By SHANNON WATKINS
I have acquaintances who genuinely, deeply enjoy fruitcake, and I regard them with the suspicion due celebrity Scientologists and enemy sleeper agents. At any moment they could turn on you, a rictus of holiday cheer transforming their otherwise reasonable and pleasant features into madness, proffering a slice of what appears to be foam rubber insulation studded with Skittles and fermented wood knots.
Unconfirmed evidence suggests that Roman soldiers carried something very like fruitcake to sustain themselves on long campaigns, which in my opinion does more to explain the fall of the empire than the Visigoth invasion. Speaking of ancient, I’ve never eaten a fruitcake that didn’t taste like it had been marinated in civet musk and dust mold and shipped from the Old World circa 1600 in a damp wooden trunk. And yet, I fear, the go-to homemade gift to distribute en masse when you’re on a tight budget is fruitcake.
Of course we’re discussing this because even if you have the funds to buy specific presents for different people on your list, there’s going to be a number of satellite friends and acquaintances whom you really must acknowledge with some sort of gift but can’t afford to spend much actual money on. The natural default is something homemade from the kitchen. There’s nothing wrong with that; you just don’t want to be responsible for unleashing a plague of fruitcakes on an unsuspecting populace. The reason they’re so ubiquitous is that they’re also durable.
It’s obvious that your alternative is cookies, but so many of them aren’t up to the rigors of being shipped afar or getting toted around town to whatever their final destination is. You need, basically, something that freezes and travels well but also has a festive edge. Fortunately, my mom, who is still the best cook I know, has more than one recipe that hits all these categories. Each makes a relatively small batch, so you may need to double or triple them, depending on how many gifts you need to give.
Orange Spice Cookies
1 cup butter, softened at room temperature
1½ cups sugar
2 Tbsps. corn syrup
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsps. baking soda
2 tsps. powdered ginger
2 tsps. cinnamon
½ tsp. cloves
1 Tbsp. grated orange zest
Cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs and corn syrup. Combine dry ingredients together and add to creamed mixture. Add orange rind. Shape into two 1” diameter logs. Wrap up and chill in fridge overnight. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400F and cover cookie sheets with parchment paper. Slice logs into 1/8” rounds and place 2” apart on cookie sheets; bake for 6-8 minutes. These smell incredibly Christmas-y, like those pomanders you can make out of clove-studded oranges.
Mexican Wedding Cookies
1 stick butter, softened slightly
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
½ cup chopped nuts, or more if desired
Preheat oven to 350F and cover cookie sheets with parchment paper. Mix all ingredients by hand (this involves a lot of squishing reminiscent of making mud pies) and roll into balls slightly larger than marbles. Place 2” apart on cookie sheets and bake for 10 minutes (they won’t look especially browned). Cool completely. If you give them away within a day or so, roll them in powdered sugar; if you have to freeze them for later, roll in powdered sugar after you pull them out and hopefully thaw them. The best way to roll them in powdered sugar in a hurry is to dump a box of the stuff into a gallon-size freezer bag and shake it gently with the cookies. Seal it first, or you’ll look like that scene in “Scarface.” Pick them out with a little flick to get the extra off and they’re good to go.
½ cup butter, slightly softened
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. cream of tartar
½ tsp. vanilla
1½ cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsps. sugar + 1 tsp. cinnamon, mixed thoroughly in a small bowl
Preheat oven to 375F and cover cookie sheets with parchment paper. Cream butter and shortening on high speed with your hand mixer for 30 seconds. Add the sugar, baking soda and cream of tartar and beat until combined. Beat in egg and vanilla. Beat in as much flour as you can with the mixer and stir in the rest with a wooden spoon. Form into 1” balls and roll thoroughly in cinnamon-sugar mixture. Place 2” apart on cookie sheets and bake for 11-13 minutes. These smell about as reassuringly old-fashioned as it gets.
A few of any of these, singly or in combination, tied up in a little cellophane gift bag with maybe a fancy cloth ribbon, would make a nice, thoughtful gift for someone you want to remember, whether it’s the receptionist at your doctor’s office or a cousin in a distant city. They may be moved to send you something homemade back. Try to keep your smile convincing when you almost surely discover it’s fruitcake.