My colleague Irene‘s most recent post, ‘Tis the [crafting] season, reminded me of my long abandoned first and only knitting project. My goal this year is to give gifts I’ve made, and the idea of hand knit gifts appeals. Should I buy a new pair of needles and begin again? The First Floor offers a program twice a month called Carnegie Knits and Reads, where I could practice the art of knitting. But the gift giving season is near, and I’d likely be frustrated if I began a project now.
Instead I’ll rely on a skill I’ve been practicing since I stood on a chair to reach the kitchen counter, and that’s baking. Pies, cakes, and cookies make wonderful gifts, though cookies are easiest to wrap. Besides being homemade, these goodies meet another of my goals for gifts this year. They’re consumable. Cookies can answer the question, “What can I give the person who has everything?” (Or the person who declares “no gifts!”) As one terrific baker and cookbook author puts it, “There isn’t a gift that is more appreciated than a home-baked one.”
That author is Rose Levy Beranbaum. She penned two of my favorite, most frequently consulted cookbooks: The Cake Bible, and Rose’s Christmas Cookies.
Her first best seller, The Cake Bible, was published in 1988. Offering unusual combinations of ingredients (such as chocolate chiffon cake made with walnut oil), the recipes are detailed and meticulous. The book’s highly organized layout would meet the exacting standards of any librarian. According to the New York Times review titled “A Cake Wizard Brings Out a Book of Magic,” “Another long-term goal of Mrs. Beranbaum’s was to make cakes and desserts less sweet, trying to lower the amount of sugar without ruining the recipe.” Don’t think this collection is for dieters, though. Ms. Beranbaum says, “You don’t have a dessert to improve your blood chemistry.” She knows her baking chemistry. At New York University she spent seven years at night school, studying food science and culinary arts, and earned a B.S. and M.A. What she achieves in The Cake Bible is an ideal balance of art and science, resulting in cakes both delicious, beautiful, and foolproof.
When it was issued in 1990, I bought a copy of Rose’s Christmas Cookies, delighted that this title follows the same organizational scheme as The Cake Bible, and yields equally yummy results. I’ll consult Rose’s Christmas Cookies this year to bake a variety of cookie gifts, focusing on the chapters “Cookies for Giving” and “Cookies for Sending.” (For your friend whose family includes a dog, bake a batch of bone cookies from Rose’s Christmas Cookies, page 78.)
While preparing this post, I discovered Ms. Beranbaum’s blog. Her post, “Why ‘Real’ Baking”, explains why baking from scratch is preferable to using a mix, and includes reassuring tips for beginning bakers.
The blog’s content is serious, the tone lighthearted: “i’m jewish, i write bibles, and i still don’t use kosher salt in baking!” In her 2006 holiday message, regarding a fellow baker who was planning the world’s largest chocolate menorah for Hanukah, Ms. Beranbaum wrote:
The spirit of this gift touches my heart because it follows a very beautiful tradition of embracing other people’s spiritual beliefs. Did you know that the most powerful Jewish liturgical music, the Kol Nidre, was written by the musician and Protestant minister Max Bruch as a gift to the Jewish community in England? I wrote my book “Rose’s Christmas Cookies,” in this same spirit and was rewarded by it becoming a classic, still beloved by many after 15 years. My editor, at first, doubted the wisdom of my writing it, but admitted later that she had been mistaken. And what was one of the truly most gratifying moments of my professional life was when a reviewer in Rhode Island wrote that the introduction contained the most moving prose on Christmas ever to be written. I still get the chills even as I write this.
As I bake for friends and family, I’ll hide a tin of cookies in the freezer, and look forward to letting one thaw while I steep a mid-winter pot of tea.