Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Christmas Spritz

There is nothing in this whole wide world that makes me as nostalgic about Christmas as a Mirro cookie press.

Why exactly this should be cannot help but remain something of a mystery, but I have a few notions. When I was a child, there was always a lot of pre-Christmas activity around the house, and much of it had to do with baking. The fruitcakes would typically be prepared before Thanksgiving, and then many December days included the baking of one or more kind of Christmas cookie. Most if not all of those cookies were delicious, and some of them got made mostly around Christmas time, but as far as I can remember, my mother only got out her cookie press one time a year, and that was always to make the Christmas spritz cookies.

The nostalgia may have even more to do, however, with the passing of the cookie press. At some point during the 70s or 80s, cookie presses appear to have been replaced by the cookie gun, an implement which does exactly the same thing as the cookie press but with sexier packaging and slightly less (to my mind) functionality. I blame Charlton Heston. For a lot of things.

You can still buy new cookie guns, but if you want a Mirro cookie press, then your best bet is ebay. I found mine at yard sales back in the 80s. And yes, that's plural. I got so much pleasure out of finding and owning the first one that I couldn't help buying a second. And with any luck, my mother will give me hers someday. If my brother or sister tries to get it, I plan to swap one of mine for Mom's when they're not looking. I'm pretty sure that neither of them has ever seen The Red Violin, and nobody in my family really understands just how devious I can be when it comes to inherited cookware, so I'll almost certainly get away with it.

Oddly, or perhaps not, I have no particular nostalgia for Mom's actual spritz cookies. I'm pretty sure that she used the recipe from the booklet that came with her cookie press, and while they were perfectly fine cookies, the taste was nothing to write home about. (Especially given that I would already have been home, so that writing would have been a waste of a stamp. That's right: I am so old that when I was a kid, we didn't even have email. If we wanted to talk to distant relatives, we yelled really loudly.) The cookies were fun to make, and they didn't look like the other Christmas cookies since Mom colored some of the dough red and some of it green and pressed it into the shapes of reefs and Christmas trees, but they weren't nearly as tasty as the pecan cups or the rum balls. Mmmm, rum balls.

I don't color my spritz dough, but I did go out of the way to develop a kick-ass recipe. You could easily color it red and apply green sprinkles or color it green and apply red sprinkles. I haven't applied any sprinkles at all, but I do plan to make up a batch of green royal icing and put it in a squeeze bottle and use thin stripes of green icing to give some color and additional flavor to the cookies. The cookies, without the icing, are in no way, shape, or form lacking in flavor, but since the lemon is so wonderfully pronounced in the cookies, I'll probably play up the almond in the royal icing to make them even better.

If you don't have a cookie press, then you can certainly drop these by teaspoons or use a cookie scoop. It won't be nearly as much fun, but you'll still have awesome cookies. In either case, the butter content of the cookies is sufficient so that you don't need to grease your cookie sheets. I did some of my cookies on Silpats and some on (ungreased) aluminum foil, and they all came off just fine. The Silpats are a little easier to use because when you go to lift the cookie press away from the foil, the foil wants to follow the cookie press up. You wouldn't have that problem if you just pressed your cookies onto your ungreased pan, but some of my half-sheet pans are currently missing, and since I only have three in the kitchen right now, I wanted to line the sheets to make reusing them easier. Parchment would also work, but I reckon you'd have the same problem that you have with foil. It's not much of a problem however.

It takes a tiny bit of practice to use the cookie press correctly, but only a tiny bit. You basically set the press flat on the sheet, turn the handle, and lift. The only difficulty, such as it is, is turning the handle the right amount. You will find, even after the press is fully loaded and primed, that the same amount of turn will deliver slightly different amounts of dough. Don't let that bother you. Your cookies will still all be done at the same time, even if there are slight variations in size. If, after you've baked the cookies, you find that a couple of them are so horribly disfigured as to not resemble Christmas trees (if that's the shape you're using), then you must eat the non-trees as a means of ensuring quality control. Just keep telling yourself, "It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it."

Lemon-Almond Spritz Cookies

2 lemons
1/2 lb. butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder
1 egg (mine was an extra large egg)
1.5 cups whole almonds, toasted and cooled
2 cups all purpose flour

Zest the lemons and reserve the zest. Juice the lemons and reserve the juice.

Combine the lemon zest and almonds in the bowl of the food processor. Process until finely ground. Add the flour and process until still more finely ground. Reserve.

Put the butter in your stand mixer and cream on low. Gradually add the sugar, creaming all the way. With the mixer running, add the lemon juice and then the egg, and mix until all is well combined. Gradually add in the flour-almond-zest mixture and mix until all is again well combined.

Transfer the dough to a cookie press. Press the cookies onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for about seventeen minutes, or just until the edges turn medium brown. Remove the sheets from the oven and allow the cookies to cool for five minutes or so. Loosen the cookies from the sheets. Cool entirely. Decorate appropriately.


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