Welcome to December, the season of eating! While teaching my cardioblast exercise class this morning, I mentioned that we have plenty of reasons to work out this time of year, what with Christmas fast approaching. But a woman corrected me, “No, no, the holiday parties have already begun. It’s an entire season of eating.”
How true it is. We have four holiday parties in the next week, many of them of the potluck variety. So that means I not only have to brace myself for the lack of control that overwhelms me at such festivities, but I also have to contribute to the smorgasbord of irresistible, only-once-a-year munchies. And I’m feeling terribly undecided.
On a trip to Kansas City this past weekend, I read my December edition of Bon Appetit front-to-back, plotting new Christmas eating traditions such as garlic knots and pheasant (if I can find someone to shoot it for me). When I came across the pages devoted to tea party-like cookie recipes, I thought it out of place in the holiday edition. Who has the time or calories to devote to a ladies tea soiree this time of year?
Oh yeah, me.
I, like many of you perhaps, have a Christmas cookie exchange on the calendar, this one with my church. The wives club with my husband’s Navy squadron did these every year in Washington State, and I developed a love-hate relationship with the event. I especially dreaded the cookie exchange aftermath when my husband was deployed, leaving me with dozens of cookies that I would nibble at throughout the day, until my plans to pawn them off on coworkers were utterly foiled. I would eat them all. (I love cookies first thing in the morning, with my first sip of coffee, like a palette cleanser for the day.)
So, to avoid dreading this aftermath, and to make sure the cookies I bring are well worth their caloric load, I decided to get planning.
Odds are I’ll stick with my Christmas standby of Haystack Cookies. The name usually elicits a reaction of “oh, my grandma makes those.” But once we talk details, you realize that every haystack is different. Mine could equally be called Trash Cookies, since they are made of whatever-is-in-my-cupboard (a theme in my cooking). Cookie exchanges around the holidays come with a sort of pressure, you know, like you’re expected to bring a treasure from the family recipe vault in the form of quaint petit fours with bows.
My haystack-trash cookies (above) don’t really make the cut of uniformed cuteness (although they do look quite wintery). But somehow, as they hardened in massive batches on our back porch, to be eaten at New Year’s gatherings or given as gifts, the “recipe” cemented itself into the tradition category. If I were to really go with the family-recipe-vault, I’d have quite the zinger. My grandma gave me on our wedding day the lemon tarts recipe that she received from her mother-in-law seven years into the marriage. That’s right, it took seven years for her to prove her salt (and her staying power) and earn a peek at the coveted recipe. I would provide it here, but it’s still a secret. Thus, I can’t go spreading it around at Christmas parties! No, no, no.
I’m not much for baking, anyway. I have the self-control of a monkey in a Chiquita factory, so I try to make food I can eat en masse (like brussel sprouts, mmm). But it is the holidays. And it wouldn’t be the holidays without a guilt-ridden binge fest or two. And, really, these cookies aren’t that bad (if you leave off the almond bark… without which it’s more like trail mix).
Haystack Cookies (aka Trash Cookies)
Ingredients: (My measurements are approximate. You can really just eyeball it and throw things in a bowl.)
- 1 pkg. White Almond Bark (this should be appearing on shelves now)
- 1/4 box Kix cereal
- 1 c. small pkg. craisins/dried cranberries or raisins
- 2 c. cashew halves or chunks (can substitute or add almonds or peanuts)
- 3 c. pkg. pretzel sticks, broken into smaller sticks
- 2 c. pkg. little marshmallows
- Rummage in your cupboard for anything else that sounds good with it
- Mix together all the try ingredients in a big — really big — bowl. Melt as much almond bark as you’ll need to cover the dry ingredients in a coat (you can always melt more).
- Melt the almond bark squares in a double boiler or saucepan. Start with about 5 squares. Stir constantly. Watch closely because it burns easily and smells terrible when it does! (You can also melt it in the microwave, but it can still burn that way if you’re not careful.)
- Lay out sheets of wax paper on the counter or on baking sheets to set outside (before your hands get messy).
- Pour the bark over the dry ingredients, stirring at first with a wooden spoon. Once the bark has cooled a bit (don’t let it cool much; you must work fast), dig in with your sleeves rolled up to start assembling. This is key — use your hands. Utensils will break everything into too-small pieces.
- Once everything is evenly coated (you can do thin or thick coats of bark, just enough to hold the clumps together) grab clumps of the mixture and stack them into 1- or 2-inch wide haystacks on your wax paper. You can stack them close together since they will harden exactly as you place them.
- You might want to have a friend help at this point. The bark will harden in 20 minutes or so, so you want to assemble your piles quickly. Your hands will get very sticky and messy — but that’s half the fun (and licking your fingers).
My favorite part about these cookies is you can snap off a small piece with hardly anyone noticing. Let the nibbling begin!
I’m still considering other contenders for the cookie exchange, including some of the delicious offerings from the aforementioned cookie spread in BA mag. The Crunch Bars on page 95 (and pictured below) are in the lead right now. I mean, popcorn on a cookie? Yes please. But there is also a slideshow on their website of some 30 cookies to consider.
Either way, the cookies will happen. The consumption of cookies will happen (I’m told we are supposed to bring and then take home four dozen cookies… what?) And the other Christmas parties are just beginning.
So what is your favorite Christmas cookie recipe? And your favorite food item to schlep to a Christmas party? Do share, because I’m in serious need of suggestions.