Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thinking outside the tin

Not since Katharine Hepburn attempted waffles in Woman of the Year has a career gal in the kitchen been as hilarious as your Miss Bender committed to a Holiday Cookie Exchange.

There are two key factors in how this scene came about:
1) the lengths I am willing to go to expand my social sphere, and
2) not knowing what a Cookie Exchange was.

That is, I thought I knew what one was, because I have a creative mind and I can visualize a lot of detail based on very little input. I knew that this was a Ladies w/Home Crafts event, and very far outside my element, but I thought it was ladies in holiday sweaters getting together to make cookies and everyone would take home their party favor bag of a share of the cookies. Like Jam Grannies, or a Brunswick Stew.

I know my role in these scenes is of the helper monkey: washing dishes, fawning over the host like her maid of honor, and making witty repartee with strangers who have not yet heard my double album.

You are already laughing because you know what a Cookie Exchange is, and for those reasons have never thought to invite me to one. You know Miss Bender has life skills, not home skills – she does not own a cookie sheet, a microwave, a Kitchen Aid. She never has “extra” flour. She uses her 9 inch cake pans to broil hot dogs. Because who could eat an entire cake?

And if you think I had 12 cookie tins or anything resembling them, you are reading the wrong friend’s blog.

To make 12 dozen cleverly designed and packaged cookies was going to require some real project planning, and I was grateful to be unemployed. I already had a deliverable in 2 days because the recipes were due to the Hostess so she could make a cunning souvenir recipe book memento. So any plan I had for “add Grape Nuts to Toll House batter” was off the table (that is delicious, by the way).

I went for the simplest no-bake recipe I could vouch for, which was the Oreo Balls I discovered just a few days before at Susie’s annual bash (shout out, Callahans!). You can find this recipe easily online. It is Oreos and cream cheese, coated in your choice of fondant (Martha Stewart’s word for melted baking chips).

Also immediately required was a run to Christmas Tree Shops for packaging. This was Tuesday – Delivery -6 days. CTS was pretty well picked over. I toyed with a basket idea for a few minutes, but eventually found enough of the right sized tins for about 50 cents less per piece. 100% complete.

The project manager knows there are 3 elements to weigh: schedule, scope, and resources, but hidden surprise always comes in the form of Level of Effort. This was variable X. So I had a practice run.

Here is the schedule breakdown: Friday – trial batch, Saturday – trial tasting, Sunday – project execution, Monday – delivery. All Finish-to-Start; there is no lag time. In case you would like to follow along.

Scope: There is some algebra involved here:
if (1) test dozen takes X minutes from start to finish, Final batch = 12x with some factor of “learning curve” I do not know how to express. But I need a gross of Oreo Balls in equal numbers white chocolate and peanut butter coating. I do not know how many defects to expect per dozen or what will constitute a defect. Because of course there are limited….

I chose a no-bake recipe so I wouldn’t have to buy cookie sheets. I do have 2 hand-mixers (somewhere…) and I figure I can fake the rest.
Step One: crush 4 bags of Oreos. Oh.
Greatest of All Sisters says put them in a gallon Ziploc bag and crush them with a rolling pin. “Oh,” I say,” with my rolling pin? What else ya got?”
“You have a hammer?” she says. No flies on her. And she knows me so well.

I begin hand-crushing cookies (with my impeccably gloved hands, because of course I have latex gloves but not a Cuisanart) into a bowl that is clearly too shallow for this purpose. Where do I have a less shallow bowl? The biscuit bowl (hell yes, I make biscuit – Bisquik, fork, milk, bowl, same cake pan everything else is cooked on)? Still too shallow. How about the bowl that all the dishtowels sit in? Dump the towels out right where they are and transfer cookie crumbs again. Look for something heavy to crush them with. Consider the smoothie maker for 2 seconds. Go back to what you were doing.

So you mix the cream cheese with Oreos until it is smooth. This takes approximately 19 hours.
If you do not have this kind of time, start planning a shift in resources.

I realize I had forgotten the Crisco last time I made this bizarre grocery run (this is the kind of sudden shift in buying habits that you think would trigger a call from American Express, but not in December, kids) so I have to go back out anyway. The Crisco is for the candy coating, to give it that Entenmanns-style sheen, and probably has a scientific property you can explain in the Comments section.

