Seven Reasons to Bake Your Own

By Nancy Baggett
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Perhaps you're still deciding whether to join the cookie-baking crowd this year. Maybe you're wondering if this age-old holiday custom is worth the time, or worried you don't have enough expertise, equipment or kitchen space.

Before you reach for those store-bought cookies, consider this batch of reasons to do it yourself.

The irresistible aroma: Never mind the claims of purveyors of vanilla-, fruit- and spice-scented candles and air fresheners. The smell of real gingerbread or lemon thins baking is what immediately puts people in a "Deck the Halls"-humming mood, especially if sampling is on the agenda. The cookie aroma can even set the tone: Gingersnaps and snickerdoodles say old-fashioned coziness. Chocolate chips say laid-back and comfortable. Hazelnut-mocha-espresso wafers shout hip and trendy.

The matchless taste: Large-quantity baked goods from commercial kitchens, even those that use high-quality ingredients, can't live up to small-batch homemade cookies. Even the easiest, quickest versions taste better than bought, especially if served fresh. The freshness aspect is worth emphasizing, because it's a common misconception that cookies improve with age. If you're baking more than a week ahead, freeze them.

The fun factor: For kids, it's part arts and crafts, part chemistry, part opportunity to play with food and be praised for it, part nibble-fest. Many also love feeling helpful and included in family holiday preparations. For adults, it can be about hanging out with friends while doing something productive: One of the most enjoyable days I recall was spent reminiscing while baking holiday cookies with my former college roommate. Cookie baking can create a sense of home when you're far from it. A colleague's 20-something daughter and her friends have "mothering parties" where they bake cookies and pamper themselves. And cookie baking is a great way for grown-ups of all ages to bond with the young people in their lives. I started with my grandchildren, Charlie and Lizzie, when they could barely talk; for several years, the first thing my grandson said whenever he came to visit was, "Nana bake cookies?"

The hard-to-fail factor: If there is one sweet that belongs in the baking-for-dummies book, it's cookies. Particularly if you stick with simple drops, bars and slice-and-bakes, nothing can go wrong. (Well, all right, a few things can; see back page to head off trouble.) As for concerns about kitchen inadequacies, consider this: I once whipped up cookie dough in the back seat of a car on the way to a TV show and then baked it in the studio. If you have the ingredients, a couple of measures, a bowl, a spoon and disposable pans, you can make cookies.

The nifty-gift factor: No one ever thinks, "Oh, no, another hideous thingto ditch in the yard sale!" when they receive cookies. Even the toughest nuts to crack on your holiday shopping list will probably be thrilled. My mother-in-law bakes tins of her family-famous iced lebkuchen for my husband and son every Christmas, and it's the present those two hard-to-shop-for guys look forward to most. Once she substituted CDs, and the ingrates grumbled until she promised to return to cookie baking the next year.

The core values thing: In an era when many lament the commercialization of the holidays, making cookies bucks the trend. How better to communicate that the season is about being with loved ones than to bake with your kids, friends or extended family? What more eloquent testament that the most meaningful gifts are not ones charged to credit cards than to give out cookies you prepared?

The nostalgia thing: Countless people have told me stories of a favorite relative or friend who made memorable cookies. Baking helps keep precious recollections alive. Every time I bake my grandmother's cinnamon- and clove-spiked date rocks, I remember her making them for me. When I roll out my mother's vanilla sugar cookies, I'm back in that Howard County farmhouse baking with her. Decades from now, when my grandchildren are grown and are parents themselves, baking Nana's cookies will probably make them think of me. A nice way to be remembered, don't you think?

Nancy Baggett, author of "The All-American Cookie Book" and several others, lives in Maryland. She can be reached through her Web site,http://www.kitchenlane.com.


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