Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Christmas Cookie Adventure

My friend Ashley is one of the best people I know for those times when you really need to let loose and have some fun.  We're well-suited to each other, too, as we're both introverted animal people with minimal energy for maintaining friendships.  We can ignore each other for months, then hook up to hang out for a night of shenanigans and be perfectly fine with the arrangement.  She's also a fellow rat lover.  It's just a good fit. 

Anyway, Ashley invited me over to bake some Christmas cookies yesterday.  Seeing as how I've been so busy for weeks (and can barely remember what day it is most of the time), this seemed like an excellent chance to escape the daily grind.  It also seemed like a good opportunity to bake some cookies for a cookie exchange I'd agreed to participate in. 

So, eager and excited, I packed up a few ingredients I wanted to experiment with (including a tupperware of frozen pumpkin I'd pureed myself) and headed down to her house. 

It didn't start so bad....

We spent a while catching up.  I said hi to her dogs, then went back to the rat room to meet her new acquisitions and admire her Critter Nation cage.  We discussed strategies for socializing her terrified new rescue.  By the time we were done with this, we returned to the kitchen to see that her husband (who's much more practical than the rest of us) had already started on the cookies.  No worries.  We'd just have a nice drink and relax until he was done. 

So Ashley mixed me up a hot cider with Goldschlager and caramel vodka, and it was the most divine thing I'd ever had.  So good, in fact, that I needed a second one.  And a hot chocolate with the same treatment. 

By this point, I was feeling quite a lot of Christmas cheer.  So I settled in to start experimenting with my pumpkin. 

Things started to go sideways here. 

Upon adding flour, sugar, pumpkin and egg, the resulting mixture looked (not unsurprisingly) rather like cake batter.  Dismayed, but not to be discouraged, I added....more flour.  (In hindsight, it occurs to me that maybe I should have opted for something less glutinous.  Oats, perhaps.  Or dry cereal)

The cake batter was now beginning to look an awful lot like very loose bread dough.

"No worries!" I say, feeling rather confident.  "It'll be great.  I'll just take it, and chill the dough.  That'll make it firm right up!"

So I roll it up in parchment paper (there was no plastic wrap) and (after almost dropping the entire droopy log) manage to wrestle it into the refrigerator.  Ashley, meanwhile, was rooting through the liquor cabinet. 

"Have you ever had whipped cream vodka?"  She asked, drawing out a bottle and a glass that was most definitely not a shot glass.  "Here, try this!"

The Christmas Cheer kept spreading. 

I decided, on a whim, that the ever-spreading log of amorphous dough in the refrigerator should be turned into a pinwheel.  Stuffed with cream cheese frosting.  It'd be delicious! 

(somewhere in the back of my mind, a quiet voice is saying, "I don't think that's exactly how those are made...." but I summarily quiet it)

Pulling out a chunk of fridge-cold cream cheese, powdered sugar, and a fork, I set myself to the task of making frosting.  Ashley, meanwhile, is mixing butter-cream for the sugar cookies with her hand-mixer. 

"I'm really not sure why I'm using a fork for this," I said, looking over enviously at her creamy frosting. 

She graciously offers the mixer, although she has some misgivings: "I'm not sure your bowl is big enough for this." 

"It'll be fine!" I say, confidently, as I drop the spinning mixers into a small bowl mounded high with powdered sugar and chunks of cream cheese. 

Predictably, this does not go well. 

Ashley helps me pick up chunks of cream cheese from the counter.  I dust the powder from my shirt and return humbly to fork-mashing.  When this fails to provide me with the results I desire, I pour in some milk.  That helps with making it mixable, but does little to alleviate the lumpiness of the cream cheese. 

"We also have this," Ashley offers, looking a little hesitant and holding out an old-fashioned crank mixer. 

I decide to try this.  The mixer will spin, but only for two revolutions before coming to a stop.  I can't figure out if the frosting-concoction is too thick or if the mixer just doesn't work.  I say as much to Ashley as I hand it back to her in defeat. 

"It probably doesn't work," she says, holding it upside down and examining it.  "That's probably why you gave it to me in the first place when you moved." 

She cranks the handle experimentally and the beaters spring to life, spinning fiercely -- and splattering her, point blank, with a flying spittle of icing. 

This is nearly too much for me.  I'm laughing so hard by this point that my hands are shaking and tears are streaming down my cheeks.  My belly hurts.  My legs are trembling.  I head to the fridge and steady myself by cracking open a beer. 

Once I've recovered somewhat (and made significant headway on the beer), I decide to remove my log of pumpkin dough from the fridge.  I try to unroll it.  The parchment paper sticks, leaving me to peel it off in chunks, losing a fair amount of sticky dough in the process.

(again, that niggling voice in the back of my head insists that this is really not going well)

I flour my work surface and spread out the dough.  It rolls beautifully, smooth and elastic.  I spread it with the "icing" -- a liquidy, semi-transparent white soup dotted with mysterious white gobs. 

I attempt to roll it up.  It sticks to the table, making the rolling a challenge.  As I roll, the dough stretches and sags.  Icing oozes out of the middle.  I try to stem the flow by folding in the ends, like a burrito.  I try rolling it up from the bottom.

