Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mary Had a Little Scam

Just when you think you know it all, you don’t.

For some time now, I have been in the habit of bringing baked goods from my home to work. It all started when I realized that both customers and employees were deprived of any and all manner of things to distract them from long lines and the monotony of a workday.
The building in which I work is devoid of décor. No paintings. No dried floral arrangements. Not even a fish tank. Seriously, nothing. Decorations are simply not allowed. The same goes for clocks, calendars and music.
And no, I do not work in a correctional facility.
There are days when the ringing of a customer’s cell phone brings us unexpected, if not unnatural, joy.
Clearly, something had to be done.
I turned to my one and only defense—baked goods. Sweet, glorious baked goods.
The idea caught on quickly. Before long, my oblong Tupperware had its own rightful place among file drawers and document shredders. Customers knew me by name and the brazen ones would ask my coworkers “Did she bake today?” The lucky, hawk-eyed few who spotted the coveted container were rewarded with a sampling of the cookie du jour.
My coworkers would show their appreciation with free coffees and the sugar-coated praise we bakers rarely admit is the motivation behind the task.
I was the CEO of cookies.
I was building my legacy and it was all so lovely.

Until last Tuesday.

I arrived at work balancing an armful of legacy.
An overstuffed Ziploc containing the leftovers of one huge case of Halloween themed micro-popcorn bags (to be distributed as a consolation prize to those who arrived too late for cookies) balanced itself above the famous Tupperware which contained the frozen sugar cookie experiment (as documented in a previous post as One L of a Cookie). Each of ten jumbo cookies was individually wrapped in plastic, inside the container. I was hopeful they would thaw quickly and would be as moist and chewy as the day I made them. It would be my first experiment with freezing sugar cookies and I was expecting great success.
As I entered through the large lobby doors, I was immediately greeted by a coworker who has earned his rightful title as my greatest fan in all manners of baked goods.
He quickly dismissed my suggestion to allow the cookies to thaw completely and, as expected, ate the first one in its still- frozen state. His stellar review would afford me one more bearable day in the workforce.

As I entered the area near my workstation, I thought it odd that the ladies who work to my right and to my left were unusually quiet. They responded politely to my greeting and moments later, praised my cookies with each semi-frozen bite.
But alas, something was afoot. I quickly scanned the lobby; perhaps I missed a memo, and the CEO was lurking about, ready
to confiscate IT; my Tupperware, that icon of domestic bliss
and in this case, the only inanimate object in the building implicating the presence of hungry, human life.
But my quick pan of the lobby turned up nothing.
The phone rang behind me. I never answer the phone at work, simply because in my young history at this establishment, I haven’t yet figured out the answers to the myriad of questions that will attack me once I lift the receiver. In any case, I make it a habit to look at the phone when it rings. And so I did.
It was then that I spotted it. How could I have missed it?
It was there on the counter, just inches from the blinking phone, a foil covered dish so homely in appearance that my heart pounded.
They knew I had discovered it. They turned away and feigned interest in their blank monitors.
I interrogated my co-workers; “What’s under the foil?”
They hesitated.
I persisted.
They cracked under pressure.
The details of their explanations are still a bit fuzzy but essentially, this is the story:
A long time customer named Mary (and of course her name is Mary because in my not so long lifetime, I have never known anyone named Mary who wasn’t a fabulous cook), transported the dish in question from her loving home to bestow upon her favorite workday-weary employees at her favorite…blah, blah, blah.

I had heard enough. It was time to inspect the evidence.
They warned me.
As I lifted the crumpled, silver veil I observed a bacchanalia of traditional Italian confections (the worst kind of offense), each one more perfect in form than the one beside it. There were biscotti, taralli biscuit rings, Pignoli cookies (my personal favorite) and the remnants of those cheerful Neopolitan rainbows. After careful inspection, I was sure they had been duped and these were, dare I say, store bought.
After all, if anyone knew from homemade cookies, it would be me, and these were clearly, too perfect in form to be homemade.
Besides, who makes six varieties of cookies in one day for a bunch of employees?
What kind of scam was this lady running?
I would expose her careless tomfoolery and take back my crown.
I boldly stated my claim; “She didn’t make those.”
A co-worker apologetically but swiftly corrected me; “She made those.”
”She used to own a bakery.”
Of course she did.

