Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cookie Tray Hospitality

Some of the most hospitable people I have known in my life weren’t gourmet chefs or pastry artists, and didn’t have big homes in which to have people over. My mother was one such person. She died a few months after I graduated college. For the last five years of her life, her health was steadily deteriorating and she wasn't always feeling the greatest. The household budget was tight, so there wasn’t a lot of money available in the household budget to throw expensive parties. We lived in a small house, and for reasons I won’t get into here, my mom wasn’t able to have people over to our home for “lavish” dinners. But she was extremely hospitable.

My mom epitomized what I call “Cookie Tray Hospitality.” Every month or two, she would put together a cookie tray for someone. It may have been for the couple at church who just had a baby, for my teachers to show them appreciation, to welcome new neighbors who had just moved in, to cheer up someone who was going through a rough time, or to thank a friend for helping her out in some way. Often times, though, she was putting together trays of cookies for people for no reason. For instance, she’d take trays of cookies over to our veterinarian’s office (they were family friends) just to surprise them with a treat. That’s a wonderful way to give gifts to others—when they’re not expecting it.

Like my mom, I’ve always enjoyed doing “cookie tray hospitality.” When I do this, I try to arrange a variety of different types of cookies on the gift trays I put together—some bars, some drop cookies, some shaped cookies. I try to have a few cookies with chocolate, a few without, some with nuts, some without. That way you’re covering the taste-bud spectrum.

Next time you’re feeling like, “Oh, I wish I could have people over, but my home’s in no shape for company…” or “I wish we could have guests over but there’s never a free date on a calendar…” why not channel your hospitality desires into cookie trays? This is a way to be hospitable, without having to get your home “company ready,” or having a cook a whole meal. You probably have some favorite cookies you like to make, that everyone raves about. Those would be some good cookies to bake for others.

You could make one just one batch of cookies and put them on a paper plate with plastic wrap on top, or you could buy one of those larger plastic party trays and a clear lid from your local party store and put a variety of home-baked cookies in there. Or, you could fill an old fashioned fruitcake tin full of cookies. If you want to get creative, you could fill a gallon jar full of cookies, tie it with a big ribbon bow, and attach a label on the front of the jar with the recipient’s name on it.

I’ve also put together cookie “care packages” and mailed them off to out-of-state friends—sometimes for specific reasons like to feed a hungry college student friend and other times, for no reason other than to say “Have a nice day!”

What follows are the recipes for some of my favorite “cookie tray cookies”—just in case you’d like to try out some of these recipes. Most of these are cookies my mom used to make when I was growing up. All of these cookies travel and store well.

Turtle Brownies

1 18.5 oz. pkg. chocolate cake mix
1 cup chopped pecans
½ cup butter
½ cup evaporated milk, undiluted
1 large egg
10 ounces light-variety caramels
1/3 cup evaporated milk, undiluted
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
Optional: ½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chunks and ½ cup toasted and chopped pecans for garnish

Pour cake mix into large bowl. Add butter and cut-in using a pastry cutter or your fingers. Add pecans. Stir in ½ cup evalportated milk and egg. Spread half of batter in a greased 13X9” baking pan. Bake in 350 degree oven for 15 minutes. While it is baking, combine caramels and 1/3 cup evaporated milk in small saucepan until caramels are melted and mixture is smooth and blended together. Remove pan of semi-cooked batter layer from oven. Sprinkle chocolate chips on top. Drizzle caramel syrup over chocolate chips. Drop remaining half of batter in heaping teaspoons over caramel drizzle. Carefully spread the batter layer on top and smooth out. Return to oven and bake 20-25 minutes longer. Top layer will still be soft. If desired, sprinkle chocolate chunks and pecans on top for garnish. Cool and cut into 24 bars.

Jam Thumbprints

½ cup butter
½ cup dark brown sugar
1 large egg (yolk separated from white)
½ tsp. vanilla
1 cup white flour
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup chopped walnuts
Strawberry, raspberry, blackberry or peach jam, or orange marmalade

Cream butter and sugar together. Add egg yolk and vanilla. Stir in flour and salt and blend well. Form dough into balls (with a heaping teaspoon of dough for each ball). Beat egg white until frothy. Dip each dough ball into egg white, and then roll into chopped nuts. Place about an inch apart on lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375F for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and make indentations with the end of a wooden spoon. Place a dab of jam or marmalade in each indentation. Return to oven and bake about 8-10 minutes longer. Remove from cookie sheet and cool on rack. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

M&M Drop Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups white flour
½ tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
1 12-ounce package M&Ms
½ cup white chocolate chips

Cream together butter and sugars. Add egg and vanilla. Stir in flour, soda and salt and blend well. Add in M&Ms and white chips. Drop by tablespoonsfuls about 2 inches apart on lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake about 12-14 minutes in 375 degree oven, until edges are lightly browned. Makes 3-4 dozen cookies.

Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

1 ¼ cups butter, softened
¾ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
1 ½ cups white flour
1 tsp. baking soda
3 cups “quick” oatmeal
12 oz. bag semi-sweet chocolate chips

Cream butter and sugars together. Beat in egg and vanilla until mixture is fluffy. Add flour and baking soda. Stir in oatmeal. Stir in chocolate chips. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake 9 to 11 minutes in 375 degree oven, until golden brown around edges. Remove from cookie sheet and let cool on a wire rack. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

White Chocolate Chunk Cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 ¾ cup white flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
10 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
½ cup macadamia nuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy. Add egg; mix well. Sprinkle flour, baking soda and salt on top of creamed mixture, and then stir together. Blend in vanilla. Stir in white chocolate and macadamia nuts. Drop the dough by heaping tablespoonfuls about 3 inches apart on lightly greased cookie sheets. Bake for 12-14 minutes, or until lightly browned on the edges. Let stand a few minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool. Makes 2-3 dozen cookies.

Peanut Butter Hershey Kiss Cookies

1/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup shortening
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup creamy peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 T. milk
1 ¾ cup white flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
48 Hershey kiss candies

Cream together the butter, shortening and sugars. Stir in peanut butter, vanilla, egg and milk, and beat until smooth. Mix in flour, soda and salt. Shape into balls 1 teaspoon each. Roll into granulated sugar. Bake on ungreased cookie sheet 10-12 minutes in 375 degree oven. When done, immediately top each cookie with a Hershey’s kiss. Makes 4 dozen cookies.

Strawberry Oat ‘n Coconut Bars

1 ½ cups white flour
½ cup “quick” oatmeal
½ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup butter, cold
½ tsp. baking soda

1 ¼ cups strawberry jam

2 T. butter, cold
¼ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
¼ cup white flour
½ cup chopped walnuts
¾ cup unsweetened, flaked coconut
½ tsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. To make crust, combine all five crust ingredients until crumbly. Pat into a greased 13 by 9 inch baking pan. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned. While the crust is baking, mix all the topping ingredients together until crumbly; set aside. When crust is done, remove pan from oven. Carefully spread strawberry jam on top of crust. Sprinkle with crumb topping. Continue baking about 20 minutes more—or until edges and topping are lightly browned. Cool and cut into bars. Makes 24 to 28 bars (depending on how large you cut them of course!).

Happy cookie baking!


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