Once it's sealed, I look around for some way to lift it over onto the baking pan.  I try a spatula.  It's far too big for that.  Finally, I'm stuck with lifting it with my hands -- awkwardly, as it's drooping in the middle -- and chucking it as quickly as I can onto the pan.

We both look at it uncertainly.

"Maybe it will still taste good," I say.

"This is going on Facebook," she tells me, snapping photos.

Nailed it. 

 I grab another beer and head into the living room to nurse my shame. 

To its credit, my pumpkin-bread-phallus experiment actually tasted fine.  Not like a cookie, a cake, or a cheesecake pinwheel, of course, but serviceable.  Pumpkin-ey.  The texture, however, left something to be desired: A hard, bread-like outer crust containing a gooey, semi-baked lump of pumpkiney goo in the middle. 

"Okay," I admit, finally, as I deviously spread more "frosting" over the bottom half in a particularly NSFW way, "Maybe I need to make something else for my cookie exchange."  

(The rats (in her household and mine) thoroughly enjoyed it, though) 

Happy Holidays, kids (and try to drink the goldschlager after the baking is finished)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Holiday Spirit

I can't believe I'm a week into December already!  I've been so busy that things are passing in a blur.  After a long dry spell, I have more work right now than I can handle.  This is certainly a good problem to have, but it is a bit stressful, and it sometimes feels like I'm doing my best just to tread water.  So, apologies for falling off the face of the planet recently!

In-between "so busy I can barely think" and "hibernating through having the flu," I've also spent this last week or so being thoroughly invigorated by holiday spirit.  I can't wholly explain this.  As an atheist and non-consumer, I rarely get swept up in all the holiday hype.  And yet, here it is...a little glimmer of warmth in my heart that is undeniably part of the "magic" of Christmas. 

Maybe I've just been watching too many Christmas movies.  My main computer has been in the shop since Friday, so I've spent the weekend on the couch with my laptop, playing every Christmas movie I have for background noise.  After systematically working my way through National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, The Grinch, Scrooged, Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, it's hard not to feel some peace on earth and good will toward men. 

But I think it goes a little deeper than that.  Actually, I can think back and pinpoint the exact moment when I got infected with this holiday cheer. 

I spent Thanksgiving with my parents and one of my brothers.  The holiday itself was quiet and low-key, just how we like our holidays in our family.  But after Thanksgiving, I went with my mom on a quest to buy some luminarias for her house -- and along the way, I stopped off at a Walgreens to pick up antacids for my partner.  They had a Toys for Tots donation box, and I had a bit of money in my pocket, and I suddenly had the urge to drop something in. 

So I picked out a stuffed raccoon from the shelf -- a very cute toy, and one I couldn't help but cuddle a little before I bought it and dropped it in the box.  And somehow, the tiny act of buying a $10 stuffed toy for an anonymous child, caused something deep inside of me to waken and stir. 

Holidays and the Spirit of Giving

The next time you start to feel miserable and overwhelmed by the wanton cruelty and greed int he world, here's a factthat should cheer you up: According to science, human beings (as all social animals) are actually genetically hardwired for giving.  Being generous is actually in our DNA.  Which would explain, perhaps, why every major religion values compassion and generosity.  And it's probably why even a cynical atheist like me gets the warm fuzzies from the simplest acts of kindness. 

It's my belief that empathy is at the very core of what makes us human.  Our ability to recognize others and realize, "They have feelings just like me!" is the glue that makes all of our social interactions work.  We choose not to hurt people because we ourselves do not want to be hurt.  This is, I think, why storytelling is so important: By learning to care about fictional people, we build the emotional tools necessary to deal with real ones.  By telling monomyths, we create cultural markers that we can all gather around and celebrate. 

Holidays are one of those cultural markets.  We need them because we are creatures of superstition and ceremony.  We need rituals and talismans.  We need magic.  We need an excuse to celebrate so that we can remind ourselves that the long night will come to an end and all will not be cold and darkness forever. 

My Season of Giving

My partner is more naturally inclined to random acts of kindness than I am.  He has a big, loving heart and he can't stand to see people suffer.  He also has no guile or mouth filter; he says exactly what's on his mind and is perennially unembarrassed about being himself.  Where my social anxieties might hold me back from reaching out, he just steps in and lets his heart guide him right through his life. 

I really respect that about him.  So I try to follow his lead, as best I can. 

Yesterday, we went out to pick up some lunch at a local Vietnamese restaurant.  A man outside asked if we could spare some change so he could get some food.  Instead of turning him down or digging for loose change, David invited him to come inside and eat lunch with us.  We bought him some food (enough for two meals - he took some to go for that evening) and had a nice chat about his life and circumstances.  We connected like humans. 

For me, it fed that glowing warmth in me, that Christmas spirit that's been building all week.  For David, it was just what a decent human being is supposed to do. 

If you've never tried it, I urge you to go out tomorrow and do something kind for a stranger.  It doesn't have to be a big thing: Pay for the person behind you in line, tip generously, help an old lady load groceries in her car.  Just reach out to another human, and see what happens.  You never know...even atheists can get a little Christmas miracle sometimes ;) 

And a Bit of Housekeeping...

Tagestraum is still slated to be ready around Christmas, if things go according to plan, and I'm still very excited for it. 

I also have a very special Christmas story planned for all of my newsletter subscribers.  If you want to get it, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter before Christmas!  The link is over there ===>