Sunday, December 23, 2018

Visions of sugarplums

I’m not really a dessert person. Oh, I love tarte Tatin. And macarons. And the occasional moelleux au chocolat. But I cannot make any of these things. I can make pumpkin pie; everything else turns out either too thin, too flat, too dry, too crumbly, too dark, or some unfortunate combination thereof.

Lacking any kind of talent in this area never really mattered until I became a mom. Living in France and all, where children’s 4 p.m. snack-time is a cherished tradition with the potential to call forth almost Proustian nostalgia later in life, I kind of feel obligated to provide my little ones with a warm home that smells of sugar and spice—which is why I buy scented candles.

But this is Christmas. Christmas is different. Christmas means turning on the oven and baking sweet things. More specifically, my American psyche says that Christmas means baking COOKIES. I suck at baking cookies. However, this year I felt like family cookie time would be a nice festive bonding opportunity that we could all share, while listening to Nat King Cole and smiling lovingly at one another. I have these moments of insanity now and then, where I forget all past experience or intuition and just dive headlong into clearly doomed projects. This was a fine example.

It didn’t help matters any that my Christmas cookie culture is more inferential than empirical. My mother being an enthusiastic devotee of the holistic, organic SoCal lifestyle, my brother and I didn’t grow up eating chocolate chip cookies; we grew up gnawing on whole wheat-sesame-raisin-nut-honey mounds with a somewhat blackened underside. Real Christmas cookies—the white flour, white sugar kind—were something the neighbors gave us once a year, probably out of pity.

I obviously don’t own any cookie recipes, but that is why we have the internet. So I hunted down some Better Homes-worthy candidates, printed them out, made a shopping list, and figured I was off to a good start. What I neglected to factor into the equation was that THIS IS FRANCE, NOT AMERICA. One would think that after 17 years of living here, I’d stop assuming anything, especially when it comes to Christmas (CANDY CANES AND EGGNOG—FORGET THEM), but nah.

We do our shopping at what the French call an hypermarché, which supposedly translates as “big box store,” although I don’t buy it. Really? That’s the best translation anyone could come up with? The place doesn’t sell shipping supplies for Pete’s sake. An hypermarché is where you can buy pretty much anything: oodles of groceries, tons of toys, mountains of clothing, piles of housewares, etc. Ours is called Carrefour Planet, but I affectionately refer to it as “the Vortex,” because time seems to mysteriously speed up as soon as we’re inside; instead of taking 1-2 hours, the average visit takes us 5. In other words, I figured that the Vortex would have all of my cookie-baking needs covered.

Ah, but this is France, mes chéris. France has its own proud traditions and is under no obligation to embrace your inferior ones, thank you very much.

Let’s start with molasses. Seems simple enough. The word exists in French—mélasse—and is a known ingredient (I mean it probably is); therefore I imagined it would be a supermarket item like any other. Except that no, it’s not. I scoured the (very large) baking aisle, the jams and honeys aisle, the organic aisle, and even the imports aisle (lost time: 45 minutes). Rien. As my dad pointed out, France’s colonial past would indeed lead one to expect molasses to be a readily available commodity. France also has quite a few overseas territories that cultivate what? SUGAR CANE. Rum, for instance, is not lacking here. So where’s the (damn) molasses?

Fine. I scratched mélasse off my list and figured I’d find a workaround. All the basics were there aplenty: butter, sugar, eggs, flour. No ready-made frosting, but so what—that stuff will kill you anyway. All that remained to be found were the decorations: red and green sugar, holiday M&Ms, Hershey’s Kisses, and possibly red and green candied fruit. Oh yeah, and cookie cutters.

Red and green sugar: did the Vortex stock any? Non. In fact, the entire baking aisle looked much like it does the rest of the year, i.e. nothing particularly Christmassy about it. There were the usual confetti sprinkles, chopped nuts, chocolate chips, vanilla extract, and a lot of marzipan, but that’s it. I looked, believe me. Up the aisle and down again. Crouched. Stood on my toes. Oh, there was colored sugar all right: gold sugar, pink sugar, pearled sugar. I even found candied fruit, but only YELLOW candied fruit, because ha ha ha is why.

Could one make red and green sugar using food coloring, I wondered? Probably. On to M&Ms. Do you think the French stock holiday M&M’s? Because if you do, you’re wrong. So I bought a normal bag and figured I’d just pick out the freaking red and green ones. Hershey’s Kisses I pretty much expected not to find. I mean come on.

By this point, my bitch-o-meter was at about a 6 out of 10, so it was time to move along. Cookie cutters—ugh. I had to backtrack to housewares. And what did I find there? NO GINGERBREAD MEN is what. Not one. I found plenty of tree shapes (yay!). And lots of festive cake molds. But no good old-fashioned gingerbread cookie cutters. Why THE HELL not? French Christmas décor often features gingerbread men! So where were the cookie cutters TO MAKE THE #@$&!! GINGERBREAD MEN? My bitch-o-meter inched up to 7. I needed a drink.

In the end, we had to go to an arts and crafts store the next day for that elusive gingerbread cookie cutter. Obviously, they weren’t sold separately; I had to buy a pack of three in various sizes. Oh well. They ALSO had green and red colored sugar! Granted, the red was actually fuchsia, but it was labelled rouge, which was good enough for me. Total cost for sugar and cookie cutters: 19 euros. Yeah.

When cookie baking day rolled around, I pulled out my recipes, organized my ingredients, summoned my children, and got to work. They enjoyed it. Eggs were cracked; sugar was measured; batter was beaten. Seeing as how I own exactly ONE cookie sheet, but had about 12 dozen cookies to bake and decorate, the operation sort of took all day. The kids finally got bored and retired to the living room.

But how did the cookies TASTE? I offered one to my son, who answered, “No thanks, Mom.” I tried my daughter, who picked off the M&Ms and left me the rest. Kids don’t like gingerbread apparently. No matter—I proved to myself that I can make cookies after all, and the three of us managed to have a wholesome holiday moment without any crying or screaming (my own notwithstanding), which is a biiiiig win in my book. Maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.

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