Every year Phyllis Santone hosts a day of cookie baking at her home just before the holidays get busy. How lucky was I to get an invitation this year. Nothing says Christmas more than the elaborate foods we prepare and offer to friends and family over the holidays and in my family, cookies play a big part in the festivies.
We all descended at Phyllis’s house around mid morning and unloaded our cars. I came prepared to make two of my favourite holiday cookies and had ingredients for one recipe of each. I watched as Theresa and Anna brought in box after bag overflowing with ingredients like she was ready to cater cookies to an entire football team – hmmmmm.
With no time to spare, we immediately set to work in Phyllis’s enormous lower kitchen. In the centre is a large table and two bigger tables spill out into other rooms. Ingredients and equipment spill over every inch of the counters while bowls and rolling pins wait patiently on the tables.
Anna brings in two dozen large tubs big enough to bath in. They all have lids and it still doesn’t click that I’m in for some serious baking so I innocently continue on. I’m immediately put at the chopping station. I start with dates, they’re so sticky and laborious. I finish and I move on to chocolate. Wow, Belcolade chocolate wafers, whoa, no Bakers chocolate in this kitchen, yum! I’m working on a glass cutting board and the chocolate ricochets with each chop like an escaping convict, but I quickly get the better of it with a method to keep it confined. Over by the stove, the door is open and Phyllis and Anna have their heads into a pan of toasting hazelnuts whispering about their condition and level of doneness.
It’s Phyllis’ kitchen but Theresa is definitely the one in charge of the baking; measuring and sifting, whisking and mixing by hand. Yes, I glance over and she is almost elbow deep in a giant bowl of luscious cookie batter, squeezing it between her fingers, feeling it intensely until she’s happy with the texture.
I on the other hand have a hot cookie sheet full of toasted hazelnuts in front of me. My job is to skin them. I begin to rub them firmly between my hands. I rub furiously fast as the hot nuts are burning my palms. Some of the skins fall off easily but others are stubborn and the task takes forever – my hands are swelling with the pain – but I don’t say a word.
On the centre table Anna stacks parchment lined cookie sheets, half a dozen high. The first batch of dough is ready and the assembly line begins. The giant bowl (just larger than a kitchen sink) is set beside the cookie sheets, Theresa rolls the dough into a specific size giving Anna and Phyllis instructions that include rolling the dough ball into fluffy, whisked egg whites, then in blonde almonds. The assembly line work begins and the cookie sheets are slowly filled with round bundles of almonds.
Theresa’s recipes are traditional Italian recipes that have been in her family for generations and she’s been baking them herself for as long as she can remember. The room fills with seductive smells of butter, vanilla and almonds. Theresa begins working on another recipe creaming sweet butter – I counted 12 pounds of butter on the counter and 8 dozen eggs. I’m beginning to wonder what they hope to accomplish.
The bowl gets passed around and everyone smells in complete satisfaction, then she takes it over to the scales where she carefully weighs out mounds of dough, whispering the entire time about overages, then adjusting and finally successfully moving on to the next mound.
The first cookies roll out of the oven. Everyone stops to smell, poke, analyze and taste. The room gets serious with talk of production methods, adding more of this or baking longer than that. Should the size be bigger or smaller, they’re just a little too big for the intended one-bite size but the consensus is they’re perfect for someone with a big mouth! Great, nothing is changed and we continue.
Once the girls are satisfied with the cookie conference, we go back to baking in silence. It seems to be more of a meditative act, almost therapeutic and we love it. Balls of dough continue to be rolled out between loving hands, dipped skillfully in egg whites and tumbled in almonds.
There comes a time when we get ahead of the ovens. Phyllis has one oven in the basement with 3 racks that are full. Upstairs there is a double oven that is also full. There is talk of switching to the convection mode to hurry things up, but before the words have a chance to be fully spoken, shrieks ring out in the room. Never! Convection will dry out the cookies, so we keep the traditional ovens going.
We take a break and talk of the latest Toronto baker, Cake Opera. Apparently, an artist turned her talents to baking elaborate cakes. The minimum charge is $2,500 for one cake! But the ladies are convinced these cookies would out do anything the Cake Opera can produce because there’s nothing better than good home cooking.
Theresa takes her perfectly equal mounds of creamy cookie dough and begins to roll them into logs. The sticky dough picks up the icing sugar she’s rolling them in and when it’s just right, she transfers the logs onto a cookie sheet. Miraculously, there is another stack of parchment lined cookie sheets beside her and she has enough dough to fill them all.
