There’s a movement gaining steam to make baking more nutritious by using less white flour and refined sugar and more whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit, good fats, and natural sweeteners. No doubt there have always been bakers who leaned in this direction, but Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours, published in 2010, may have been that groundbreaking book that brought healthy baking into the mainstream. Alice Medrich’s 2014 Flavor Flours built on that trend, and today there’s a profusion of specialty cookbooks focusing on everything from coconut flour to agave nectar.
In my little world, Genevieve Ko’s 2016 Better Baking: Wholesome Ingredients, Delicious Desserts, picks up where Boyce and Medrich left off. It’s a beautiful and inspiring book. She doesn’t give up butter and sugar altogether, but where possible substitutes more healthful ingredients. In the process, she makes magic out of matcha green tea powder (Green Tea Almond-Raspberry Rainbow Bars), tahini (Orange Marmalade Tahini Thumbprints), pistachio meal (Rhubarb-Lemon Bars with Pistachio Crust), beets (Beet Red Velvet Roulade with Strawberry Cream Cheese), coconut milk (Coconut Layer Cake), olive oil (Brown Sugar Pumpkin Bundt Cake), buckwheat flour (Buckwheat Blueberry Buckle) and pumpkin (Pumpkin Cinnamon Spirals). And that’s just a sampling of what’s in this book.
Before my mother moved into her retirement residence, where units come with microwaves but not stoves, she was a one-woman, cookie-making machine. She made Swedish cookies, sugar cookies, pinwheel cookies, chocolate cookies, peanut butter cookies, and more recently, crackle-topped, chewy-crispy ginger cookies, and chocolate chip cookies. She gave away almost everything she made, to her neighbours, to her kids, to anyone who came along. She was famous for her cookies.
My mother is not sad to give up baking – after all, she just turned 90, Happy Birthday Mom! – but lots of people visit in her new place and, following tradition, she would like to serve them a cookie with their cup of tea. I feel a certain responsibility to help her out, having a big kitchen as I do, so I’ve inadvertently fallen into the cooking-making business myself in order to keep her supplied.
Most people know that perfection is an unattainable goal, that striving for it is futile. It’s the flaws that make life interesting, as Leonard Cohen reminds us in his beautiful song Anthem: “There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
And so it is with icebox cookies. Such a wonderful invention – you prepare the dough, form it into logs, wrap them in plastic and refrigerate until you have a hankering for a little something sweet. Then you slice and bake, and voilà, fresh-baked cookies in less than half an hour.
Not to put you off making these – because they are easy and delicious and cute as buttons – but as in all of life, there’s another side of the story. When you add nuts, chocolate chips, dried fruit and other solid things to icebox cookie dough, a clean slice is just a little trickier to get, no matter how chilled your log. But don’t sweat it, if you end up with a raggedy edge, just use your fingers to smooth things out. Imperfect, irregular-shaped cookies have a certain rustic charm.
We no longer exchange gifts at Christmas in my extended family, except for the little ones. That simplifies things: no need to shop malls, get stuck in traffic, or go into debt. It leaves me, at least, free to get serious about baking.
This year’s baking bonanza started with these powdery Mexican Wedding Cakes from Alice Medrich’s Chewy, Gooey, Crispy, Crunchy, Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies. They aren’t actually cakes, they’re cookies, and according to Medrich they go by many names depending on what kind of nuts you put in them: if you’re using pecans, you have Wedding Cakes, or polvorones; if almonds are your choice, you have Viennese crescents or Greek kourabiedes. Walnuts produce Russian tea cakes. I’ve also seen them called Butter Balls and Melt-a-Ways, Snowballs and Sandies. Whatever you want to name them, they’re tender and crumbly and not too sweet, despite being blanketed in a snow storm of icing sugar. They’re the perfect winter cookie.