I took down the Halloween decorations, this week. They've been up less than two weeks. Which, if you're quick, or have had your morning coffees, you'll quickly compute is well-nigh impossible. Seeing as, today, we're twelve days into November. But it is possible, just barely, if we did all our decorating on Halloween Eve.
Which we did.
Also, they were the best ever.
That is my opinion. Pinterest wouldn't concur.
They were clumped in odd clusters, and very 2-D, and unlit and unconventional and deeply handmade. Also, completely awesome.
We don't go in for Big Decorating, for any holiday, any season, ever. As much as I appreciate all the neighbors who do, for me? Meh. It's too much work, and too much money, and just, generally, too too. Maybe this makes me a Scrooge, but seasonal decor is the one area of my life where I'm ever and always a stark minimalist. So be it.
Still, there's a big orange bin in the basement that holds Halloween and Thanksgiving bits and bobs. Spooky stories, pumpkin lights ca. 2001, Annette's brain and heart jello molds. Not to mention all manner of genuinely lovely themed goods Mamo's sent over the years: autumnal felted nesting bowls and articulated paper skeletons and googly glasses whose bloodshot eyes sproing on springs. Good stuff, we're agreed.
Ordinarily, I pull it out late September, or at the latest, early October. This year, between horses and sniffles and spelling tests and laundry and life, it stayed stubbornly put. All of October, I meant to do it, made little notes, voiced intent. We all did.
It didn't happen.
Because, after all, there were crisp sunny days that begged for being outside and making mudpies. And the last of the green beans to pick. And the first crop of pomegranates to plunder. And books to read. And fictional North Pole maps to draw, and dye, and sun-age, to support the costume.
(After five years of trick-or-treating while shivering so hard his teeth made a soundtrack, my wise second son dressed up this year as an Arctic Explorer. Smart kid.)
And there was pumpkin to roast and strain and beat with eggs, cream and spices for a pre-Thanksgiving pie. And bread to bake, to warm rooms and bellies. And the umpteenth batch of apple sauce to make. And daylight to chase.
It was a short race.
And so, it wasn't until Thursday the thirtieth that we hauled the box up and began rifling. And realized there's only so much that makes sense to pull out and put up on a Thursday the thirtieth.
So very little much. We read ghost books and wore glowy green necklaces and engaged in a good round of "Remember when..." And then, packed the bulk away. And then, I got out of the way.
Honestly, I got myself into the kitchen to get dinner going, thinking our Halloween conversation done. But while I scrubbed and chopped and tossed, Henry and Zoë got busy. Out came the construction paper, glue sticks, scissors, tape, ideas, and elbow grease. They were chatty, and busy, and fairly quiet, and were they any younger, I'd have been suspicious. But they're just now reaching that age and stage where such lengthy silence can be a good thing. (This is what miracles look like. And maturing kids. Pretty much the same thing.) And when I came to ring the dinner bell, there sat an entire cast of green warty witches, paper pumpkins, bats, ghosts, goblins, elves, and more.
Also, no dining room table to speak of. But small potatoes, all things considered.
We ate at the kitchen table, that night, and while it wasn't elegant or easy, it was satisfying. Does that make sense? Halloween had upchucked all over the dining room, and the certainty that I would be spending a solid hour cleaning up after bedtime* was, to me, evident. As evident as the truth that this spirited, last-minute, in-the-moment onslaught of child-driven decorating was the bomb. That the pride, pleasure and happy way outweighed the hassle. That I might "forget" to bring up the orange bin, forever. Because, oh my gosh, it's better this way.
It was also, I realized around 10 p.m., after excavating the table, the evening I was to bake class party cookies.
*(My kids are good picker-uppers, but sometimes, you stand at that fulcrum of responsibility and sensibility, and you take the high road, and exculpate, and walk right on by, and usher upstairs for story and snuggles, and return to the mess, late and alone, knowing, that day, it is the right path. That was that Thursday. No regrets.)
Now, normally, I love baking class party cookies. Volunteer for it. Elbow people out of the way for it, even. But I'm no martyr. I see no glory in rolling dough after midnight, carefully cutting bats, gathering scraps, rotating trays, shushing timers, all in the service of sugar-crazed fourth-graders. It's not like they'll notice. And sleep kinda matters.
I do, however, believe in homemade. Real butter. Real frosting. Real flavor. Real care. But, you know, fast real care.
So I quickly re-grouped, away from our standard splendid cut-out sugar cookies. By which I mean, I googled "soft frosted sugar cookies". What (I wondered [if anything!]) could I churn out in under an hour, from unwrapping the butter to uncovering my pillow?
I landed on these. Which were a solution. And a cookie epiphany.