When I got back to the store, I remembered why I forgot it the first time: who knows why it isn’t with flour, sugar, and those ball-bearing decorations. Crisco is filed under dressings and oils. But you knew that, didn’t you? The smallest possible quantity you can buy are these “sticks,” packaged like butter, but you have to buy 3 of them. You probably knew that too. I don’t get out much.

Did you also know rolling pins are $20? I found a flimsy one for $5 and decided if it lived through the event, it had served its purpose. The $20 pin would just be sad and lonely in the pantry, whispering to the sugar packets, who would reassure it, “Sometimes people come over..you’ll see.” The tea bags snort and roll their eyes.

The recipe doesn’t mention this, but between each step, you’ll want to wipe down the counters, yourself, any family heirlooms which will be covered in cookie dust.

What flavor is Oreo, really? It’s not really chocolate, but a uniquely smoky chocklity Starbucks bean taste they might have used as a password in WWII. “Advance and be recognized! What is this flavor, soldier?” (chews thoughtfully) “Is it… molasses…doc?” BLAM.

Balling the Oreo takes some effort (and is funny to say). You can make them any size you like, but I recommend somewhere between superball and cordial cherry. An entire bag of cookies does not make as many meatball sized cookies as you would like, but if you cut them down about 2/3 that size, you can get about 80 out of a batch (1 bag cookies + 1 tub cream cheese). The whipped cream cheese is easier to work with and makes for a lighter cookie. Not that anyone will notice after they have had 5 too quickly in succession. One Oreo is my limit before I feel sick, so I had no trouble surrounding myself with piles of them. I do not suggest that Yankee Candle consider this as a scent.

If you have little kids, this is a great activity for them, because the oven is not involved, and it is just crushing things and making balls of dough. You are going to make as big a mess as they are, so you have nothing to lose.

Coating them is where things get very tricky and you are glad you are working a practice batch.  Remember the missing N=defects per dozen? Turns out…N= 12, until you figure out what you are doing. There is a tool for this step. It is called a candy dipper, and no there is not one in my house. Or a double boiler, or (as we have established) a microwave. So I am melting white chocolate chips and shortening in a bowl inside a saucepan and working on an acme schema of a Paas egg dipper fashioned from the twist ties that came with the vegetable tongs I bought.

I started with the tongs. But they are vegetable tongs, so they have little teeth like an oyster fork and keep tearing off bits of cookie-ball which is rapidly softening in the hot coating.  When I release the tongs to set down the ball, hunks of cookie come with it, and the coating pools (buckets, really) on the parchment, going to waste.

I have wooden kabob skewers, which I have moved twice and don’t recall the origin of. These work well for dipping, fondue like, but I can’t get the ball deep enough to coat it completely, and the skewer leaves a suspicious-looking hole behind, which the coating does not hide. I need a deeper vessel, as it were, so for a few rounds I try ladling up some melted stuff and using that to dip into. It doesn’t help much.

Ladling extra stuff over the ball like they do at the factory just makes a gloppy horror and wastes more precious choco-chips. I am about to go for the handmade wire dipper, when I open the second silverware drawer and find a pastry bag. New, mint-in-package, with coupler and tip. Only the Lord could have put that there. After I ruined it by clipping the bag too high on the first cut, that went right back into the drawer to be reabsorbed into the Cosmos.

I decide to try a spoon. A spoon. Huh.
And with a little patience, wrist action, and constant chilling of uncoated balls, this works. The peanut butter batch comes out looking much more appetizing than the cream-coated ones, but those have a fat base of dripped coating around each one, so they have their own appeal.

To build cushion into Sunday’s program, I pre-crush the rest of the cookies. This is wonderfully satisfying.

Risk factor introduced:
Heavy snowfall expected Saturday overnight through Sunday, and I need to add a mitigation task of an additional grocery run before the storm. This has to be fit somewhere in a day that already includes 90 mins at the radio station, and a drive to and from Surly Acres for Saturday’s party (3hrs total travel plus 2 hours party time - because the storm is expected to begin around 7 in Massachusetts. Never doubt that I am very very good at program planning).

