorate our tree.  I am very sentimental about my Christmas ornaments as it seems like each one has a memory.  Like these, which I brought back from my parents' house:


These are silver Reed & Barton Christmas crosses and, except for a few that have been misplaced over the years, there is one for every year I have been alive up until the last few years.  My great aunt and uncle sent them to us every year while they were alive.  I love hanging up each year and thinking, "that was the year I graduated college," or some such.  I have a lot of other ornaments that are still at my parents because I am afraid of damaging them trying to bring them back.  Over time, I'm sure I'll get them here.  But the Christmas crosses were pretty secure coming home in my carry on, so they were the first to make the trip.

Then there is this one, a handpainted ornament we bought on our honeymoon in Alaska.  I think we bought it in Anchorage from Cabin Fever, but if I recall correctly, the artist is from Homer.


Our Hallmark First Christmas Together ornament.


And we have several painted by CodeMama, which are all very precious. 


Love it.  In fact, here's some pics of a few more, because they are all so cool:




It's okay to be jealous.  But they're mine (well, ours) and you can't have them.

We have many many others that make me sigh - gifts from friends, or from each other, and also, ornaments from the yearly ornament exchange organized by the women's ministry at my church.  I have brought some form of handmade ornament every year (some more successful than others) so of course, I had to make some time to do it this year.  It doesn't take very long, actually, the most tedious and time consuming part is counting out and prestringing the beads.  I have seen kits for these around but I have a Leisure Arts booklet that I use.  The yarn is a red sparkly metallic, but I've lost the ball band, and I used #6 gold beads.

Basically, following the pattern instructions for bead placement, you knit a little drawstring bag.


Then you work it up over a glass ball ornament, and pull the top tight.


There's a hole in the bottom.


Sew it closed and voila!  All done.


I did make a little oopsie and missed a bead...but I decided not to worry about it.

Right after I finished it off and took these pictures...I knocked it off the couch and it broke.  Arrrgggghhhh!!! I was able to painstakingly undo the top of the ornament and loosen the bag enough to get it off the broken ornament, and thankfully, the yarn wasn't cut anywhere.  I had exactly one intact glass ball remaining, and you can bet I was careful with that sucker afterwards and breathed a sigh of relief once it was safely on the table at the exchange.  Gifts are assigned randomly through a series of games (none of that swapping stuff) and this is what I got in exchange:


Cute no??  (Sorry about the blur...) Very appropriate for my bakerly household.  Stay tuned next week - I may get CodeNinja to guest blog the traditional family cookie bake.

On the knitting front, progress continues.  I have some stuff I can't show, but I can show you Stocking the First, which is progressing well.


And my third pair of socks for the mission team going to the Czech republic, which is almost done.


I don't think I'm going to get the fourth pair done as I had intended, but we'll see.  The Christmas knitting has to be finished first, and then if I still have time, I'll make the 4th pair.  I'm afraid I've found these a little frustrating, because it takes 2 balls of yarn to make a pair of socks, and in every single pair of the three I've done, one ball has been fine, and the other has had blotches of one or more of the darker colors in the light areas.  I don't know if it shows in that photo, but there is quite a bit of red in the light grey areas of the sock, enough to make it look like the socks have been washed and the color bled - even though they obviously haven't.  It's annoying, but I don't have time to do anything about it - replacements won't do me any good, especially because every stupid time, it's been the second ball I used that was messed up.  I'm not reknitting three pairs of socks and I wouldn't finish before the mission team leaves, so I've pretty much just got to live with it. 

I hope everyone else is enjoying whatever holiday preparations you are accustomed to making!  I could use a little more time before Christmas and I feel like I've still got some shopping to do...but I still love it.  I did have one little incident though - of course, since we have a real tree we had plenty of needles on the floor once we finished all the decorating.  I was using our canister vac to clean some of it up when I accidentally nudged the ottoman and some leftover yarn that had been sitting on it fell off.  Before I could react I had managed to suck it into the vacuum.  Of course it got stuck in the hose and I was left trying to figure out how I was going to get a wad of yarn out of this.


At first it was pretty close to the straight end, where the hose connects to the vacuum, but in the act of looking for it, I stretched the hose out and the yarn fell out of reach.  I was lost as to how I was going to get the stuff out.  I tried pushing it out with a broom handle but that didn't work, and I didn't see how, even if I could get it down the hose, I would get it past the bended part in the nozzle.

So, I thought about it for a bit, and came up with a solution.


I used highlighter tape to fasten a crochet hook to the end of the broom handle, stuck the broom handle down the hose, and managed to pull up a few strands of the yarn, which I was able to use to pull out the whole wad.


Thank goodness it was leftovers.  It was actually all the yarn I had to pull out of the middle of the second ball of yarn for the Czech socks to get to the right place in the color repeat to start the second sock.

And now...I really need to get back to my knitting before I get behind!