THE SADDEST part of the holiday season is taking the Christmas tree down. No one wants the job. Some families even establish traditional dress-down days -- New Year's Day, Epiphany -- just to be sure the tree doesn't hang around forever.
But here's another way to make sure you have plenty of help when untrimming time rolls around. Hang the Christmas tree with edible ornaments. You'll be lucky if they last through the 12 days of Christmas.
Edible Christmas tree ornaments are as old as the tradition of the tree itself. In European households hundreds of years back, baskets full of cookies appeared for the holidays. Carved wooden forms were used to press sweet short dough into decorative shapes. Decorated with frosting, these tasty figurines would hang alongside slender tapers, a delightful centerpiece of art and light for the festivities.
Vestiges of this tradition remain with us. Almost everyone who celebrates Christmas has a few holiday cookie cutters squirreled away, ones they only bring out for this season. Stars and bells, angels and Santa Clauses, red-nosed reindeer and the Christmas tree itself -- think what fun it would be to deck a tree with these once-a-year creations, colorfully frosted, sprinkled and tied with a bow. Even if the tree is a table-top version, edible ornaments will make it sparkle.
Kids love to make cookies anytime, but decorating the tree with them gives the project a special glow. Using a tiny paintbrush, toothpick or cotton swab to apply details can make frosting more fun than fingerpainting. And you can gobble up the failures right away. The successes will hang together on the Christmas tree, almost too beautiful to be eaten.
The tricky part in making edible ornaments is getting them to hang. By inserting twine, thread or wire hangers through the tops of the cookies before baking, you can easily dangle your ornaments from those evergreen boughs. When baking rolled cookies, you can also stick inch-long lengths of toothpick into the tops prior to putting them in the oven. Once the cookies have baked and cooled, gently twist the toothpicks out -- voila , a hole big enough to thread colorful embroidery floss or plain white cotton twine for hanging. And cookies shaped by hand can be pressed around a knotted loop of twine.
When shaping yeast dough into twists, pretzels and bows, thread a six- or eight-inch length of twine through a loop at the top of the shape you are sculpting. During baking, the dough will rise and envelop the twine. (It's best to avoid dyed material for this purpose since it might stain the final product.) Add a bright red bow after baking instead.
And to hang those all-time favorites, candied popcorn balls (which need no cooking), simply shape the balls around the lower end of wire ornament hangers. As the candy cools, it holds on tight.
Many a favorite Christmastime recipe can be transformed to produce ornaments for the tree. Soft drop cookies will not work, but most rolled cookies, refrigerator cookies and sweet roll doughs adjust handily for the purpose. Here are a few variations on traditional Christmas cookie themes.
GINGER TREE COOKIES (Makes 2 dozen cookies) 4 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons molasses 2 tablespoons brown sugar 2 tablespoons cream cheese 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour 1 teaspoon baking power 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Cream together butter, molasses, brown sugar and cream cheese. Sift in dry ingredients and blend thoroughly until dough comes together in a ball. Roll on floured surface to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut with cookie cutters and stick toothpick section into top for hanging. Bake 12 minutes at 350 degrees. May be frosted when cool.
ORNAMENTAL FROSTING (Enough for 3 dozen ornaments) 1 egg white Dash cream of tartar 1 cup (or more) confectioners' sugar Food coloring, fruit jams for tinting
Whisk egg white and cream of tartar until very frothy. Sift in confectioners' sugar gradually, beating until the frosting reaches the desired consistency. Color with either food coloring or jam that has been carefully strained of seeds. While purples and pinks can be achieved by adding a dash of fruit jam (blackberry, strawberry and grape are good choices), for green, you'll have to rely on standard food coloring.
PASTRY PINWHEELS (Makes 1 1/2 dozen cookies) 1 cup flour 1/4 cup butter 2 tablespoons shortening 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon confectioners' sugar Up to 1/4 cup ice cold water
Blend all ingredients except water until evenly crumbly. Dribble in water, the least amount possible that will hold the dough together in a ball. Refrigerate, covered, at least 1 hour. Roll out on floured surface to 1/8-inch thickness. To form pinwheels, cut dough into 3-inch squares. Then with a sharp knife cut a line 1 1/2 inches from each corner in toward the center. Fold alternate corners in toward center, topping with a candied cherry to secure. Insert toothpick in one section before baking. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes.
PECAN CRESCENT MOONS (Makes 2 dozen cookies) 1/2 cup butter 1/3 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 cup pecans, finely ground Confectioners' sugar
Cream together butter, sugar and vanilla. Sift in flour and baking powder, then blend in pecans. Dough may be shaped by hand immediately. To shape around hanger, knot 2 ends of a 6-inch length of cotton twine, then form dough securely around knotted end. Bake 12 minutes at 375 degrees. Roll in confectioners' sugar while still warm.
SWEET SCULPTING DOUGH (Makes 3 dozen ornaments) 1 tablespoon yeast 1 teaspoon sugar 1/4 cup lukewarm water 1/2 cup scalded milk 1/4 cup butter 1/4 cup vegetable shortening 1 egg Rind and juice of 1 lemon 1/4 cup honey 1/4 teaspoon salt 3 to 4 cups flour (may be whole-grain flour)
Sprinkle yeast and sugar into lukewarm water and set aside to proof. Pour scalded milk over butter and shortening in large mixing bowl. Stir to help them melt and blend together. Beat together egg, rind and juice of lemon, honey and salt. Add this mixture to the shortening and milk. Add bubbly yeast to this mixture. Sift in 3 cups flour. Beat, then knead 5 minutes, using remaining cup of flour on hands and board. Put dough in greased bowl, turn once to coat, then cover with damp towel, and let rise in warm place to double. Punch down. Shape dough into small ornaments -- pretzels, bows, butterflies, twists -- inserting cotton twine into dough at top of ornament. Let rise 15 minutes. Then bake at 375 degrees for 18 minutes. May be frosted when cool.
COLORFUL POPCORN BALLS (Makes ten 3-inch balls)
Begin with popped corn (at least 4 cups popped). You may add granola, nuts, candied fruits and pumpkin seeds for color and texture. Spread in large roasting pan and prepare syrup. 3 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup brown sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 2 tablespoons corn syrup 2 tablespoons water
Blend butter, brown sugar, salt and soda in small saucepan. Heat over medium heat, stirring, until bubbly. Quickly add corn syrup and water, still stirring, and bring again to boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, cook 2 minutes. Then uncover and continue cooking over medium-low heat, stirring and watching candy thermometer, until mixture reaches soft ball stage (235 degrees; about 5 or 6 minutes). Remove immediately from heat and pour over popcorn in roasting pan. Stir in syrup with a spoon and quickly shape into balls, incorporating wire ornament hangers as you do.