The complicated road to simplicity

By Michele Grgas Thomas The Triplicate December 22, 2010 07:59 pm

Our Christmas tree carries a reminder this season. The Daily Triplicate/Michele Thomas
Our Christmas tree carries a reminder this season. The Daily Triplicate/Michele Thomas
Years ago I began a tradition of baking cookies almost every night from Thanksgiving until Christmas. I depended on my three trusty cookbooks (Better Homes and Garden that Mom handed down, plus Fannie Farmer and the New York Times cookbooks that were wedding shower gifts) and I found a different cookie recipe to bake each night. I sampled some but froze most so that by Christmas I had tons of cookies to give away or serve when holiday guests showed up.

I was an adventurous cookie baker, enjoying the challenge of each new recipe. I even bought a cookie press so I could make spritz and collected holiday cookie cutters in all shapes and sizes.

And I learned to make the traditional Croatian cookies my mother and grandmother made: biscotti and the crescent moons and the hrustule (thin strips of dough tied in knots and deep fried then coated in powdered sugar) as well as my father’s psurate that resembled donut holes but were filled with raisins and nuts, seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg and, like all good Croatian cookies, had whiskey in them.

Cookies filled my freezer but the more I made the more I wanted to make. Eventually I came to own probably two hundred cookbooks plus cooking magazines – purchased from thrift shops, garage sales, book stores and Web sites - with pages marked for cookie recipes past, present and future.

But this year, I never quite got started with my cookie baking. I told myself I was done with cookies and it was time to move on to something new. Cupcakes! Cupcakes are in. Cupcakes are cool. We don’t see them here, but in larger cities cupcake bakeries are a big thing. The first one, Sprinkles, opened in Beverly Hills in 2005. Soon it became trendy to send cupcakes (instead of flowers) to a friend or even have a cupcake wedding cake.

Once I shifted gears and started thinking cupcakes, I got excited. No multiple cookie sheets, no cutting parchment paper liners, no careful packing and freezing, no decorating and arranging. How hard could baking a few cupcakes be?

Like my Christmas tree, a 25-inch high potted pine, gift making from my kitchen this year would scream “simplify.” Cupcake baking could be accomplished in one day instead of countless nights and weekends. How simple is that?

I took Monday off work to start and complete my project.

I chose a Martha Stewart recipe. I creamed unsalted butter and baker’s sugar until they were light and fluffy; I sifted cake flour and chopped pecans; I measured Madagascar vanilla and Vietnamese cinnamon.

Martha’s recipe made two dozen regular cupcakes. I bought mini cupcake pans because I thought they would make cuter gifts. I did the math: one recipe would make 48 minis, I assumed. Wrong.

It made 84 cupcakes. It took me most of the afternoon to oh-so-carefully spoon batter into tiny decorative mini cupcake liners and then bake several batches. The baking time was long enough to make it tedious, but too short to get anything done while the little cakes were baking. And then after they all cooled off, I had to frost 84 times. And with a shelf life of only three days, there was little time to figure out how and when my little cakes would find homes, not to mention that they’d be stale by Christmas.

So, friends, I confess I’ve had to fall back on what I do best: cookies. I whipped up a batch of biscotti and some chocolate refrigerator cookie dough Monday night after the cupcake fiasco. Tuesday night I made Cashew Meringues from a 2001 Sunset magazine recipe I’ve always wanted to try. I’m working on more tonight. The freezer won’t be full but I should be in pretty good shape by Friday.

Here’s my simple wish: May your holidays be uncomplicated and rich with the traditions that make you happy.

Reach Michele Thomas, The Daily Triplicate’s publisher, at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it , 464-2141, or stop by 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.