Monday, December 5, 2011

Making Christmas, Making Christmas, Making Christ-mas, It's Czech This Time...

First line of business this morning? Making Czech Christmas cookies with my mother-in-law. Now I woke up around 7:30, thinking I should still have a decent amount of time to get ready for the cooking plan, but by 8:30 when I'd finished my journal writing and getting dressed, she already had things well in progress.
Perhaps before I get any farther under way I should explain a couple of things.
Thing One: The Czech Christmas Cookie Tradition
Czech's really go all out with their holiday cookie making. Yeah, we like cookies and other sweets at the holidays in the US too, but here it's a big deal. When I was teaching my students would start talking about how they were already making cookies for Christmas a good month in advance. The cookies, or cukrovy, are really something special. Most people make a number of different varieties, I think we have four or five here this year. They're tiny little delicacies, more mouthfulls than the American variety, and are passed out as gifts and shared at parties and consumed in mass quantities at home.
Thing Two: My Mother-in-law
She's really quite a wonder. She's a full time nurse and an immaculate house keeper. After a long day at work the first thing she does when she comes home is to clean. As spotless as the place looks to me, she always seems to have this need to make it even cleaner. She reminds me a lot of my Grandma in that sense. Everything she does, she does to perfection. Cooking, cleaning, and her other passion - shopping - are all perfectly executed.
So back to my story, I got up thinking I could really learn something today about making Czech Christmas cookies. I was all set. I had my iPad prepared to write down recipes and serve as a translator when necessary, as well as taking photos to better illustrate what was going on. However, there wasn't really anything left to mix up when I got there. I still got to help, but it was beyond any point of actually learning what went into them, so in the future I guess I'll just have to look up recipes and figure it out on my own.
The first thing she had me do was pipe a nougat paste onto some nutty crescent cookies. At first I thought it was going to be a filling, but once they were all topped with the cream she put them out on the balcony (this is what she uses instead of refrigerator space) to cool and harden. Later on in the afternoon they were topped with a chocolate drizzle, but I missed out on that bit. At least I played some small part in their creation.
Okay, so I've just discovered that for some unknown reason my iPad doesn't want to let me upload photos to my post. I'm really not certain why, I mean I even figured out how to do it on my phone, but for now I guess this is going to be a rather bland post. I have some fun photos too :( Ah well.
Guess I'll just have to make do with words. The next cookies we worked on were my favorite ones. They are pretty similar to sugar cookies. I was responsible for rolling them out and cutting the shapes. It was fairly easy at first, but as the dough got softer and softer it became really difficult to get it to hold together. The very last shape Anna had to do for me because after I don't know how many pans of cookies I just couldn't make the last one come out in one piece. They only cook for about five minutes until they're lightly brown. She was in charge of the cooking and cooling bit, and she commented on how thankful she was to have me helping because it really makes it easier to manage it all.
Two more things I should add:
Thing One: my mother-in-law speaks no English.
Thing Two: despite having already baked cookies all morning there was no evidence of any dirty dishes becasue she just keeps it that clean. This isn't any huge American kitchen. I can just hear the annoying chicks on House Hunters complaining about how small the galley style kitchen is and how they'd never manage to do anything there, but she does it all and keeps it spick and span. Yes it can be done.
While keeping the cookies cooking, she also boiled off the skins of a huge bowl of almonds. She talked about making a final kind of cookies, but if she did them today it was while I was out with Mark and his friend so I wasn't involved.
The cookies we were working on had to cool and were later filled with jam and closed together, then were finished off with chocolate drizzle on top. The first pan we cooked I'd just been cutting shapes at random, but then she pointed out that there have to be an even number because they're little sandwiches. We really managed to communicate quite well, or at least she communicated and I did my best to keep up. She also made sure to separately bake the ones I didn't roll out thinly enough from the ones that were the proper thickness. She didn't actually point it out to me, but I noticed and was glad she was the one in charge.
In the end, we have a great little collection of cookies. She told me that most Czech women these days don't take the time to make the cookies and buy them at the store instead. We both agreed that the store bought variety are not nearly the quality of homemade.
Overall, it was a great practice for me, even though I still have no idea how to make them on my own. The plan is for me to continue cooking with her to learn how to make other traditional Czech dishes. Next time I'll just have to be sure what time she's going to start so I can actually be awake for it. :)

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