All In The Family
By Deborah Cassell
My friends have dubbed me “Debbie Crocker.” While I might not have the all-around cooking prowess of “sister” Betty, I do have a specialty: baking. Don’t get me wrong — I love to cook (and even clean, on occasion.). But truth be told, cakes and cookies are my passion.
I keep my cupboards stocked with all the essentials: baking soda and powder, salt (including kosher and sea), sugar (brown, white and powder), chocolate chips (semi-sweet, milk and white), pie filling (cherry and pumpkin), cocoa powder, vanilla extract, flour and rolled oats — you name it — so that I can bake at a moment’s notice. In fact, I’ve been known to whip up a batch of chocolate chippers or oatmeal scotchies on a whim. When the mood strikes, I just havta bake!
If you grew up in my mother’s kitchen, you’d understand.
My mom lives to cook (and shop for ingredients at several grocery stores, her homes away from home). As her little helper, I learned the joys of cooking at an early age, while stuffing mushroom caps, cubing slices of bread for turkey dressing and sampling homemade spaghetti sauce. (Mom called these taste tests “chef’s privilege.”) But while appetizers (such as fried zucchini — Yum!) and entrees (such as manicotti — Mangi!) are my mom’s cup of tea, I prefer filling ice cream sandwiches, rolling rum balls in sugar and gingerly layering sheets of Filo dough with walnuts and butter to make baklava.
On birthdays, my mom taught me how to bake black-and-white, three-layer checkerboard cakes. For Thanksgiving, she dished up apple and pumpkin pies a plenty. And in anticipation of Christmas, we mixed candied cherries and pineapple, golden raisins and pecans into fruitcake; ironed chocolate and anise-flavored pizelles (my grandmother’s recipe), one by one; and constructed sugar-laden Santa Clauses without the use of a cookie cutter.
Today, those Santa Clauses are a calling card of mine, with their Red Hots noses, chocolate chip eyes, red sugar hats and white frosting-filled mustaches. In fact, they’re the main attraction at my annual holiday party. Friends who’ve moved too far from Chicago to attend still ask, “Are you making those cookies this year?”
As the holiday season approaches, retailers are scrambling to attract consumers to in-store bakeries and cookie aisles with new seasonal products, as well as perennial favorites such as orange-crème-filled Halloween Oreos and Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cakes, not to mention the usual popcorn balls, gingerbread and sugar cookies cut into various shapes, from ghosts to turkeys to reindeer.
Store-bought baked goods were rarely an option at my house. As a kid, if I had a hankering for something like an Oreo (God forbid), I had to sneak over to my friend Kate’s house, where brand names such as Nabisco permanently resided, otherwise Mom would have me slaving over sandwich cookies made from Ritz crackers, peanut butter and melted chocolate. (Tasty as those homemade treats were, sometimes you just want an O-R-E-O.)
Of course, there were the annual Girl Scout Cookies that I hawked to friends, family members and neighbors. (In an effort to win my troop’s grand prize, I once bought myself multiple boxes of Thin Mints, only to get sick following an afternoon binge. I never touched the stuff again.) Then there were the Little Debbie snacks that we gave out at Halloween. (My mother never purchased candy like the rest of the neighbors.) And I’ll not forget those Archway molasses cookies we’d take on long car rides to West Virginia, where my grandparents lived.
I no doubt owe my hereditary culinary skills to my nonny (my pronunciation of what is Italian for “grandmother”). Like most Mediterranean women, she knew how to cook and bake (and argue). We never actually sat in the dining room at Nonny and Grandpa’s house because the table was always topped with treats, from raisin pies to anise toast to fried, honey-drenched turdilli pastries to her impossible-to-replicate (trust me, we’ve tried) Italian wedding cookies.
Truly made-from-scratch sweets now are a novelty thanks to mixes from Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines and ready-to-bake, refrigerator-case offerings from Pillsbury and Nestle Toll House, which have made baking a more mindless act.
As for me, I prefer the rigors of blending flour, eggs, sugar and butter into homemade batters, a love I now share with my young nephew. What can I say? Baking runs in the family.
And they don’t call me Debbie Crocker for nothing.