Friday, January 6, 2017

The Cutthroat Cookie Exchange

Not counting college, I've moved five times in my adult life.  Though I would still classify myself as an introvert, moving has taught me a lot over the years about making new connections, and now that I'm older, I care more about putting down roots and making a difference in my community.

Since we moved to our house in June, I've gotten to know the neighbors, and I joined (I use that term loosely) a group that meets to talk about race and diversity.  Before we arrived, I made sure I was on as many Facebook community groups as possible, so I could start to get to know the people in town. But it's slow.

Sometime back in November, the woman who runs the race and diversity conversation and another woman I didn't know posted something on a community group about cookies.  They joked good-naturedly about preparation, and I asked whether they were talking about a cookie exchange. They confirmed, and went on about their smack talk.

A few days later, I saw a post calling for bakers for the 2nd annual "Cutthroat Cookie Competition." So this was the "exchange" they'd been posting about. Suddenly, I was finding them more intimidating; these people were serious. I posted something about being interested but not wanting to be squashed, and the woman reassured me that it was all in good fun: two hours of conversation, wine, and good company while the judges made their decisions.  After days of self-deprecation, I decided that I'd give it a shot and enter; the worst that could happen was that I'd bring cookies no one liked, but that I'd get to take home a bunch of delicious treats that other people had made, and I'd get to meet some new people.

The four categories for the contest were "Best Looking," "Best Tasting," "Most Original," and "Best in Show."  Not knowing what I was up against, I decided not to aim for Best Tasting or Best Looking (because really, who has time for that?!), and tried to find a recipe that might have a shot at Most Original.

I tried a few recipes, and fed samples to a few select family members and friends. The Mexican Chocolate cookies were good, and soft, but not terribly interesting.  The Cranberry Lime Shortbreads were somehow lacking.  My last attempt, the Three Wisemen's Treasures, which entailed curry, cardamom, pecans, and dates, were ... weird.  But they made 74 cookies, and time was running out. I needed to bring 63 with me.  My taste testers agreed that they were odd, but the flavor was good, and the consistency appealing.  I waffled, and almost sent the last batch to work with my husband. Finally, not wanting to bake any more, I decided to bag it and bring them.

I got turned around somehow en route, and headed the wrong way, getting upset that I was going to be late to an event where I knew one or two other people.  Way to make a bad first impression. Before I knew it, there were blue and red flashing lights behind me.  I pulled over, distraught, and the police officer walked up.  "Ma'am," he said, "do you know why I pulled you over?"

"I was going 30 ... I didn't realize it was a school zone ... I was just slowing down ... I'm ... I'm ... I'm on my way to a COOKIE EXCHANGE," I sobbed, thinking and I not even going to win this stupid contest.

He walked away, checking my ID, decided that I was a nut, and after about ten minutes left me with a ticket before sending me back on my way.  Now I was really late.

I walked in, and found an impressive spread of cookies that had already arrived, in every conceivable form: chai shortbreads, chocolate dipped macaroons, several different kinds of maracons, lovely sugar cookies, sandwiches that must have taken hours, frosted thumbprints. In the kitchen there was a table full of wine and things to nibble on, and the hostess welcomed everyone as they filtered through the doorway.  I put my cookies with the rest, found the two people I knew, and relaxed into the conversation, which was really the reason I'd ended up committing in the first place.

It was a delightful two hours, despite the "cutthroat" judging happening in a clandestine room on the other side of the house (with judges including a local popular bakery owner, the principal of the middle school, and two critical husbands), and the occasional ribbing and teasing.  In the corner of the couch, last year's reigning champion sat nursing her adorable baby, and wearing an ostentatious-looking crown. I met several people I'd seen online, got to know a fellow kindergarten parent who knew one of my students and has ended up with my daughter's Daisy troop, and in general reassured myself that that I really did like this community.

Finally, as the hour grew late, they drew us together for door prizes and announcements of the winners. I didn't win a single door prize: no measuring cups, or spoons, or towels.  I toyed with packing my things away and leaving before anyone noticed.

They announced the winners in the Best Looking (the meticulously frosted thumbprint) and Best Tasting (one of the macarons, with runner up a matcha green tea cookie). I felt my heart beat a little faster when they called Most Original, but they called the name of a woman I'd started to get to know at my daughter's ballet class, and who just started taking adult tap with me.  I was disappointed, but glad that at least I knew the person who won.

"And finally," they said, "the grand prize!"  Everyone gasped as the owner of the local popular bakery lugged out a professional KitchenAid mixer that she'd donated and placed it in the middle of the floor, where it parted the crowd like Moses.

"Wow," I whispered to the person next to me. "I could use that.  I think the motor on mine is going."  "Nice prize, isn't it?" she agreed.  I tuned out a little, caring but also not caring who they winner might be, and reassured that the one shot I had was lost.

"And the winner of the title Best in Show is ... " pausing dramatically, "THREE WISEMEN'S TREASURES!"

