Despite all of my efforts to avoid the Stress of the Season, I have been walking around with a stiff neck for a couple of weeks. The house has been totally decorated since Thanksgiving. All of the gifts have been purchased. We've already celebrated Christmas with Alan's family. As of yesterday, 97% of the remaining gifts have been wrapped. The stocking stuffers are tucked away in a totally new hiding place that the boys will never think to look. (I mean it boys. Don't even try. This year I will win.)
This morning, I once again awoke bright and early with a tightness in the back of my neck so clenching that as I wandered out of my sleepy stupor, I did a mental check of my overall physical condition. Heart beating normally? Check! Arms and legs moving? Check! How many fingers am I holding up? None! Co-rect! It's not a finger! It's a thumb! According to my unscientific self-exam, I deemed myself to be pretty much alive and well. Except for the nagging stiff neck that follows me wherever I go.
Perhaps this morning the stiffness was brought on by the first thought that entered my mind - a favorite holiday tradition that has been in my family for probably 50 years. It "wouldn't be Christmas" without them. Recently when each son was independently asked to name his favorite Christmas goodie, all three immediately said the same thing with much enthusiasm: Mimi's Christmas Tree Cookies! Actually, they each called them by different "names." "Those little cookies that you make with that thing." "The little cookies that look like trees. Not the big sugar cookies. The ones that are about 2" big that you ice with green icing." "Those ones that Mimi used to make." (Yup. "Those ones." Thank you very much Baylor University.)
I tried to steer them in another direction.
"What about the yummy ginger cookies you guys like so much? The ones that are sooo good with hot chocolate!"
"Yeah. Make those, too!"
"What about the big decorated sugar cookies that have a pound of butter in the dough?"
"Some of those, too!!"
They were firm on their requests for the cookie that I consider to be the season's biggest pain in the neck. Thus, this morning's inability to look to the left or right without turning my whole torso.
Way back before most of us were born, the Mirro Aluminum Company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin (inventors of the wondrous, time-saving Mirro-Matic Pressure Pan) came up with a nifty little kitchen gadget that became a must-have in the well-appointed 50's kitchen: The "Cooky"-Pastry Press. (I compliment the people in the name branding department of the Mirro Aluminum Company for exercising great restraint by not adding "O-Matic" to the name as was common in those days of new-fangled kitchen gizmos.)
Using her very own Mirro Cooky-Pastry Press, my mom used to crank out dozens of perfect little Christmas trees the week before Christmas which she then carefully decorated with green royal icing sprinkled with tiny multi-colored nonpareils sprinkles. The Mirro spritz cookie recipe, with its hint of almond extract, produced a light, crisp, melt-in-your-mouth morsel of a cookie which I must confess is my all time favorite Christmas cookie.
Alas and alack, try as I might...cry as I might...I cannot recreate those delectable little trees for love nor money. During the early years of my Christmas baking, I purchased a "knock off" cookie press thinking that all cookie presses were created equal. Soon the "lesser cousin" press went flying into the dumpster. I then upgraded to a more expensive electric model. I thought that the addition of electricity would counteract most or all of my human error. Again, to the dumpster. Trolling through estate sales, I found an old Mirro cookie press identical to Mimi's. "Aha!" I thought, "Now, I can master the spritz cookie!" Not so much.
There are many "variables" involved in creating the perfectly shaped Christmas tree cookie using a Mirro Cooky-Pastry Press. You mustn't overfill the tube with dough. You mustn't "over-rotate" the knob when extruding the dough. Over-rotated cookies become large nondescript blobs in a 325 degree oven. You mustn't "under-rotate" the knob. The "boughs" of the under-rotated cookie do not properly adhere to one another in the oven creating trees that easily lose limbs during the icing process. Be warned that sometimes the cookie press mocks the baker by failing to release the occasional perfectly formed cookie onto the cookie sheet.
Mimi's advice? "You've got to get the dough just right." I've tried moist dough. Dryish dough. Room temperature dough. Chilled dough. I've spoken certain words over the press as I've tried to coax it into submission. Words like "please make pretty little trees" and "I'm begging you...don't make me look stupid" and "#$%&$*&!" During my days of struggling with carpal tunnel syndrome, the cookie press added pain to my humiliation. Alan has actually stepped in between me and my press to end the war of wills. I'm certain that his analytical banking executive brain was thinking "How hard can this be?" Fortunately, he has held these thoughts close to his heart saving me the trouble of having to find something to hit him with. I finally decided that no matter how blobby or limb-less the cookies turned out, I would cosmetically ice them to resemble trees. I didn't win the battle. I simply established a rather one-sided truce.
Last night during our phone call to Jonathan, Alan saw panic light up in my eyes when Jonathan mentioned that Christmas Tree Cookies were his all-time favorite holiday cookies. Later my sweet husband has assured me that he will be in charge of making the dough and pressing the cookies this year. I, in turn, will be in charge of my specialty, cosmetic decoration.
We went skiing in Beaver Creek last Christmas. I loaded the Suburban with decorated sugar cookies, heart-shaped ginger cookies, Chex Mix and chocolate covered pretzels. Hoping the boys wouldn't notice the absence of Mimi's spritz trees, I threw in some good old chocolate chip cookies. I had decided not to let one little cookie press come between me, my mental health, and the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
Low and behold, as we unpacked our ski paraphernalia upon our arrival in Beaver Creek, my little 83 year old, legally blind mother came strolling out of her room bearing an ancient Collin Street Bakery fruitcake tin. "Look what I brought!" she exclaimed, eyes bright and shining. "Oh, no. Here it comes. She's gone and tried a new cookie recipe that she got from a friend's cousin's daughter who uses 'pudding in the mix' cake mixes to create a myriad of various cookies, or she experimented with making some sort of cookie bar with creative substitutions for ingredients that she forgot to buy when Waco Transit took her to the store," I thought.
Opening the tin I gasped out loud when I saw that it was full of near perfect little Christmas trees. The Meems (so dubbed by Bryce) grinned from ear to ear as she exclaimed, "Surprise!" I stood before my mother - humbled and amazed. She is still the Christmas Tree Cookie Queen. The Keebler elves and I bow before her.
For more information on the fascinating history of the Mirro Aluminum Company of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, please visit: