by Barb, in Portland, Maine, where we’re making our lists and checking them twice
I’ve written before, many times, about how I always bake six kinds of cookies at Christmas time. My grandmother made five of them, and the recipe cards I follow are written in her hand. The sixth recipe is in my scrawl, as dictated to me by my mother.
I’ve been making these cookies for so many years, that I’ve gotten to know them and their personalities. I was thinking, as I arranged them on a plate to take to a family party, the cookies are like co-workers. Each is a distinct office type.
Hazelnut wreaths. The hazelnut wreaths have a delicate flavor created entirely by the nuts. They’re rolled and cut and minimally decorated to let the flavor shine through. My family and I have made them through hazelnut droughts, when you couldn’t find one in a store, particularly, the shelled, but skin-on ones we most prize, to hazelnut gluts, like today when you can have hazelnut coffee while dipping your hazelnut biscotti in your hazelnut gelato.
If a hazelnut wreath were your co-worker, she would be that mysterious woman of a certain age who speaks several languages and has an unplaceable accent. She dresses not for the job she has or the job she wants–she dresses better than the boss. And you’re always dying to ask why on earth she accepted a job that is clearly levels below what she’s capable of. Unsought divorce? Untimely widowhood? Or a coup in that country where the unplaceable accent comes from? She is pleasant and competent and she will never give you an opening to ask your many questions.
Butter cookies: These are the first of the cookies. The only ones I am certain my great-grandmother made. The are rolled and cut with small cookie cutters and minimally decorated. They taste buttery (three-quarters of a pound of butter, five egg yolks), with a hint of lemon.
If a butter cookie was your co-worker, she would be the undisputed grande dame of the office. She would know everyone’s birthdays, and the names of their partners and children. Though her actual title might be modest, in times of crisis everyone looks to her to know how to behave. Even more than the big boss, she sets the tone.
Nut puffs: A lot of people make these cookies, which are also called pecan puffs and Russian tea cakes and all sorts of other things. I will tell you honestly, mine are the best you have ever tasted. I have witnesses, tongue-witnesses, who will vouch for this. Nut puffs are not sweet, they contain a mere tablespoon of sugar in the cookie dough. All the sweetness comes from the confectioners sugar they are rolled in after baking.
The nut puff is the quiet workhorse of the office. He is that fellow you hired or promoted because no one better came along, who then absolutely shocked you with the quality of his work, his devotion to the job, and his wry sense of humor. You were unsure in the beginning, but now you love him.
Jewel Brooch cookies: Lots of people also make these cookies. They are called gems or jewels. I tell you, casting aside false modesty, mine are better. They don’t look any better, but they taste better. I suspect my grandmother and mother added these to the mix to fill out the plate with a colorful cookie that is relatively easy to make.
The jewel brooches are the dazzling young women of the office. They are smart and funny and pretty and wear great clothes. Brightening up the dark corners of the cubicle farm, they do their jobs well and then run out for evenings of theater and restaurants and shopping and laughter with their many friends.
Chocolate toffee squares: Another relatively easy to make cookie. The only one made with brown sugar instead of white. The dough is spread on a baking sheet, a task you can approach with many different tools, and ultimately have to do with your hands. While they are baking, there’s a double boiler on the stove and in it is the most delicious chocolate you can find. As soon as the sheet comes out of the oven, the melted chocolate is spread on top of the cooked dough so the layers fuse together.
The chocolate toffee squares are the young men in khaki pants who work the phones, selling, or providing support to customers. They flirt with the pretty jewel brooches, but few romances bloom. When they do, it is glorious and everyone in the office is invited to the wedding.
Marangoons: My mother called these “trash cookies.” Their sole purpose is to use up all the egg whites leftover after making the other cookies. Besides the egg whites, they contain confectioners sugar, corn flakes, chocolate chips, coconut, and a dash of vanilla. We’ve upgraded to better chocolate chips from the original Nestles my mother used, but the cookies have resisted any other attempts to upscale them. The corn flakes have to be Kellogg’s. The ones from Whole Foods turn into a soggy mass. And the coconut has to be sweetened. The real stuff, dried, is a disaster. Some things, like marangoons and green bean casserole, are best in their original, mid-century form. Like real macaroons, these cookies don’t last long, though I serve them stale and no one in my family has ever turned one down.
The marangoon is the office schlub. That guy who looks like a slob, no matter what you do. Even if you give up a lunch hour to help him clothes shop, he will come to work the next day looking every bit as schlubby as the day before. But, he’s a nice guy, and he does his job, albeit with a lot of grumbling, so you get used to him, and then you get to be friends, and the next thing you know, you’re crying a his good-bye party.
Readers: Do any of these office types sound familiar? Would you like to contribute any of your own?