It’s early afternoon and we decide we need to stop for lunch. Phyllis makes sure her bakers are well fed and we walk into a feast in the upstairs dining room. Large trays of just made pizzas, one with luscious tomato sauce, herbs and yummy cheese and the other a delicious salty foccacia. There are trays of charcuterie and large blocks of cheeses; parmesan and asiago that are decorated with fresh balls of bocconcinni. There is a scrumptious rapini stuffed bread, a platter of glistening black olives and a colourful salad with a blend of radicchio and greens. A large platter of fresh fruit sits at the edge of the table and we feast, talk, laugh and keep an eye on the cookies still in the oven.
We’re back downstairs and I’m back to chopping the Belcolade chocolate – perfect dessert after our baking feast. Soon the bowls of chocolate are melted and stirred into luscious cookie dough with mounds of toasted hazelnuts. There is still lots of eggs, cream and butter on the counter waiting to be turned into yummy cookies and my wonder begins to turn to worry about the amount of baking there is to do. The back table starts to fill with warm cookies from the oven, the sink fills with hot water while bowls and dishes, spoons and beaters all get their bath and are put to work again.
I start making my biscotti. While everyone else is baking hundreds of cookies, the best I can do is to double my recipe. I’m using a hand beater with a bowl with a ridge on the bottom so the ingredients don’t mix properly. I try to compensate with a spatula. The ingredients aren’t cooperating and I beat it extra long to try and pull the right consistency together. It ends up a little too wet but I have to move on. Magically 6 stacked cookie tins appear beside me and I begin to take dough and form it into logs. Oh no, I didn’t weigh my dough to make sure my biscotti logs were equal; I just eye-balled it. Oh well, the trays are quickly escorted into the oven and we wait – why am I so nervous!
I begin to work on my shortbread cookies. These are not traditional Italian cookies nor are they my Canadianized versions of biscotti, but they’re a personal cookie that means something special to me so I love to share, especially during the holidays. I start to cream an entire pound of soft butter. It succumbs to the beaters and becomes a luscious mass of yellow cream – how ultimately satisfying. In goes the fruit sugar and I beat until it’s fluffy and irresistible. I start to feel better about my cookies and I sift in the flours.
Theresa and Phyllis have their heads together as they work cinnamon and hazelnuts into the chocolate cookie dough. They taste it and Theresa decides to add orange zest and a bit of almond. Then with great satisfaction Theresa parades the kitchen for the rest of us to taste. With approvals all around she moves towards another stack of pristine cookie sheets.
There’s too much flour in my bowl and the shortbread is way too crumbly. I work in more butter with my fingers and it becomes barely acceptable. Nothing seems to be working for me but the ladies are gracious. It’s now 5:30 and the count on the table is 300 cookies of one recipe, 360 of another, 250 of the almond balls and who knows what else – amazing. I’m producing just under 100 biscotti and 40 shortbread cookies – how underwhelming, aughhh.
My biscotti are now out of the oven and I wait to cut them. Theresa’s cutting hers and they’re slicing perfectly. Mine are still warm when I attempt and the nuts and dried cranberries tear every second one – aughhhh. They get cut, turned on their sides and back into the oven for a second baking. I’m getting tired and frustrated, I’m usually a very good baker but in light of these women, I realize I’ve got a long way to go. Look out culinary schools, I don’t know of one that can hold a candle to this efficient production of Italian ladies baking their beloved holiday traditions.
Anna talks of leaving and I feel relieved – the first sign of the end of the day. We’ve worked feverously hard today and we have mountains of cookies to show for it. I’m thinking the day is coming to an end and we can relax, then there’s a knock on the door. In comes Marissa and Lucy, arms laden with bags of ingredients – the second shift of bakers!
Anna leaves while Marissa and Lucy unload their bags and dive right into the kitchen with the energy of a new day. All of the new recipes are calculated for a double and triple batch. The group hovers around a cutting board filled with whole biscotti logs waiting to be cut. They decide that biscotti perfection is a combination of the right cutting board, a sharp knife, type of nut used and the perfect temperature of the cookie. There is an endless ritual of whispers, poking, cutting and discussing – perfection is always being worked on. I don’t think there has ever been as much thought gone into solving world problems as there is in this kitchen with these cookies that will be shared and eaten in the name of love and hospitality.
It’s dusk, my legs are throbbing and I’m feeling tired. Obviously I’m no match for this group of bakers. But the holidays are coming and these cookies will create flavours and memories for their family and loved ones, it makes sense they must be perfect. Happy baking this holiday season!