I blinked, and looked around, waiting for someone else to step forward.  Wait a minute, I thought.  Holy shit.  That's ME.

I bumbled to the center of the room, hands to my mouth, starting to cry. As they walked towards me with the crown, and placed it on my head, I'll be damned if I didn't feel like Miss America herself.  (If you want more pictures of the event, they're here. It's pretty entertaining. You'll be able to tell when I show up.)

I stood there as people took pictures, hugging the bakery owner, laughing and crying in disbelief.  There were some more announcements, which I had trouble parsing, and before I knew it, everyone was dissipating, taking boxes to pack away their share to bring home.

Honestly, I felt guilty taking cookies home when I'd won such an amazing prize. I felt guilty taking a mug with the sponsoring local community website home. I felt guilty not cleaning up. I felt guilty winning a KitchenAid mixer, when I'd gone not thinking I'd win anything at all. There were so many really good cookies there.  Why me?  With my wacky curry cookie?

Sometimes it feels silly to care about baking, which doesn't seem like a very important thing, given the state that the world is in, and the ways in which I feel helpless (no matter how many phone calls I make to my representatives) in the face of what looks like impending disaster. But damn, it was nice to be recognized for doing something I thought I used to be good at doing, and had finally started doing again in my new kitchen, after a long, long hiatus. It was nice to get to know some new people, to connect with a community.  Which is maybe where we all have to start, anyway, to solve the larger problems that face us.

Three Wisemen's Treasures
(with thanks to Jane Mathews of Franksville, WI, who created the original, though it no longer seems linkable online. Honestly, I don't know if I'll make these again, because they were a little odd.  But let me know if YOU do.)

½ c. butter, room temperature
½ c. margarine, room temperature
1 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 t. vanilla
3 c. flour
1 t. baking powder
½ t. baking soda
½ t. salt
1 ½ - 2 t. sweet curry powder
½ t. ground cardamom
¾ c. chopped, toasted pecans
¾ c. chopped dates
1/3 c.chopped crystallized ginger

2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 to 5 teaspoons milk (as needed for glaze consistency)
Finely chopped pecans and dates for decoration (2 to 3 tablespoons of each)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large bowl, cream butter, margarine and sugars. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until mixed. Sift dry ingredients into a separate bowl and add to creamed mixture one-third at a time. Stir in pecans, ginger and dates.

Using a 1-inch scoop, drop dough 2 inches apart onto parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven 10 to 13 minutes, until golden. Cool on racks. When cool, mix together powdered sugar, cardamom and milk and drizzle glaze onto cookies. Top with chopped dates and pecans.

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  1. Mel was right: this story is fantastic! Congratulations on best in show! Well deserved. And I wonder if you can contest the speeding ticket by sharing this story and a sampling of your cookies with the judge. If she/he has a heart (and a sweet tooth), I think it may be worth it.

  2. I Love, love, LOVE this!! Congrats on winning!! I checked out the pictures and your face is priceless!! This is such an amazing story-I am so glad you told it. And that's an awesome kitchen aid mixer I couldn't live without! That is a mighty generous prize donation! I wish my community did something like this...I have a cookie that I have been told should be entered into contests, but I don't know of any to enter. Maybe next time I will drive up and enter yours 😉

  3. I love this story. I've missed you in the blogosphere. Happy new year!

  4. I didn't know you got a crown! You left that part out. And the ticket :-)

  5. What a fabulous story!! -- Mel was right to bug you to tell it to the rest of us. ;) Glad to have you back blogging too!

  6. This is the best story!! I love this. Congratulations and thank you so much for the recipe. This sounds like my kind of cookie.

  7. I loved this story! Seriously, it made me smile and maybe even tear up a little. Thanks for sharing. Also amazing was the article you attached with he pictures. I love how seriously this group takes this even and goes out of their way to make it fun. You have found a great community it seems. Maybe at some point you wouldn't mind sharing a bit more about how the group that you meet with to discuss diversity is set up and how your conversations normally go. I would love to find something like that in my area.

  8. Fabulous story, wonderfully told!! I so want a Kitchen Aid mixer but we just don't have the counter space for something I realistically won't (shouldn't!) be using daily.

  9. I'm in the middle of the adjustment period after a move and wish I had a success story like this one - with or without the KitchenAid! Sounds like you have found a wonderful community to be part of ...

  10. Holy sh!t, Wisemen -- that's me!

    So funny! And not at all surprising. I'm so glad you like your new neighborhood and that they already get what a fabulous addition you are.

    You're taking tap? Very cool.

    Bummer about the ticket. Boo.

    Do you think I could make these without pecans?

  11. Great cookies -- quick and easy to make. Will try these soon.

  12. Is it possible to miss someone you've only met once in real life? I wish we were neighbors.

  13. I love this story. I've missed you in the blogosphere. Happy new year!


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