Driving home from my nephew’s birthday party last December we passed the Fannie May Candy House. We’d never stopped there before, but this time I told my husband to turn left, into the parking lot. My friend Lisa’s holiday cookie exchange started in one hour, and I had nothing to bring — no cookies, no candy, no cupcakes, nothing.
I had no excuse. I’d known about the party since the invitation arrived in early November — longer even, because this was an annual event — but for whatever reason I hadn’t left enough time that morning to bake my grandmother’s molasses cookies. I wasn’t above buying professionally decorated cookies, but the one bakery we passed on the way home was closed. I had to improvise, so Candy House it was.
“I didn’t know they sold cookies here,” my husband said, shutting off the engine.
“They don’t, I’m buying peppermint bark,” I said, opening the door and sprinting inside. Three tins and $60 later I stood in my kitchen contemplating the seven-by-nine-inch rectangles of dark chocolate topped with white chocolate flecked with peppermint candy.
“What’s your plan?” my husband asked. I had 35 minutes until the party started.
“I’m going to break it into small pieces and put them in these!” I said, emerging triumphantly from the pantry holding a package of red and white striped cupcake liners. I needed to bring three dozen somethings to the party; I figured there was more than enough bark to gather that much in broken pieces. I searched for a knife.
Looking not a little like Norman Bates in Psycho, I stabbed the bark over and over. But because it was so thick, instead of bite-sized morsels I ended up with either big pieces or shavings, none of which fit in my festive holiday cups.
“Maybe you should cut it in squares,” my husband said, edging away.
Ten minutes to go.
Desperate, I took his advice and started chopping. Better, but as I filled the cups the heat from my fingers caused the chocolate to melt. I rushed through all 36 cups, licked the pepperminty chocolate off my fingers, grabbed my coat and car keys, and waved goodbye.
“Are you going to tell them you bought the candy?” my husband asked.
It was an innocent-enough question, but it brought up a real moral dilemma. See, my mother was a big Christmas baker. Every year, she made her own sugar cookie dough (with lemon zest to brighten the flavor), as well as fudge, peanut brittle and seven-layer bars. She decorated homemade gingerbread boys and girls for each of us, plus our friends and neighbors. One year, she slaved over a traditional buche de noel that looked exactly like a fallen log with white meringue mushrooms and piped holly, sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar to look like snow.
She would’ve been aghast at my store-bought shame.
At the party, I added my platter to the dozens of trays, baskets and plates that covered Lisa’s dining room table. Overall, the Christmas treats looked beautifully homemade, like they’d taken people a lot of time to make. I spotted a plate filled with expertly frosted ornament cookies (obvious bakery purchase) and a couple of platters with Pillsbury slice-and-bake Rudolph and Christmas tree designs. I edged my platter closer to the Pillsbury cookies and walked into the kitchen.
I thought it would be easy to dodge the question, but “What did you bring?” turns out to be the No. 1 conversation starter at a cookie exchange. Everyone likes to hear stories about holiday baking, and other people’s family traditions from childhood. Lacking the cozy backstory to Fannie May candy, I hedged as best I could.
“What did you bring this year?” my friend Jenny asked, as we returned to the dining room and surveyed the cookie table. I pointed to my platter, which now held fewer than half the original number of peppermint-bark filled muffin cups. They were going fast, a fact which filled me with undeserved satisfaction. Jenny reached for one, and asked the question I’d dodged for the last hour:
“Did you make this yourself?”
It was the moment of truth: Would I confess, or would I end up with coal in my stocking? I thought for a second, but I just couldn’t do it.
“I wish,” I said, “but no. It’s Fannie May.”
Jenny popped a piece in her mouth. “It’s delicious,” she said. “I’d totally tell people I made it.”