Baking together is a sweet tradition

By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2009

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NORWELL - It started as playful boasting. Then it became a friendly contest between brothers-in-law. Edgard Quinones and Matthew Blake, who is married to Quinones’s sister Madeline, held a bake-off to see whose Christmas cookies were better. Neither remembers which cookies they made for that first challenge 10 years ago, but, Quinones says, “we both liked each other’s cookies.’’

This year, the two are joined by a baking friend of Quinones’s, Deanna Boyle of Cohasset. Blake drove from Ridgefield, Conn., with Madeline and daughters Riley and Brooke. Blake, Quinones, and Boyle gather in Quinones’s kitchen with their key ingredients in tow. Several hours later, many dozen cookies are on the kitchen counters.

Each year it’s a different assortment. Today, Quinones is making molten chocolate cookies (recently perfected, he says) and an almond biscotti recipe he learned at a cooking school in Lucca, Italy, that he and Boyle attended together a few years ago. Boyle makes her Auntie Maryann’s almond macaroons (no candied cherries on top) and Blake bakes both his Aunt Rosie’s pizzelles and cousin Rosemary’s pignoli cookies.

In this perfectly sized kitchen for two, the three bakers move a little gingerly. The house dates to 1725 and has been renovated “room by room,’’ says Quinones, who lives with his spouse, Andrew Marconi. They both work at The Catered Affair in Hingham; Quinones is the catering company’s event designer, and Marconi, son of founder Holly Safford, is vice president of sales. Boyle used to work there, too, as an event manager.

A large granite-topped island in the center of the kitchen offers counter space for preparing and shaping the doughs. Quinones forms two logs of biscotti and Boyle spoons macaroon batter onto a foil-lined cookie sheet. Blake stands over the pizzelle iron borrowed from his cousin Lisa, who got it from her mother, Aunt Sally. Madeline Blake made a special trip to her mother-in-law’s to pick up almond paste (from a particular Italian deli) that her husband likes to use in his pignoli cookies. “Everyone’s involved,’’ says Matthew Blake.

A momentary distraction for Blake - who ducks out for a few minutes with 5-year-old daughter Riley - and the room fills with the smell of burning dough. “It’s a casualty of baking,’’ says Blake, quickly returning to his task and discarding two blackened rounds.

Quinones is now rolling chocolate dough into balls, tucking chunks of bittersweet chocolate inside. “I love molten chocolate cake,’’ he says. “I wanted to see if I could make it into a cookie.’’ He tosses each round first in granulated sugar, then in confectioners’ sugar, a trick he learned from the pastry chef at work. “It creates more of a crust.’’

Sharing oven space is the most trying part of group baking.

Blake: “Do you need 350?’’

Boyle: “No, I need 325.’’

Quinones: “I’m putting mine in at 350 for 13 minutes.’’

A timer goes off. Boyle: “That’s you, Matt.’’

Blake inspects his cookies, insisting that the pine nut-studded rounds, which he admits are a tad large, aren’t done yet. “It’s funny how easy it is to screw up a cookie,’’ says Blake. “If they’re too big, they’ll spread too much. If they’re too small, they’ll burn. If you turn your back on the pizzelle iron, they’ll overcook.’’

Quinones spreads a coating of melted white chocolate on his biscotti and garnishes them with crushed peppermints. He arranges them on an attractive white plate. “You should use the beautiful things that you own,’’ he says. “It makes your guests feel special.’’

But presentation is secondary, says the event designer. “It’s more about how [the cookies] taste.’’ And while it’s nice to get perfect results, he adds, baking with friends is the best part.

The cookies are done and the group gathers for a light supper. Then the rewards - perfect or not - are divvied up. Some go into cellophane bags for gifts, others into tins for their own holiday supply. The day ends without a trace of competitiveness.

The bakers have a whole year to come up with more recipes.