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Learning to make treats that are more than edible

by Amy Kingsley

While Keren Darden, a 23-year-old pastry chef at Simple Kneads Bakery, creams the butter together with powdered sugar in the polished bowl of a Kitchen Aid mixer, she tosses off a question.

‘“Do you do much baking?’” Darden asks.

I stammer some response about how my oven draws its heat from the most blistering region of hell so that everything cooked within it resembles the coal naughty children fear on Christmas morning, but the excuse rings hollow. It’s true that my oven is very hot, but even when I used a baking appliance not powered by nuclear fusion I did not bake very often. And when I did the results were often catastrophic.

Today I am taking my first step toward culinary competence with a lesson from a baker who makes the production of delectable holiday sweets look as easy as pouring a glass of water. Darden starts with a recipe for snowballs, or Mexican wedding cookies, or Russian teacakes, as they are also known. The process begins with a healthy scoop of unsalted butter creamed with the aforementioned powdered sugar, pecans, vanilla, flour and salt.

‘“[Using margarine] is doable if it’s all you have,’” Darden says. ‘“But it doesn’t spread the same and doesn’t have the same mouth feel as butter. Have you ever tasted something in the grocery store that left a film in your mouth? Margarine does that. Butter doesn’t because it melts at room temperature.’”

Throughout the hour I am there, she demystifies the baking process: scrape the sides of the mixing bowl if you’re using eggs, follow the proper order of ingredients and don’t overfill pastry bags. That last bit comes into play for the second cookie recipe she demonstrates, a spritz or butter cookie. For this confection, the butter, granulated sugar and eggs bind with flour and vanilla for a soft, smooth dough.

Spritz and gingerbread cookies hail from a long tradition of German holiday treats. Gingerbread rose to wide popularity after the publications of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales featuring the story of Hansel and Gretel in the early 1800s, according to foodtimeline.org.

In addition to those traditional treats and the snowballs, Simple Kneads sells macaroons and sugar cookies special for the holiday season. Boxes of assorted cookies sit on the display counter alongside the spelt-based sweets for which the artisan bakery is known.

In addition to the Christmas cookies, the bakery will make dreidel-shaped sugar cookies and a parve apple cake for locals celebrating Hanukkah. Parve foods do not contain dairy, in accordance with kosher regulations. Instead the cake is prepared with fruit juice and decorated with a pinwheel and Hebrew characters.

Simple Kneads still makes several vegan and spelt sweets. Customers with specific dietary restrictions ‘— be they motivated by health, religion or politics ‘— can request holiday cookies prepared to order, Darden says.

Darden does not hurry her movements, but the confidence with which she works the mixer produces perfect butter cookie batter in less than ten minutes. The recipe she uses is short on numbers, just a list of ingredients jotted in red marker.

It’s kind of like a seven-layer cookie bar her family makes every year around Thanksgiving and Christmas. The concoction is an amalgam of butter, graham crackers, chocolate chips, coconut, pecans, white chocolate, butterscotch and sweetened condensed milk jiggered to the baker’s taste.

‘“With baking sometimes a little extra of something is okay,’” Darden says. ‘“Sometimes it’s chemistry and sometimes it’s love.’”

That might be easy enough to say for someone from a baking family with a degree from the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, which is affiliated with Le Cordon Bleu. But she has me believing I can actually produce delicious cookies without the help of the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

Now Darden is pulling out a couple of flattened segments of gingerbread dough sandwiched between sheets of parchment paper. She reaches up for a medium-sized gingerbread man cookie cutter hanging from a shelf above the sink. After the men have been cut and placed on a cookie sheet, she decorates with a few currants for buttons and eyes and indents a smile with a measuring cup handle.

Fruit, candy and other items often make easier decorating options for children who might get frustrated trying to pipe frosting, Darden said. Out in the retail space sit a couple of examples made by the owners’ and customers’ kids. Darden, the resident cake decorator, had to restrain herself from correcting the kids’ sometimes asymmetrical designs, but they all had fun.

When the spritz and gingerbread men go into the oven, the snowballs come out and are dropped into powdered sugar while they are still warm. By the middle of the afternoon, Darden has been at work for 10 hours, so we take a break for the 15 minutes it takes the next batch to emerge from the oven.

While waiting, the smell of the baking sweets permeates the warm storefront already saturated with yeast aromas. The cookies come out of the oven and taste delicious. By the time she boxes them up I am devising ways to sneak the treats past my coworkers.

When I get to the office the giving spirit of the holiday has prevailed, and I decide to share the cookies. After all, I think I might have learned enough to go home and bake a holiday cookie more appropriate for celebration than retribution.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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