The Braille Monitor                                                                        December 2005


Holiday Hints and Helps

by Barbara Pierce

Barbara Pierce
Barbara Pierce

In October one of our Internet listservs developed a thread about baking, specifically how blind bakers can get good results. Some of the questions made their way to my inbox along with a request for particularly good recipes. My correspondent suggested that, with the holiday season fast approaching, this might be a good time to offer some of my favorite recipes and useful baking tips.

I do not pretend to be an expert on alternative techniques in the kitchen. As I have often confessed, I have never been rehabilitated; I certainly was never lucky enough to attend one of our NFB adult training centers. I have, however, been cooking for more than forty years now, and, being married to a college professor, I have necessarily collected a number of easy and popular cookie and bar recipes. The baking tricks and techniques I have devised for myself may not be the most efficient ways to accomplish the job, but they work for me and seem to be efficient. I trust that my experience will encourage you to have a try at working things out for yourself.

One of my favorite tricks during the holiday season has little to do with baking, but it fills the house with wonderful fragrance. In a large covered saucepan place a couple of cinnamon sticks, several whole nutmegs, about twenty whole cloves, a teaspoon of allspice berries, and the discarded peels of a couple of oranges and perhaps a lemon. Fill the pan with water and reduce the heat to low. Check on the pan from time to time to be sure it is not boiling dry. The citrus peel and spices will persuade anyone who drops in that your home is the scene of great culinary delights.

But now down to the real thing. The one hard and fast rule that every blind cook should follow is to wash hands early and often during kitchen activities. If you lick your finger, wash your hands again immediately. It goes without saying that you should never taste something from an implement and then continue using it without stopping to wash it thoroughly.

The question, I gather, that initiated the email discussion about baking was how to tell when cookies are golden brown and ready to be removed to a cooling rack without being either soggy in the center or too crisp to serve. It helps to have an accurate oven or at least a consistent one. If you know that it is always twenty-five degrees high, you can preheat to a lower temperature. Unless the recipe instructs you to do something different, bake with the rack placed in the center of the oven. Invest in a cookie sheet that is constructed to bake evenly. Work to make all the cookies the same size so that they will take about the same amount of time to bake. If you know that your oven bakes unevenly, rotate the cookie sheet halfway through baking. Keep accurate note of how long your cookies have been in the oven. When you determine what the perfect baking time is, you will then be able to repeat it with the next batch.

When you prepare to bake the first tray of cookies, study the recipe for any tips about baking time and handling. Some recipes say to leave the cookies on the sheet for a minute or two before removing them to the cooling rack. If you do not follow this advice when it is given, the cookies are likely to fall to pieces when moved because they have not had time to finish baking and become firm on the sheet. Other recipes warn you to remove the cookies after the stipulated cooking time and not to wait until they brown. You should follow this advice scrupulously for the first set of cookies, at least. If, when they have cooled, they are still too soft, increase the baking time a minute or two for the next batch. My favorite recipe warns that the cookies are done when they begin to crack on top. These cracks are easy to feel by touching the surface lightly. The cookies have the additional virtue of freezing well either before or after baking. When I found myself in London without cookie cutters or money to buy Christmas tree ornaments, I even resorted to burying one side of a loop of colorful yarn in the cookie dough so that we could hang the cookies on the tree. Here is the recipe:

Coffee Hour Molasses Cookies

3/4 cup shortening, melted and cooled
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour

Method: Beat sugar and cooled shortening with an electric mixer. Add molasses and egg. Then add soda, spices, and salt. Finally beat in the flour. The dough will be stiff but sticky. Chill at least a half hour before rolling into balls. Roll in sugar and bake on ungreased sheets at 350 degrees until cookies just begin to crack on top, about twelve minutes. Transfer to rack to cool completely. You can also freeze either the baked cookies or the balls before rolling in sugar and baking. I usually quadruple this recipe and still run short.

