Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas, Day 4

Italian Christmas Cookies of Doom

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-teens that I realized that Christmas cookies could actually taste good. My mom wasn’t much of a Christmas cookie maker, nor my grandmother, but my mother had this friend who loved to bake. We’ll call her “Mrs. Fields,” even though Mrs. Fields was first-generation Italian-American. All right, instead let’s call her Mrs. Fieldazzo just to make the pseudonym a little more culturally accurate.

It was accepted wisdom that Mrs. Fieldazzo was a good cook and baker, and every year Mrs. Fieldazzo would bring over this elaborate tray of Italian Christmas cookies she’d prepared. At the time, I didn’t know they were necessarily Italian Christmas cookies, they were just plain old Christmas cookies to me. So she delivered her cookies, and everyone seemed to ooh and ahh over them. They did look good. They really did. It’s just that they tasted like poop-covered poop with a chewy poop center. Every last one of them. The ones with icing and the ones with raisins and the brown ball things. God almighty. They were just terrible.

For years I assumed that Mrs. Fieldazzo just didn’t know her way around the kitchen at all, the poor addled thing, but over the years I tried several different versions of the same Christmas cookies that Mrs. Fieldazzo used to make, and I realized that it wasn’t her. Italian Christmas cookies, as a rule, are heinous. As far as I’m concerned the Italians have one decent dessert: tiramisu. Everything else? Pleh. Those pizelle cookies? Awful. The pine nut cookie things? Horrid. Those anise-flavored thingamabobs? I need to gargle with haggis to get the taste out of my mouth after eating one. How can a people who have created some of the most beautiful food in all the world – people who created Parmigiano-Reggiano, which, were I wealthy enough, I would buy four wheels of and put them on my car as tires -- get Christmas cookies so painfully wrong?

Not that the English are much better. I realize that the English practically invented Christmas with all its decking of the halls and sleigh riding and God Bless Us, Everyone, but the English as a people are responsible for some of the awfulest holiday desserts in human history. You know what mince meat looks like to me? Stewed flies. And hey, gingerbread ain’t much better taste-wise. There’s a reason they use it to build houses. I don’t want to eat a cookie that could also double as drywall, but maybe that’s just me. And lest we forget, I believe it was King George XIV who directed his chief cook to create the first fruitcake, only back then they didn’t have access to any good fruits so they used chopped kidneys instead. I think there’s a reason the English soak everything with booze. They’re probably hoping everyone will be too drunk to notice that there’s beef tallow in the Christmas pudding.

But let me get back to trashing Italian baked goods because it didn’t just end with my realization that Mrs. Fieldazzo’s Christmas cookies were bad. As an adult I have been to any number of wedding showers and baby showers and holiday fetes that feature those plates of assorted Italian cookies for dessert. Waiters put them down in front of you like they’ve just delivered the Baby Jesus himself to your table. I’m talking about the cookies with the chocolate cream filling; the ones dipped in chocolate and covered in colorful sprinkles; the ones with raspberry jelly centers. These cookies were made by professional bakers and you know what? They look great but they suck too. They do. They suck, they suck, and they suck some more.

You know what nationality makes good Christmas desserts? OK, yeah, the French. No surprise there. The French have wisely concentrated their national capacity not on doing stuff like stabilizing the Post-World War II economy, but on propping up the cheese makers union with trade subsidies and perfecting a holiday specialty known as croque en bouche, which is, if you are unaware -- and if you are, I am very sad for you -- a CARAMEL-COVERED TOWER OF CREAM FILLED PASTRIES. God, that is beautiful to think about, isn’t it? You have to love a people who take one good thing – profiteroles – and combine it with another good thing – custard – and then add yet another good thing – caramel – and then pile all of those things up and up and up into a dizzying display of redonkulous Christmas excess. Vive le France!

The French are also responsible for another favorite for your bouche: the bouche de noel, otherwise known at the Yule log cake, which is equal parts whimsy and tastiness. The only thing the French make to go along with the bouche de noel that I have no use for is meringue. I don’t understand meringue, especially in cookie form. The only time I want to eat a meringue cookie is when I’m in the mood for a cookie that doesn’t taste very good. And when that happens, well, then I just pop over to the Italian bakery and ask for three amaretti cookies to go with a paper bag on the side for when they come back up again.