Christmas has come to Little Italy. You can see it in the cheerful lights and bright tinsel adorning the rowhouse stoops, in the candles in the windows, in the decorated restaurant fronts. But most of all, you can see it in the groaning kitchen table of Dolores Key, where a dozen platters, trays and tins are piled high with Christmas cookies.
Ms. Key is Ms. Christmas Cookie to friends and neighbors. Her traditional bake-a-thon has been going on -- and growing -- for 30-odd years. I'm a good week baking," she says cheerfully. "It's just something I love to do."
In those early days, she was newly married, the two children hadn't shown up yet, and she had time on her hands. "It just bloomed from that. It just really blew up into something big. If I'd make two kinds of cookies, the following year I'd have to do five -- until I would get to the point where it's 15. Now it's easy 15 or better." And she laughs.
"I just love to cook. We were a big family. We were six kids -- my mother taught me a lot of the cooking. I think it's just something in you that you either like to do or you don't."
Cooking certainly runs in the Key family. Ms. Key's husband and son are both chefs, her husband at the U.S. House of Representatives dining room, her son at Amicci's, just around the corner.
But when it comes to Christmas, Ms. Key is the champion. "My neighbors are very happy campers this time of the year -- they wait for that tap on the door. I would say most of it leaves the house, really. I keep some for entertaining, but most of it leaves the house."
She puts on a pot of coffee and offers a loving "tour" of the cookie largess: "Traditional Italian pizzelle, rum raisin, pecan butterballs, I like to term these as strudel bits -- they can also be called rugelach -- your traditional chocolate chip, the jelly thumbprints, chocolate cinnamon black walnut -- these are to die for, if you like black walnuts you would love this -- toasted coconut, peanut butter Hershey's Kiss, these are double-butter press, and oatmeal raisin."
And she's not done yet. "I still have truffles to make, and orange crisps that are dipped in chocolate. I have five or six more kinds I have to do Friday. Oh, and I do nut breads too, but I'll do them closer to Christmas, to give to my friends."
It's a time of year that Ms. Key just loves. "What I like about it is that everybody is just in such a good mood and friendly when you shop. I don't know, everybody just takes on a real warmth, and I like that. I wish it could be all year, everybody just gets caught up in it."
Her home reflects the warmth, from the cards displayed on doors and in doorways to the scarlet and gold flower arrangement on the television, to the Victorian Christmas tree, with angels, pearl garlands, ribbons and lace, all in pretty pinks and cerise reds. "My granddaughter told her mother, it looks just like Santa Claus' house," Ms. Key says.
Although each variety has its own flavor, Ms. Key's cookies are subtly and carefully flavored, and not overly sweet. The pizzelle are a good example. "Traditionally they use an anise flavor," she says of the Italian treat. "I used to use that, but my family started not liking it. It was too strong and overpowering. So I just basically do a vanilla now. They're great. They're good with vanilla ice cream in a dish, and you just scoop it up.
"See, any of those flavors, almond, any of that, you've got to be very careful. Even the rum raisin. If you put too much, you kill the cookie, because you just overpower it with the flavoring. I don't like that. I'd rather my butter flavor come through."
She starts buying butter when it's on sale, say around Halloween, she says, and stores it in the freezer. "It freezes real well, and when you take it out, it just softens real nice. It's no problem at all." She has no sympathy for people who would cheapen or lighten the recipes. "There's not a stick of margarine in anything I bake. I know this is a heart-attack trip, but, hey, it's Christmas cookies, it's a one-time thing."
She jokes about being tired of all the hard work, and her friends' dismay at when she suggested she might just buy cookies next year. "I'm sure, if I would say to a lot of my friends, come down and give me a hand, they would be here to do it," she says, still laughing. "But I just like to do it myself. And with it being small here, we'd probably just be bumping into each other. My mother always said that, two women can't be in the same kitchen."
She does have some techniques to make things easier on herself. "I usually try to do all the same types -- like, if they're bar cookies, I do all bar cookies one day. If they're press, I do all press. I try to keep it where I'm using all the same equipment. Things that I can, with limited space, have everything available, and I don't have to keep changing machines all the time. If you have a vast kitchen, you have more work area, but I have to utilize a little bit of space."
She used to give the cookies away on trays, with candy for a little color and red and green bows. But this year, the Christmas treats will come in little white bags, with white tissue peeking out. "A few months ago I was looking through a catalog and I saw those," Ms. Key says. They seemed like a good idea -- "since I do give so much away. I didn't want to look too pretentious doing it," she says, "so I just put 'Treats from Dolores' on there. I thought it had a nice Christmas touch."
The true touch of Christmas, of course, is those hours she spends baking things to give away. The tradition seems here to stay. "What's better than gifts from the kitchen, you know?"
Here is one of Dolores Key's cookie recipes.
Toasted coconut cookies
Makes 5 dozen
2 1/2 cups flour
2 sticks butter softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon coconut extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 3 1/2 -ounce can coconut
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and sugar together. Put coconut on cookie sheet and toast in oven until browned. Add rest of ingredients, except toasted coconut and mix to blend. Stir in toasted coconut. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until golden.