If the recipe you are using simply says something like, "Bake for twelve minutes or until cookies are golden brown and remove immediately to cooling racks," you have to pay close attention to how long the cookies are actually taking to bake the way you like them. If you are unfamiliar with the recipe, begin by baking just a few cookies. Remove the sheet from the oven after the exactly recommended amount of baking time. Note how they smell. Touch them lightly. Try lifting one with your turner. If the cookies feel very soft, are obviously thick and not fully spread out, or do not smell as though they have yet begun to brown, you are probably safe returning them to the oven for another minute or two. Do not try lifting one until you are pretty sure it is done. If it crumbles or collapses, remove the evidence from the sheet and return the rest of the cookies to bake a bit longer.

Keep noticing how the cookies are smelling. If they smell distinctly done and you fear that they are going to over-bake before they seem to be ready to remove easily with a turner, let them sit on the sheet for a minute or two to set a bit before you try moving them. By the time you are ready to bake the second sheet, you will have a better idea of how long cookies of this size at the temperature you have set your oven will take to bake. This technique requires sampling of the product to assure that you are doing the job right. (One can always find excuses for tasting the product.)

If you have children to entertain or you like to hang Christmas cut-out cookies on the tree, you may want to try my spicy cut-out cookies. These are particularly tasty, decorate well, and freeze beautifully. When my three children were of an age to prefer going to the Christmas tree to select a cookie for dessert, I kept most of the cookies for the tree in the freezer, already strung with yarn loops for hanging. Then when the tree began to look a bit bare or someone could not find the shape cookie he or she wanted, we could restock with fresh cookies and keep staling to a minimum. Any sugar cookie recipe will do for this purpose, but I think this cookie is better than any other recipe I have tried.

Mikie's Christmas Cut-Out Cookies

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup dark molasses
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup buttermilk
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white vinegar

Method: Cream together with an electric mixer brown sugar, molasses, and shortening until mixture is light and well combined. Sift together (these days I usually just stir them together) the remaining dry ingredients. Alternately with buttermilk beat these into the sugar mixture. Half way through this process, add the vinegar. This seems to improve this dough's rollability. When dough is ready, you may wish to chill it for a few minutes to make it easier to handle. Roll all or part of the dough to about a quarter-inch thickness. Working from the edges in toward the center, press cookie cutters into dough. Carefully clear away dough between the edge of the cutter and the edge of the rolled dough. You can usually gently pick up the cut-out and transfer it to an ungreased cookie sheet. As you work, be sure you leave an inch or so between cookies to allow for expansion as they rise during baking.

Before sliding cookie sheets into a preheated 375-degree oven, make a little hole near the top of each cookie with the tip of a skewer or clean tapestry needle. The hole should be a bit larger than you will need to thread the yarn through, because as the cookie rises, it will decrease the size of the hole. Even if it closes up, you can usually slip a tapestry needle threaded with yarn through the place where the hole used to be. Organize the cookies so that larger ones are together; they will take longer to bake. These cookies take from ten to fifteen minutes.

Frosting holiday cookies is the part that children always remember with delight and parents usually with somewhat less enthusiasm. The simple truth is that for best color results you should try to have someone with enough vision to judge color decide when enough food coloring has been added. If you chill the food coloring, you can feel the drops more accurately, but I am never sure when I have added enough. Remember that children will always think that the colors should be darker than adults find appropriate.

I usually frost these cookies with confectionery sugar with about two tablespoons of softened margarine added to each cup of sugar. I stir with a fork to mix the two and then gradually add milk while continuing to stir until frosting is of spreading consistency. If you add too much milk, throw in a bit more sugar.

I divide the frosting into three bowls. I add red to one bowl and green to another. The third I leave white. I then assign one spatula to each bowl and locate them in different parts of the kitchen or table lined with newspapers covered by paper toweling. I divide the cookies, putting a stack beside each bowl. The children can move from bowl and spatula to bowl and spatula. The only rule is that no one can mix up the spatulas. This protects you a bit from frosting the cookies with mud-brown icing. Allow the cookies to dry thoroughly before tying on loops, stacking, and freezing any that are not consumed or given away immediately.

Yet no matter how efficient you are, baking cookies inevitably takes longer than making bar cookies, particularly if children are helping. Brownies are probably the all-time favorite bar cookie. I have probably made thousands of pans of brownies over the years. I occasionally try a new recipe, but I always come back to the one I found in the Better Homes and Gardens Dessert Cookbook forty years ago. Doubling it makes a thirteen-by-nine-inch panful. These brownies also freeze well if you by some miracle have any left over.