A million thoughts ran through my head
(Including, but not limited to:
I’ll never bake in this town again/ Who does this woman, Mary, think she is?/This is my baking territory; clearly I own the rights to all cookie-associated praise within a fifteen mile radius of this institutionally drab building/ the gauntlet has been thrown/The game is on/….Where does she live?/Does she have a guest room or a sleeper sofa?/).
My mind was torn between vilifying a woman I had never met and wanting to shadow her in her own kitchen to learn from her timeless, traditional methods.
I made every attempt to redeem my self-concocted reputation by sharing my extensive knowledge of ingredients necessary to produce such delicacies. As I poked a clean finger over the contents of the plate and as I threw around terms like orange flower water, almond paste, and semolina flour, they just stared. You know, the pity stare.
I could only stop this insanity by shoving a cookie into my mouth.
Clearly, if I ate one of her cookies, I would be the better person.

I had discovered, as I was poking around the plate, that there was one, lonely cookie for which I recalled no name. At the risk of having to admit to ignorance, I decided that it would be in my best interest to eat it.
It was a round cookie covered with white pearly objects that looked like microscopic Jordan almonds (those are the little pastel almonds so often received in little mesh bags as wedding favors).
If this cookie had been presented to me by itself, I might have mistaken it for a savory biscuit covered with coarse salt. But placed among its decadent friends, I was sure it would be sweet.

As I took my first bite of the tender, chewy cookie, I could hear the snapping sound of the tiny pearls as they crushed between my teeth. The sensation I felt next, is one I will not soon forget; first, a rush of coolness, followed by a burst of snappy licorice flavor that I recognized immediately as anise.
Mary be damned. Were these candy-coated anise seeds? I had never heard of such a creature.
I could not name the cookie. I could not identify the pearly white seeds of licorice delight. I could only aspire to such cookie greatness.
This cookie was delicious.

I sat down at my work station and called my first customer.
None of us has spoken of this incident since.

Days later, I found out that Mary had not yet returned for her plate. After some spy-worthy investigating, I discovered that Mary, my elusive nemesis, is in fact, a kind, older-than-me, unassuming woman who, like me, bakes for the greater good.
This leaves me with both a valuable lesson and a dilemma of sorts.

The lesson is obvious; just when we think we know it all, there is more to learn.

As is my custom, I will tackle my cookie quest until I have exhausted all available resources. I will make it my mission to locate a purveyor of those licorice- flavored pearls of goodness, and I will work diligently to replicate those delightful little cookies.

And as for the dilemma; what to say to Mary when she returns for her plate.
I might casually mention that her cookies were edible.
I might even ask about the mysterious pearly coating.

But more likely, I will bribe my greatest-cookie-fan-coworker to ask her for the recipe -and I would suspiciously expect her to provide
the hoarder version of said recipe (a previous post offers a description of this term).
It is likely, however, that I would be wrong about that.

Either way, I’m on to her.

Mary had a little scam
With seeds as white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
(I suspect) Her plate was sure to go
It followed her to work one day
Which really was not cool
My comrades did not laugh, for they
Knew why I felt a fool

Until Next Time,
Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food


In the spirit of traditional Italian cookies, I am posting an old family recipe that came from my Great Aunt Carmela. This recipe may seem challenging at first, because it doesn’t give exact measurements for ingredients. Once you become familiar with the dough however, it produces a flavorful, crispy biscuit, perfect for dunking into your favorite hot beverage.
My current record stands at 2 for 3 with her recipe. My first attempt included too much flour (because I simply didn’t follow that little voice inside my head telling me to stop, as I added more flour). The result was a dry, almost flavorless biscuit. I have since played around with the recipe, adding toasted fennel seeds to the dough (simply because I couldn’t find anise seeds at my market), adding a bit more sugar to the batter and coating the logs with Turbinado sugar before baking.
Be patient with this recipe and it will reward you tenfold.
I can only think of one way in which this recipe might be improved—but it involves white pearls of goodness I currently know nothing about.

