"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

Holiday Hell: When cute gifts go bad

by Julie Tilsner on December 30, 2008

in Holiday Hell

I’m not above admitting that I thrill to the details of other people’s ruinous kitchen experiments. Especially so when the people in question are known to be much more skilled and in the know than me. It’s in this spirit that I offer you this cautionary tale.

My friend Christy, a talented designer currently doing the mommy thing, decided to make her Christmas gift-giving a little easier and create a cookies-in-a-jar gift for all those on her C-list. You know the C-list; people who are important enough in your life to acknowledge but too numerous to spend more than a few dollars on cumulatively.

Enter the cookies-in-a-jar idea. Cute. Crafty. Colorful and sweet. And for those women who can do this sort of thing well, they really do make a charming gift. Just look at the photo here, which was featured with the recipe. It’s sort of a no-brainer. Christy is nothing if not stylish and crafty. And she’s been known to make a killer baked good.

She also makes the assumption that because this appeared in Family Circle Magazine, what you see is what you’ll get. One doesn’t need to know the magazine business to assume that the Family Circle editorial offices feature a test kitchen and a group of seasoned gals to test and retest every recipe and crafty food project it offers in its esteemed pages. After all, it’s spent nearly 80 years building its brand as a leading women’s magazine. Christy decides to make up a dozen of these bad boys to give out on the last day of school before winter break.

Here’s the recipe. Very straightforward, for the most part.

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1  tsp baking powder
1/2  tsp baking soda
1/4  tspn salt
1/2  cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4  teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4  cup granulated sugar
3/4  cup brownulated sugar
3/4  cup swirled chocolate chips

In a medium-size bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Spoon 1 cup of the flour mixture into a second bowl and add cocoa powder and cinnamon. Whisk to mix thoroughly.

In a clean 1-quart plastic or glass container:

Spoon about half the flour mixture into bottom of jar. Use a small spice jar to lightly compress. Spoon in half the cocoa mixture; compress. Spoon in remaining flour mixture and cocoa mixture, compressing each layer.

Top second cocoa layer with granulated sugar and brownulated sugar, compressing each slightly. Pour chips over sugar and seal jar.

Write baking instructions on a tag (or print out); secure to jar with ribbon.

Sounds great, and with the Family Circle name behind it, you’d think this would work out nicely. Little did Christy realize that she was entering the Bad Home Cook version of Holiday Hell.

She bought a dozen 1-quart mason jars at Wal-Mart. She bought enough flour, sugar, swirly chocolate chips and cocoa powder to make 12 recipes.

Problem is, she’s never heard of “brownulated” sugar. What is it? No neophyte to baking, she’s never heard of it. According to this site, it’s a type of brown sugar that is lest moist than regular brown sugar and doesn’t harden as quickly. Domino’s, the sugar maker, reportedly makes it.

But visits to Ralph’s, Von’s, Wal-Mart, Target, CostCo and even a gourmet baking shop turn up nothing. She can’t find this ingredient. Not one to stop midstream, she goes to the Domino’s website and plugs in her zip code, looking for shops that sell this product. According to this search, there are no stores within 20 miles of her house that sell it. She tries 50 miles. Then she gets annoyed. She tries 100 miles. Apparently, according to Domino’s own site, there are no stores within 150 miles of her home in Los Angeles County, California, that carry “brownulated” sugar.

So she decides to use regular brown sugar, which is readily available in the outbacks of Southern California. But very quickly she comes to realize that the ingredients she needs to make the recipe don’t fit into a 1-quart jar. Not by a long shot. She goes to the Family Circle site and reads the comments. Some people have had luck by packing it in tightly. She tries it. No way is it going to fit.

At this point the clock is ticking. She’s got to give something to her kids’ teachers and fellow PTA staffers. She runs out and buys another dozen mason jars, these ones with extra wide mouths. She then spends half an hour on each one, “packing the sh*t” out of the ingredients, trying to get them all to fit. In the end, there was room for only a few chocolate chips on top, compelling her to make little bags for the rest to tie onto the side. “By the time I got the ribbon on there you couldn’t even see the chips.”

She handed them out in a most un-holiday mood. That’s when I ran into her and asked her what was up. She’s normally quite cheery.

And normally this sort of thing happens to me.

Intrigued, I went to the site she referred me to and read the comments. Most of the readers trying the gift project were coming up short and were complaining bitterly. Being a magazine writer (and former editor) who these day also writes and edits blogs for a living, I thought it odd that the editors didn’t quickly jump in to clarify or correct. That’s the beauty of online media: instant corrections and addendums are the rule. Also, you can interact with your readers online in ways you never could in print.

Then, two days before Christmas, an editor jumped in with a weakly-worded apology. The complaints must have reached critical mass. “The photo is misleading,” she wrote, “as that jar is larger than a quart, and you
will not have that much room at the top in a canning jar.
Unfortunately, we have no control over what happens when the recipe
leaves our hands and goes to the stylists at the photo studio. Happy

“Happy holidays,” snorted Christy. “I almost wrote in and told her what she could do with her happy holidays.” I didn’t bother to tell her that yes, editorial should have control over what happens when a recipe gets into the hands of stylists and photogs. Especially when your brand is all about recipes and crafts.

No word on what the cookies actually tasted. I think Christy was way too soured on the whole experience by this time, and put her energy into concocting herself a stiff drink instead. But for those who want to give it a whirl, here’s the recipe. Don’t bother with a jar.

And happier holidays to you and yours!

Family Circle Cookies-that-don’t-fit-into-a-1-quart-jar:

Baking Instructions: In a large bowl, combine 3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) melted and cooled unsalted butter with 3 eggs and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Stir in contents of jar. Drop dough by rounded tablespoons onto baking sheets. Bake at 350°F for 13 to 14 minutes. Cool on sheets for 1 minute; transfer to rack.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Christy December 31, 2008 at 10:10 am

Perfect, Julie! I knew you would sum up my frustrations so much more eloquently than me! So many lessons learned here…..1. don’t wait until a week before Christmas to start….2. don’t go buy everything, assuming it will work, before trying it out!….3. just because something looks cute in a magazine…..I will never again take for granted that I can pull it off! XO Christy


kelli January 4, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Nice commentary…I can’t believe the jar in the photo is bigger than 1 quart. That’s just an outright, blatant breach!! It’s the like airbrushing and whitening they do to all the models that gave us bad body images in our youth – this is the craft equivalent of impossibly perfect. Along with Martha’s papier mache Halloween cat candy dish.


Lauren January 8, 2009 at 11:05 am

This is a wonderful, entertaining account of what must have been a completely frustrating experience. Shame on them for not taking a more active role in the photography process and saving their readers the hassle.


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