In fact, back years ago when I had four small children racing around the house and there was the choice of trying to schlep everyone out of the house and into the car for some diversion and change of scenery or just staying home and letting everyone continue racing around the house, I did often choose the staying-home option. I tended to fill all this stay-at-home time with cooking and baking. Especially around the Christmas holidays.
Baking batch after batch of cookies was somehow much easier than dragging around from store to store for Christmas gifts, so every year I got into the Christmas-cookie baking mode big-time, making and freezing dozens and dozens of cookies, then when a gift was needed for a teacher, friend, neighbor or service provider, I'd whip out a dozen or two cookies from the freezer, arrange them on a paper plate, cover them in foil topped with a bow and, voila, instant Christmas gift.
One year I made 110 dozen cookies. I think I must have been trying to either escape or resolve some issue that year.
But anyway, the point I'm trying to make is, though there are many things I'm not very good at, like keeping my personal space neat, talking my way out of a traffic ticket or understanding what a URL is, I can bake cookies like ringing a bell.
Or at least I could until this past weekend.
This weekend something happened. I'm still not altogether sure what.
But let me fill in the back story.
A few months ago upon learning that the daughter of one of our neighbors was getting married I volunteered to provide the cookie trays for the reception. Like I said, I can do cookies.
With the wedding now two weeks away I'd slated this past weekend for a grand cookie production, a veritable pastrypalooza during which I planned to oversee the making and baking of 60 dozen cookies and cupcakes.
By Saturday morning I had all my provisions lined up:
Except mine. Which looked like this before I put them into the oven:
We decided to try foregoing the flower shapes and just shaping them into little cherry-topped balls. Same result, flat cookies. I refrigerated the dough for a while. Same result. Flat, thin, falling apart, not-suitable-for-a-wedding cookies. 7 1/2 dozen of them. I couldn't figure it out: why had I blown a simple batch of butter cookies? Where had I failed? It was Saturday night and my spirit was daunted.
But by Sunday morning my internal cookie-mojo was replenished, I felt fresh and optimistic and determined to tackle another round of butter cookies, this time with success. I still wasn't sure what had gone wrong with yesterday's batch, but in truth, yesterday I hadn't used my old tried and true butter cookie recipe, I'd tried a new one. So I pulled out my good old recipe, the difference being that my old recipe called for baking powder which I hadn't used in yesterday's recipe. Confident now, I once again made a double recipe, figuring that it must have been the lack of baking powder that caused my last batch to plotz.
(Sigh) If only.
This time I'd decided this time to try a different kind of butter cookie altogether, a raspberry pinwheel that was a ton of work to assemble and roll and was supposed to turn out like this:
But now I was down 15 dozen cookies and out of butter to boot, so, I ran out to the grocery in a sweat to grab a couple more bricks.
Now, let me stop here to mention that in all the years I've been keeper of the kitchen and procurer of all grocery items therein there's almost never been a stick of butter in our household refrigerator. I bought and used only margarine. Because margarine was so much cheaper than butter and, as far as I was concerned, worked perfectly fine spread on toast, cooking, baking or any other endeavor requiring a butteresque substance.
But a couple months ago, for some reason, Tom and I just started liking butter on our bread instead of margarine. So I started buying butter and subsequently using it not only on our bread but for everything else that I used to use margarine for.
In fact, it didn't even occur to me that this was the first time I'd ever used butter in a cookie recipe until I'd started a third batch of cookies, this time something different, a raspberry thumb-print cookie that I'd made many times before that used powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar.* See, I hadn't yet made the butter connection and so the only thing different I could think of doing was changing out the sugar. Or accepting that I was cookie-cursed, maybe permanently.
After all, hadn't everyone else's cookies turned out fine using regular sugar?
Anyway, I'd already thrown in the sugar, flour, and eggs, and was about to add the butter when all of a sudden it hit me...the butter? Could it be the butter that was messing up my cookies? But, wasn't butter actually supposed to be better in cookies? At that moment as I pondered this new possibility my neighbor, the mother of the bride-to-be for whom I was making the cookies popped by. "Say," I asked her, "do you use butter when you bake cookies?"
"Oh, no," she replied, "I never use butter, I always use margarine. I always heard that butter makes cookies go flat."
Eureka! Bingo! Geronimo! And that would explain why everybody else's cookies and cupcakes came out fine: They used shortening and oil, not butter!
Except for these cherry kniffles which, in fact, were made with butter:
Still, all the signs were pointing to butter as the culprit, so I dispatched Theresa to dash back to Kroger's to grab me some margarine while I waited by my unfinished thumb-print cookie batter.
When Theresa returned with the margarine I added it to the batter finished and whipping up the dough. In truth, I was still feeling spooked. If this batch of cookies failed I was going to have to hang up my apron for good and let Kroger's provide the cookies from now on.
I shaped a dozen little experimental dough balls that went into the oven looking like this:
And came out looking like this!
And so I breathed a great sigh of relief and learned a great lesson - when baking cookies, stick with margarine.
Of course there are still a few unresolved questions:
1. On the final batch that turned out, I not only switched out the butter for margarine, but the granulated sugar for powdered sugar - so was the sugar part of the problematic equation, as well?
2. The cherry kniffles came out fine using butter, but, again, was that because of the addition to the mix of powdered sugar and cream cheese?
3. Before margarine came on the scene in 1869 were all cookies flat?
4. Do some people to this day have great success baking cookies using butter?
5. Is this whole butter vs. margarine thing just me?
Ah, well, some questions will go unanswered, but from now on when it comes to cookie-baking, it's margarine for me!
The Final Tally:
About 15 dozen failed cookies:
*For some reason "granulated sugar" always sounds to me like some kind of disease.