Hello? Am I the only baker who pages right past the "cakey cookie" section, always? It's a habit I developed years ago, because I-don't-know-why, and never revisited. Whole chapters sit, untouched, in dozens of books in my kitchen. It's a clear case of prejudice, and bias, and flat-out cookie inequality. A.k.a.: stupidity. Don't be me. Do make these.
What these are are a lightning-quick, six-minute dough, scooped and plopped on a tray. There is nothing, to speak of, in the ingredients, or the directions, that says interesting. It's the usual suspects, butter-sugar-flour-et-al, tweaked here and there to excellent ends. The dough is a bit more damp than I'm used to, more sticky than stiff, not really roll-ready. Not roll-ready being, of course, my main goal. Incomparably wonderful was a swell side-effect. Unexpected. But swell.
What emerged from the kitchen a short while later was a humble, addictive wonder of a thing. The cookies themselves, carefully pulled before they looked anything like done, set, upon cooling, into small, unassuming pale mounds. A requisite cap of thick cream cheese frosting follows, applied in something like a 1:1 ratio. Whoah.
The cookie (or cakey, as we've come to call them) is a beautiful, soft tender creamy thing. In print, this makes no sense at all, even as I hit the keys. But on the tongue, it is what it is, a delicate suspension of dough that somehow holds together, but just. Just well enough to ably withstand the bumpity walk to school, and then some. Just well enough to collapse on the tooth, into a fragile dense flurry of crumbs. The swoop of twangy buttercream improves things, inexplicably, mightily. Cream to the crumb, tang to the sweet, soft to the faintest hint of crisp, it is as essential to the final effect as, say, the cookie itself. Whoah.
My only ask is that these don't wind up in some special, runner-up cookie sub-file. No second-rate citizens, these. Just easy, excellent slam-dunks, as fine for Tuesday afternoons as upcoming holidays. But if you find yourself UPAGAINSTIT, torn between sleep and cute cut-outs and these? These. Fast, fantastic these. It's absolutely better this way.
Soft Frosted Sugar Cookies (a.k.a. Cakies)
adapted from Beantown Bakers
yield: 3-4 dozen medium or 2 dozen large cookies
The original makes much larger cookies, and has you hand-shape lovely smooth spheres. I use my trusty small ice cream scoop, and go for "rustic" mounds. Frosting heals all. Both work. (It also, I've just now noticed, after making these several times, calls for chilling the dough an hour. Probably a good idea. I wouldn't know.)
4 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
5 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks, 12 oz.) salted butter, at room temp
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
rounded 1 tsp. salt
2 Tbs pure vanilla extract
Place two racks in center of oven, and preheat to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar and salt on medium-high, scraping sides a few times, until pale and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing and scraping sides between additions, until thoroughly incorporated. Scrape sides, add vanilla, and beat another 30 seconds. Scrape sides, add flour and baking powder (the proper approach is to whisk these two together, in a separate bowl, first; I scatter baking powder over the top of the flour, directly in the mixing bowl, like a rogue), and beat on lowest speed until just combined. Chill dough an hour. (Or not. See note above.)
Using a 2 tablespoon ice cream scoop, or two large spoons, scoop mounds of dough onto lined baking sheet. These spread little; I fit four across. (Alternatively, for larger cookies, scoop 1/4 cup of dough, roll into a ball, flatten slightly, and keep your rows to two cookies, each.) Place trays in preheated oven, and bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating trays front to back, top to bottom, at the 7 minute mark. DO NOT OVERBAKE. I found 11 minutes PERFECT for the 2 tablespoon size, in my (cheap) oven. You want a top that is just turning opaque, but with patches of shine still within the crevices, and no browning at all. These will not be done, or able to be moved, when you first remove them. Allow to cool 10-15 minutes on baking sheets, then carefully remove to wire racks until completely cool. Frost, per below.
Cream Cheese Frosting
I cream butter at any temperature, from refrigerator-cold to an hour out. I find it matters little, so long as you a) slice colder cubes, and b) give cold butter more time to gain volume. Ditto here. Feel free to beat your butter and cream cheese cold, or at room temp, as your situation dictates. The one caveat: I've found it crucial to have both fats at the same temperature, both cold or both tepid, for optimal integration.
1-8 oz. brick cream cheese
1 cube (4 oz.) salted butter
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, beat cream cheese and butter on medium speed until thoroughly combined, scraping down sides a few times, 1-3 minutes, depending on temperature. Scrape sides again, add powdered sugar, and beat another 2-3 minutes, or until doubled in volume. Scrape once more, add salt and vanilla, and beat another 30-60 seconds, until thoroughly combined. Apply liberally to completely cooled cookies, aiming for ample snowy white caps. My ideal is as close to a 1:1 frosting:cookie ratio as I can manage. Add sprinkles promptly, if desired (frosting will form a useful, thin crust, within the hour), and share widely.
Cookies keep beautifully, airtight and at room temperature, 4-5 days. Possibly longer. Again, I wouldn't know.