So I go to the radio gig, grocery on the way back to the house, where I package up the test batches (nothing fancy required – clever plating will occur at the destination) and load a few snow supplies into the trunk in case there has been an uncontrollable miscalculation (this means you, NECN’s Joe Joyce).

At the test-tasting, Dr A and JB’s party, they are declared “evil.” I take this as a good sign.
Did I mention that the Cookie Exchange also has a “best in show” competitive edge? I got advance notice that the judges are our Hostess’ teenaged sons. This bodes well for me.

Sunday. Critical path day with no room for error. The snow is in freefall, so the supplies we have are the supplies we will use. Pot of coffee is made, cream cheese is set to room temp, a few Christmas cards, a phone call, and we are off.

We are almost at 2000 words. Is the suspense killing you?

The mixing and balling did take several hours, but I took it in intervals so things could chill and rest and I could remove CTS price tags from all the tins, eat some chicken soup, sit on hold with DUA.

Now, as far as coating these morsels… get a microwave. Otherwise, dial-up all your unplayed episodes of "Fresh Air" and settle in for a very long night.

Once I can reduce a task like this to its simple mechanics, I can achieve near flawless execution (or cover for them. Never watch me type). I will spare you that post. It identifies too closely the magnifying glass through which I view the world.

Monday night arrives and I have miscalculated the drive time, having forgotten that no one got to shop during Sunday's snowstorm, it is now rush hour, and I may be (horrors) late.  Cooler gods prevail and I arrive within the appropriate 15 minute window, bag of tins at the ready.  The exchange table is already adorned with colorful cellophane and ribbons, square reindeer plates and more charming tins than mine (that actually match each other), and I promise you 12 of these little fabric ornament boxes with "from the kitchen of" labels.

I know that I have lost on presentation, but even the fabric boxes would be defeated moments later by 12 handmade Vera Bradley type quilted bags perfectly sized to house 1 dozen Walnut cookies.

But I got the Oreos....

The judging was undertaken in the dining room with gusto, managed by 3 or 10 teenage boys (I can never count how many teenaged boys are in a room) and 2 husbands.  There were scoresheets, a ranking system, a little bit of recounting.  I was in the kitchen party, with the hostesses college roommates, learning stories she would prefer I hadn't, so I missed learning I had come in 2nd. 

Well, 2nd is pretty good, and the fruit tarts I bowed to were very yummy (I am always more pie than cake myself).  I did score Rookie of the Year and held my own.  There were no prizes anyway.  This is why I love this woman -- mostly for the dismissive way she responded to the question "what is the prize?"

To summarize:  3 ingredients, a thousand tools, a kitchen covered in goo, but a better conversation-starter than hot wings that the fellas like even more.

DrawingIn goes on hiatus again through the holiday.  But don't let that stop you from clicking and commenting.  it is nice to come home to.


  1. My favorite post since that "I'm thinking of you" post. Laughing in my office -- a great break from grading.

    Dr. A.

  2. Brava! Tour de force! Up with with Cheez-it post! I couldn't stop laughing at how artfully your layered in the scope of your world, down to Terry Gross. Genius!

    The the vera-bradley-fabric-boxed-from-the-kitchen-of-labels seriously made me howl.

    Stunning account of the annals of non-baked cookie making!


  3. Ms. Bender,

    I am sorely distressed to learn that your dear mother has so neglected your early education in such a way that neither you nor the Greatest of Sisters knew that the universal substitute for a rolling pin is..... (drumroll, please).... a bottle of wine. It works best if full at the beginning and empty at the end. If you were going to spend $5, you should have gotten a sale bottle! Merry Christmas!

  4. The Baroness bestows upon you the title of "most awesome read" all day long. Rolling pins are over-rated. Go with the wine.

  5. cool. I may do this just so I can make my Facebook status be "...is balling the Oreos."

  6. For next year...please be advised that the large craft stores like AC Moore and Michael's have inexpensive candy boxes of varying sizes that are much less expensive than tins. You can buy plain or decorated in seasonal themes throughout the year. Congrats on the first cookie swap and your fabulous second-place prize!


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