It is no secret that I love to work in the kitchen, except for the monster pile of pots and pans that require hand washing, it is where I thrive. It involves hunting down the PERFECT recipe, shopping for all the ingredients for that PERFECT CONCOCTION, and then building it into something AMAZING like a Project Foreman. Not to mention the Warrior feeling I encounter when I try something new. There is also this innate desire in me to SHARE what I have created. Almost like a 2nd grader who wants her hand painted snowman to be displayed for all to SEE. Because if no one ELSE tastes it and experiences it then it didn’t happen right?
This enjoyment of cooking mixed with my desire to CONQUER new things becomes MONUMENTAL during the holidays. It varies from cooking the PERFECT Thanksgiving MEAL (not just the turkey but the WHOLE THING), to mastering the perfect rib roast on my own, and then there was my NEED to create the PERFECT Pecan pie. However, my GRANDEST feat, was one year I made more than 9 varieties of cookie creations. Some new, some old favorites including the all to important hand frosted sugar cookies. It was fun, but it was also weeks of work and an exhausting process.
Since then I have tried to reduce my investment both in time and in ingredients. Each year it begins with JUST sugar cookies, ok but I really like the Toffee Crunch. And then I am at the store and I see these bright GREEN Granny smith apples and I am confronted with the MOST important decision of the season: “Are you going to make THEM this year?” It’s usually near Thanksgiving time and I have plenty of weekends to consider and I evaluate my Vacation Days and think. SURE, you have yeast and all the other ingredients already, just pick up a few apples and if you have time you have time.
And after all the Christmas cookies are mixed, cut, baked, and frosted there is a level of exhaustion that sets in just below the JOY of frosting that VERY LAST COOKIE!!! I have also made my own apple cider these last couple years, so I have pounds and POUNDS of Fuji apples hiding out in my peripheral vision. So the Weekend arrives with PLENTY Of time and energy, so I set to the task and mission. Chop the apples, make the dough, set up the creation station. The smell in my home is swirling with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves as the apples cook down into their lovely liquor.
The first half of this project seems simple, melt the butter, grow the yeast, mix with flour put in the fridge. Easy. The apple preparation is a little tedious, peel, core, chop the apples (I have tried short cuts and the size of the apple pieces is just NOT quite right). The next steps do not seem to be that significant, HOWEVER it is about the gentle assembly, careful construction, and the PERFECTLY heated kitchen. While gently rolling out the dough, adding the sugar, cinnamon, & apple mixture; there is this fight between my perfectionist nature and the baker in me that says IF YOU TOUCH IT TOO MUCH IT WILL RISE LOPSIDED, so STOP TOUCHING it…it’s FINE…IT WON’T LOOK PERFECT IT’S ABOUT THE TASTE!!! (My internal conversations often mirror those of the Movie Inside Out.)
The last few tries at this recipe I have discovered that the hotter my kitchen is the better the rings rise. So I boil water, open the preheated oven, close doors and windows, try to close off the kitchen from the rest of the world, just for those 2-3 precious hours (and I wonder WHY my electric bill for December is higher than usual). YES hours!!! For these little gems must rise for 1.5hrs and it usually takes me about 20-30min to assemble each one. Then they bake. All by themselves. But we are not done yet, there is drizzle to make and candied cherries to add (I forgot them this year), then wait for them to dry; and wrap in plastic wrap to deliver for Christmas. WHEW!!! I am exhausted just writing the steps.
So this year as I bought the apples, started the dough, but made it to the middle of the assembly process began to ask myself a VERY VERY serious question. WHY DO YOU DO THIS? I always give them away and sometimes I struggle to find people who would really enjoy them (gluten free, no sugar and carb avoiding peoples I am sorry). So realizing each year that time is the most precious commodity in life, why would I dedicate so much time to creating this particular goodie, I am SURE there are other baking items that take less time and effort and are just as delicious.
About a month ago, I found a picture my brother gave me of our Mom. It is her in the kitchen cutting their 1 year anniversary Wedding cake topper with a smile on her face and dreams in her eyes. I moved this picture out of my purse and into my kitchen. Because this is where I remember her most (A close second is her behind her sewing machine in her crafting room). Whether it was coming home from school and sitting at the counter to share my day with her, while she made dinner or learning how to cook by her side when she made cakes and cookies; I see her and feel her in my kitchen.
The Apple Tea Rings as they became known in my house was one of my Mom’s crowning jewels. She made clever bunny birthday cakes and amazing cookies; but SOME HOW, some way she began making these one year and Someone MUST have said you can sell these; because the next year, I remember the assembly line in our kitchen of what felt like DOZENS of these covering EVERY surface area. She took them to a Christmas bazaar to sell I can only assume to bring in a little more money for Christmas presents. I was SOMEHOW a part of this because I remember the various stages and I remember how much care we took to prepare each one to make it BEAUTIFUL and wrap it carefully on cardboard to that is would be sturdy and easily transportable. ONLY one TEENY TINY hiccup… there was a storm. A blizzard you might say in as much as people in Portland, Oregon think a couple of inches of snow is a blizzard. So even though we were able to get to the bazaar and the rings made it there FULLY intact; there were just NO people to buy them. In my childhood mind, I remember thinking ALL THIS Work and NO ONE wants them. Business is a rough gig, man. So we brought almost all of them home, still too many for me to remember the count.
But despite this fiasco, the apple tea rings have always represented the ELABORATE baking my Mom was so good at. And on the years I do CREATE them, I feel a sense of closeness to her and the memory of us baking together to create something AMAZING. I feel like I am getting closer to being just like her and in my childlike mind that is the BEST thing I COULD BE – just like her. Even though I know she had her flaws and short-comings; I still aspire to be like her. The strength she showed while balancing so much: taking care of the family, baking, sewing, AND working it really seems so amazing to me now. So this year I am realizing that in taking the time to make these AMAZING creations it is more than just baking, more than just a TO DO, more than a compulsion to impress people. The undercurrent really is to be closer to her and improve the talent she gave me all those years ago.
So each time I see those granny smith apples and the thought races across my mind, “Are you going to make THEM this year?” I can now smile a sneaky grin and ask myself if I am up for the challenge. It’s just time after all, time well spent.