1 stick butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 1-ounce squares unsweetened baking chocolate
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped nuts, optional

Method: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat well with an electric mixer. When sugar has pretty well dissolved and mixture is very light, add eggs, beating well after each. Meanwhile melt chocolate in a glass measuring cup in microwave. When the eggs are well incorporated, add vanilla, then pour melted chocolate into mixture. Do not worry about cleaning out the cup. Pour the measured flour into the mostly empty chocolate cup. Stir it around with a fork or even your fingers. The chocolate will adhere to the flour. Using the flour to sop up the remaining melted chocolate, you can completely clean the glass cup and get every speck of chocolate into the brownies as you add the flour and beat batter until flour is completely incorporated; do not over-beat. (You can pour vanilla into a wide-mouth jar, and measure it accurately using a metal measuring spoon that you have bent to form a right angle. Dipping such a modified spoon into a pool of liquid enables you to measure the amount accurately. I usually pour directly from the bottle past my clean finger to estimate the amount required.)

Pour batter into a greased eight-by-eight-inch pan and bake for thirty-five minutes. Edges will begin to pull away from the pan when the brownies are done. The center should not quiver when the pan is gently shaken. Allow brownies to cool completely on rack before cutting and serving. If you are doubling this recipe, the baking time will be almost forty-five minutes.

One of the nicest and easiest holiday gifts you can give, assuming that you are already baking for your own family, is to make up small trays of holiday treats on decorative disposable plates. If you really want to impress the neighbors, add homemade chocolate truffles to your trays. These are even more spectacular than fudge, and they are incredibly easy to make, even if a bit messy. Here is my recipe:

Miss Whozit Truffles

1 cup heavy or whipping cream
1/2 cup Chambord or Grand Marnier
24 ounces German's sweet chocolate
1/2 cup unsalted butter

Method: Subdue the impulse to substitute lower-calorie or less expensive ingredients. In a heavy pan reduce the cream to one half cup. I let the cream boil hard for a few minutes. When I think it may be reduced by half, I place a half-cup measuring cup in the center of a high-sided cookie sheet or jelly roll pan. I slowly and carefully pour the cream into the cup, trying to stop pouring just as the liquid reaches the top of the cup. If a little overflows, I can pour it back into the pan from the tray, which is going to hold the finished truffles. Assuming that I stop in time, I can then cautiously check with a quickly moving finger to see if cream is still collected at the bottom edge of the tipped pan. If it is, I pour the half cup of cream back into the pan and continue boiling it until I have just a half cup. If you go a bit too far, you can dribble a bit of water into the cup to make up the volume. After all, boiling is done only to drive off water from the cream. But watch the process carefully. I have managed to let the pan boil dry. This is not a good idea.

When the cream has been reduced, drop the heat to low and add the liqueur and break the chocolate into the pan. Whisk gently till the mixture is smooth. Then whisk in the butter. When mixture is homogeneous, pour it into the waiting, large, flat pan to cool completely. When it is room temperature, refrigerate it until it is firm.

Using a teaspoon, scoop up amounts the size of the truffles you wish to make and quickly form the truffles into rough balls. They will begin to melt almost as soon as you touch them, so don't worry about getting them smooth. Return them to the refrigerator to chill until firm again. Line a container with waxed paper or plastic wrap. Working quickly with small groups of truffles, smooth each truffle into a ball and roll in cocoa. Place each in the container. You may have to return everything to the fridge several times to chill again before you finish this process. But when you are done, you will have a collection of incredibly rich candies to tuck among your brownies and cookies.

I could go on for hours describing the recipes I give as gifts in holiday seasons. I have not mentioned the Swedish coffee bread or sticky buns or German stollen that our friends and neighbors look forward to each year. With great restraint I have resisted writing out the recipe for white fruitcake with brandy that I give the Maurers and Mrs. Jernigan each Thanksgiving. This moist, fragrant cake filled with fruit and nuts bears no resemblance to the dry, cardboardy confection that gives fruitcake such a bad name.

Whoever you are and whatever you bake, I hope that your holiday season this year is filled with good cheer, good company, and good food.