Oh, what a mess we made

By Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor
Published November 28, 2007

When everyone else is planning Halloween parties and dreaming of bite-sized candy bars, Karen Pryslopski is baking Christmas cookies. Her biggest challenge is finding candied cherries on Oct. 1.

For several years, Karen, a photo editor at the St. Petersburg Times, has tested reader recipes for our annual cookie issue. By the first day of November, every last cookie has been sampled and photographed. