One fun tradition that I started for myself during grad school was to do Christmas baking early in December. Anyone who has been in college will probably recall that early December is generally a particularly busy time. It marks the last two weeks, or so, of regular classes, when the professors realize that they have not nearly covered the amount of material they’d been planning to cover. This means that in addition to the normal end-of-the-semester papers , exams and prep for finals, the amount of material and homework presented during each class increases by 50-100%.
This was the time of the semester that I wanted to do my Christmas baking.
To accomplish this feat in the midst of elevated class-work levels, I decided to take off a Saturday and do all of my baking. All of it. In one day. The recipes I chose were familiar childhood recipes: rolled sugar cookies, spritz cookies, Russian tea cakes (also called Mexican wedding cakes), and divinity (which uses up the egg whites left over from the spritz cookies). In addition, I decided to try my hand at rosettes. We had made rosettes a few times when I was a kid, and my parents had sent me a small rosette iron kit in a care package, so I thought I’d put it to good use.
Most of the baking day went quite well. I had planned ahead so that I prepared the dough that needed chilling first so that I could proceed with other cookies while the dough was in the refrigerator. By about 1 AM (I’d started around 10 AM) Sunday morning, everything except the rosettes had been made.
Perhaps someone not under the influence of a hectic grad-student schedule would have realized that starting the rosettes at 1 AM, after baking for about 15 hours, was not the best idea. But, I was under the influence of a hectic grad-student schedule, and likely not thinking completely clearly. So, I started the rosettes.
For anyone unfamiliar with what rosette cookies are, they are made with a decorative iron. You dip the iron in hot oil to let it heat up, then dip the iron into your batter, and then put the iron back in the hot oil. The cookie then, in theory, will just fall off the iron into the oil, where you let it cook for just a few seconds more. When it’s lightly browned, you remove the cookie onto paper towels, let it dry and cool a bit, and then sprinkle it with powdered sugar.
At about 1 AM I poured vegetable oil into a pan and lit the gas burner beneath it. I didn’t have a deep fat fryer or an electric fry pan, nor did I have a candy thermometer, so I had no way to regulate the temperature of the oil. I decided that when a drop of water danced around excitedly in the oil that it would be ready to try my first rosette. While the oil heated, I mixed up the batter.
After 15 minutes, I was ready to try my first rosette. I carefully dipped the iron in the hot oil, and held it for about 30 seconds. Then I dipped the iron in the batter, and when an eigth-inch coating of batter had attached itself to the iron, I transferred the batter back to the oil. I was happily envisioning the perfect rosettes that my Grandmother used to have for us at Christmas. That vision was quickly shattered as I tried to get the browing batter off of the iron. I pulled the iron out after the batter was a brown, crispy mass on the iron.
No problem, I thought, the batter just isn’t hot enough. I turned up the flame under the oil as I did my best to free the burnt-on batter from the iron.
The second rosette was closer to a success. The third a disaster. I continued like that for another dozen attempts, with about a 50% success rate (though even the so-called successes weren’t exactly what I remembered from my Grandmother’s kitchen).
I should note that each failed attempt tended to leave a few crumbs of batter in the hot oil.
Just about the time I was ready to throw in the towel, Artemis, one of my cats, started meowing funny. It was almost like the meow she’d used when she was in heat (which happened only once, after which she was promptly taken for “the operation” at the vet’s office), but this one was more urgent.
When I turned around to see what her problem was, I was greeted by a haze of smoke in the dining and living areas of my apartment. Oh, so that’s what she was upset about. I hadn’t seen it because the oven is against a wall in the kitchen, with no view of the rest of the apartment. Those bits of rosette in the hot oil had really done a number.
My first thought was to panic, but I pushed that aside. Instead, I first turned off the flame under the oil, then shooed the by-now coughing cats into my bedroom, where the smoke had not gotten too thick, yet, and closed the door. I knew the smoke detector was going to go off at any second, so I debated about whether I should turn it off (I was living in an apartment building, afterall, and it was nearly 2:30 AM) or open the balcony door to start airing out the apartment. I compromised by fanning the smoke detector on my way to the balcony door.
Just as I slid the door open, the detector started beeping. Ugh. The neighbors must have loved me! I ran back to the detector and looked around for a button to quiet the thing. There wasn’t anything. Plus, it was mounted above my head, so it was a bit of a stretch to even get at the thing. I thought I’d try to get the batteries out, so I reached up and tried to pry it off the wall. The detector had no batteries — it was hard-wired to the apartment, so I only managed to leave it dangling from those wires. Fortunately, the mere act of dangling it like that miraculously made it stop whining.
Ahhh. I calmed down enough after the infernal beeping stopped, to realize that I should get my fan out and try to suck the smoke out of my apartment. So there I was at 2:30 AM on an early December day in Maryland with my balcony door wide open and a fan running. I spent the next half hour waiting for the smoke to clear…literally. It took longer for Ares and Artemis to leave my bedroom, but they seemed none-the-worse for the exprience.
I haven’t tried making rosettes since then.