Baby, It's Cold Outside

an apple studded with cloves makes the season bright
You think you really know a person and then, one December day, you find out they've never had a peanut butter cookie. Never. Had. A. Peanut. Butter. Cookie. Let alone those peanut butter cookies with the chocolate kiss in the middle that every mom in Lompoc knows how to make. It's a crying shame.

Peanut butter cookies with a chocolate kiss pressed into the center were ubiquitous at all large social gatherings in my youth, be they t-ball games or church potlucks. Maybe it's the nostalgia talking, but these guys are a king among sweets. They aren't a particularly sophisticated cookie, but how sophisticated should cookies be, really?

After the shock of realizing they weren't universally consumed passed, I added them to the cookie menu for the holiday party I threw last weekend. Joining them: gingerbread stars (and some trees), the best brownies and Nigella Lawson's "hokey pokey." I looked for recipes I could make with ingredients I had on hand (both pantry space and funds being limited). The hokey pokey was made with my friend golden syrup, sugar and baking soda. It's the Welsh version of honeycomb candy, or so the internet would have me believe. It had some nice treacley undertones, but the takeaway flavor was baking soda. I'd try it again, but would mess with the proportions.

For the gingerbread, I used malted barley syrup instead of molasses. Yes, I'm easily amused, but the viscosity of malted barley syrup is hilarious to me. Watching it leave the jar makes me feel like a cartoon. Grass grows around me, paint peels, my hair turns gray, lakes dry up... I could go on. Hilarity aside, malted barley syrup really does contribute something special. It felt like blasphemy to depart from my mother's gingerbread recipe, but the finished product tasted great. Not too sweet, with a serious bite (maybe because of the syrup and maybe because I added a little Chinese five spice powder).

I try to do as much as possible ahead of time when I'm throwing a party. That way, I have time to clean the kitchen before my guests arrive, creating the illusion that I do dishes in a timely manner. Also, I like hanging out with my friends at parties. Having things sewn up before anyone gets there makes more time for catching up with people (or brainstorming about a Next Top Model-style show for aspiring clowns). So I planned to ice the gingerbread almost a week before my party. Usually when I need icing, I mix powdered sugar with egg whites and call it a day. But it seemed king of risky to invite raw egg whites to hang out for a week before being consumed. I like my friends. I don't want to poison them. So I ditched the egg whites for meringue powder. If you want to try this too, let me know, I have a ton of meringue power--Surfas only had generous bags of the stuff for sale. When I brought it to the register, the checker said, "meringue powder, huh?" I couldn't tell what he meant (having been a sarcastic cashier, I'm a cynical customer), but the powder worked out great. I whisked 5 tablespoons of it with a pound of powdered sugar and probably 3/8 cup of water. It created a frosting that was easy to work with, held color and dried hard and fast. And as far as I know, all of my guests are still alive and well.

Like the proverb says, "party guests cannot live on cookies alone," so I made some drinks. I wanted something warm and seasonal. A friend in the Boston area threw a holiday party on the same day as me and while his invitation was much cooler than mine, it was great to pick his brain about cocktails. He was thinking about making buttered rums. I tried to make one and didn't love it. It was promising, but I needed more time than I had to tinker before I felt ok serving it to others. Instead, I went with a rum and apple cider. I studded one of my three remaining Arkansas Black Apples (and then there were two) with cloves and put it in my dutch oven along with ¼ cup of brown sugar, a thinly sliced (and seeded) orange, a rounded teaspoon of spices (some freshly grated nutmeg, a little Chinese five spice) and two quarts of apple cider. I brought this to a boil slowly over low heat and simmered for ten minutes. Then I killed the heat, added a cup of dark rum, ladled into mugs and garnished with a cinnamon stick. It was great, if a little sweet (next time, and there will be a next time, I'm cutting the sugar down by half).

Since I was feeling seasonal, I also made eggnog. I assumed I didn't like eggnog, before realizing I'd never tasted it (like fruitcake). I happened to have my aunt's recipe, so I gave it a try. I beat six egg yolks until light, then gradually whisked in one pound of powdered sugar and a cup of bourbon (Buffalo Trace... feel free to send me a case). I let that sit in the fridge for an hour, then I pulled it out and whisked in a quart of heavy whipping cream. It seemed a little thin, so I kept the whisk going for a bit, then put it back in the fridge for a couple of hours. When I took it out to fold in four egg whites beaten into soft peaks and freshly grated nutmeg, it was definitely thick enough. It was thick enough to use as frosting. But it tasted wonderful... bourbon frosting, how could that be bad? It can't. And it created a memorable moment wherein a group of educated people revealed they didn't exactly know if "high viscosity" or "low viscosity" meant "very thick." I don't think it is necessarily bad for something smallish to go wrong during a party, it gives you something to talk about then and laugh about later.

bland punch with delightful ice, my fav PB cookies

Since I didn't think I liked eggnog, I didn't want to force it on guests who didn't want a warm beverage. So I made a second cold option: a truly forgettable vodka-cranberry juice punch. I wanted to make a big chunk of ice instead of using ice cubes to keep the punch cool (the smaller the cube, the faster it melts and I didn't want to water down an already tasteless punch). I happen to have ice cube trays that make large, perfect cubes of ice ideal for mixed drinks, but that wasn't going to cut it for the punch. So I put a layer of ice in a small-medium metal bowl, poured in a layer of cranberries and topped with more ice. Then I filled the bowl with water. The layers of ice kept the cranberries from totally floating to the surface. After a day in the back of the freezer, I pulled out the bowl and ran some warm water over the bottom. The ice popped right out of the container and it looked very pretty floating in my mediocre punch. I would never make the punch again, but I would totally make another fruited ice block. Instead of cranberries, you could use slices of citrus (lemons, limes, even kumquats would be nice) or other berries.

On the night of my party, the peanut butter cookies were comforting and chewy, the chocolate kiss adding a little whimsy and contrast. The gingerbread was deeply spicey. The brownies were rich and a little salty. The rum cider was warm and inviting. The eggnog was thick and luxurious. The ice was be-cranberried. The company was fantastic and the Christmas tree was lit. If that isn't the definition of "merry," well I just don't know what is.

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