Saturday, December 24, 2011
the hostess gift
Of all the voices I joke about hearing in my head, there's one I sometimes forget. It's a quiet little voice, easily overlooked, and it gets lost when all the other voices - the ones that talk about food and cooking - start clamoring for attention.
That little voice only pipes up when I'm invited to dinner, or lunch, or tea, or any other sort of social occasion at someone's home. And then I wonder how I ever could forget about its existence. You see, the voice sounds suspiciously like that of my mother, and it likes to announce, in the sternest tones possible, that should I forget a hostess gift, I do so on pain of death and dishonor.
My parents were not etiquette mavens. I cannot remember receiving any instruction in, say, table manners. (I suspect I may have been taught by my grandparents, with a little polish added by my stint at a private, all-girls school in Sydney, which was occasionally old-fashioned to the point of anachronism.) Like all Asian children, however, I was instructed in the various complex and arcane forms of address for courtesy aunts and uncles. I was on strict orders to answer questions about school and study without any of my customary snark. And I learned that it was unthinkable to show up at someone's house for a social occasion empty-handed.
Flowers, I learned, were an acceptable hostess gift, and the easiest if one was pressed for time and happened to be close to a supermarket with a florist's stand. Occasionally, if my parents knew the hosts very well, and were certain of their drinking habits, we would make a detour en route at a liquor store for a bottle of wine. Their preferred gift, however, was food, and preferably fruit. Netted bags of mandarins. Thick-skinned clusters of grapes. Golden pears, the bigger the better. During Chinese New Year, every home we visited looked like its inhabitants were thinking about making a foray into the greengrocer's business.
When I received an invitation to Christmas lunch with people I'd only just met here in Melbourne, the little voice didn't falter. My taste in hostess gifts runs to baked goods, however, and so I decided Christmas cookies were in order. Give my fondness for traditional Christmas sweets in the European tradition - panettone, stollen, springerle, even old-fashioned, brandied fruitcake - spices and dried fruit were an obvious starting point.
I began with a simple shortbread base, and seasoned it with vanilla, brandy, orange zest and various spices before adding dried currants and crystallized ginger. I let the dough chill before rolling and cutting simple rounds. Baked at low heat, the resulting cookies were richly fragrant, with a delicate, sandy crumb. Packaged in cellophane and tied with bright ribbon, I think they make quite a pretty hostess gift.
Even the little voice in my head is in grudging agreement.
Christmas Spice Cookies
I've baked these as a rolled cookie, but the dough can also be shaped into a log before chilling, and then sliced and baked. These taste best a day or two after baking, when the flavors have had time to develop.
(Makes somewhere between one-and-a-half and two dozen. Dough will freeze. Cookies will keep in an airtight container for a week or so.)
In a mixing bowl, cream together one hundred and twenty-five grams of softened butter (about four ounces) and fifty-five grams of sugar (about a quarter-cup.) Stir in a quarter-teaspoon of salt, followed by a quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon, a quarter-teaspoon of allspice, an eighth-teaspoon of allspice, and an eighth-teaspoon of cloves.
Add the zest from one small orange, a half-teaspoon of vanilla, and a half-teaspoon of brandy. Stir again to combine. Beat in one egg yolk.
Stir in one hundred and forty grams (one cup) of plain white flour, little by little, until you have a nice sandy dough. Mix in fifty grams of finely chopped crystallized ginger (one-third of a cup) and fifty grams of dried currants (one-third of a cup.)
Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.
Preheat the oven to 160C (325F.) Line two baking trays with parchment paper.
Roll the dough out between two sheets of parchment or wax paper (flour lightly to keep it easy to work with) to a quarter-inch thickness. Cut out two-inch rounds and place them on the baking trays. These cookies won't spread, so you can keep them quite close together.
Place the trays in the oven, and bake (switch the trays halfway through) for seventeen to twenty minutes, or until cookies are just barely colored. Transfer to cooling racks. When fully cool, place in decorative bags or cookie tins.
Serve with tea or coffee.