****Please note: I have adjusted this recipe from its original posting.

Originally, I didn't list that the recipe yields two small loaves, or one large loaf. If you want to make large biscotti, you may double the recipe to make two large loaves. You will have to add a few minutes to the baking time for large loaves.

Recipe yields approximately 28 biscotti

3 Eggs
3 TBS Oil (I use Canola but I’m sure she used olive oil)
1 ½ Demi Tasse Cups of Sugar (my best guess: about ¾ Cup)
3 tsp. Baking Powder
Dash Salt (I recommend ½ tsp. Kosher salt)
1 tsp. Anise Extract (mine was a generous tsp)
Chopped Nuts Optional (I did not use nuts but instead used an unmeasured amount of lightly toasted fennel seeds—my guess is about one heaping ¼ cup** If you can find anise seeds, I suppose those would be even better)
Enough Sifted Flour to make a soft dough—start with one cup All Purpose Flour (I used approximately 2 1/2 cups flour total).
Turbinado Sugar or Coarse Sugar for coating loaves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place rack in center of oven.
Beat the eggs and oil together. Add the anise extract and sugar and continue beating.
Mix salt, baking powder and flour and sift again. Add flour mixture to egg mixture and incorporate, adding flour if necessary (add very little at a time) to make a soft dough (dough should be on the dry side but not crumbly, it should feel soft and only slightly sticky). As you mix in flour, scatter cooled, toasted fennel seeds over dough and incorporate). Set out a large, rimmed baking sheet and pour enough coarse sugar in pan to cover bottom. Shape dough into two loaves (think long, narrow torpedo when shaping) flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Line pan with parchment. Carefully roll loaves into sugar to coat. ***You can omit this step if you prefer not to have sugar coated biscuits. Place loaves at least three inches apart on cookie sheet (not more than two loaves per sheet). Bake on center rack for about 20 to 25 minutes—until slightly brown on edges and the top of loaves is firm. Be careful to avoid burning bottom of loaves—if browning too quickly, move to top rack for last ten minutes of baking.
Remove pan from oven and cool loaves on pan on wire cooling rack for ten minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Working with one loaf at a time, place loaf on large cutting board, using a sharp serrated bread knife, slice loaves on the diagonal into ½ inch thick slices. Remove parchment from baking sheet. Place slices CAREFULLY (these will firm up as you re-bake) on baking sheet, cut side down (you may need two sheets for this as the sliced loaves take up more space). Place sheet back in oven and bake for about 5 minutes more on each side (flip biscuits to the other side after first 5 minutes). **At this point it is essential that you watch biscuits carefully to avoid burning or over browning. Follow your nose.
When both sides have been baked, remove pan to cooling rack. Allow to cool for 10 minutes on pan and then place biscuits directly on rack. Allow to cool completely. They will crisp further as they cool. Store cooled biscuits in airtight container (we like airtight tins for our biscotti).


Madalon said...

Michelle -
I've bought bags of multicolored candy-coated anise seeds at an international grocery store near my house before (another reason you should come to visit). I love them. Stopping to get a spoonful (of either the coated or uncoated variety) on the way out the door is as much a part of dinner at an Indian restaurant as is a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant. I can't recall seeing bags of just white ones, but I'll check for you. But after the Callebaut truffle debacle, I might require a cookie deposit upfront before I fork over the goods!

The left-handed sister

Bill said...

Bravo, bravo...You are a really talented writer. I may even have to attempt one of your recipes. I probably never told you that I once put together a string of gourmet meals. I got a little obsessive over my lack of dominion in the kitchen though & decided I was better served by staying on the couch :)

If I'm really inspired & Sue stays out of the kitchen, I'd like to attempt one of the scone recipes.