Around the bend: Putting on a festive face — gingerly

Every year at about this time, I get the urge to put on a red-and-green apron, crank up the Christmas music, and bake cookies. The warmth of the oven, the aroma of cinnamon wafting through the house, the thought of sharing homemade treats with loved ones — it all puts me in a holiday mood.

Unfortunately, it’s usually a bad mood.

Despite my good intentions, baking cookies leaves me stressed out. I end up with flour in my hair and misdirected feelings of animosity toward Burl Ives, Bing Crosby and yes, even Jimmy Stewart.

I blame holiday cheer. It fools me into thinking I can handle anything as long as there are chestnuts roasting and silver bells ringing. I fall for it every year.

Once, for instance, I caught an episode of the highly fictionalized TV show “Martha Stewart,” in which a special guest came on to demonstrate how to decorate gingerbread people.

With nothing more than a pastry bag and a supply of royal icing, this woman turned several blank gingerbread cookies into works of art, each one more elaborate than the last. She gave the first one a big smiley face and a polka-dot pinafore. Next, she made a schoolboy dressed in a double-breasted tweed blazer, short pants and beanie.

Her last cookie was a New York socialite sporting an upswept hairdo and a strapless Carolina Herrera number with a high side slit and stiletto heels. Using just a size 1 piping tip, she managed to convey on the cookie’s face an expression of haughtiness mixed with mild amusement. And she made it look so easy.

At no point during the show did anyone say that in real time it had taken this woman four 12-hour days to complete three cookies. Had that been mentioned, I might have known not to attempt my own gingerbread project.

Unlike on TV, in real life you first have to bake the gingerbread people. As is the case every time I bake cookies, I forgot the last batch in the oven and burned them into charcoal briquettes. It was hours before the smoke in the kitchen cleared enough for me to find my piping tips. 

And I’m not real handy with a pastry bag. In my intensity, I tend to squeeze too hard, causing much of the icing to ooze out the top of the bag and onto the cuffs of my favorite reindeer sweater.

Also, I work under the constraints of a short attention span and a tight schedule. Maybe the woman on “Martha Stewart” had the patience to apply several hundred icing sequins to a cookie-sized designer evening gown, but I only had a half-hour to complete six-dozen gingerbread people. They’d be going casual.

As the minutes flew by, the cookies grew progressively more casual until eventually each one received only vacant white-dot eyes and a lopsided white grimace. I did add a line of white “buttons” down the front of each one, but with my hurried hand the effect was more of an inebriated cookie having spilled eggnog on itself during the holiday gingerbread office party.

The results were ugly, all right. And if you’ve ever tasted a gingerbread cookie, you’d know that looks are everything. A toilet paper tube has more flavor and texture. 

I learned a couple things through that holly-jolly disaster. First, anything you see demonstrated on TV is fake. The FCC should require a “Do not attempt this at home” warning to be flashed on the screenduring every how-to segment on “Martha Stewart.”

And second, I really have to work on suppressing my natural tendency, amplified during the holidays, to think I’m much more efficient and talented than I am. It invariably leads to me staying up way too late Christmas Eve, snapping at the family, working feverishly to finish the baking/knitting/floor-tiling/novel-writing/engine-rebuilding project I was sure I could pull off in time.

I haven’t given up baking Christmas cookies altogether, but I am learning to keep it simple. As evidence, I offer the quick and easy molasses crinkles I made today.

I finished the last batch a few hours ago, and I’ll be packaging them up in Christmas goodie bags just as soon as the smoke in the kitchen clears.


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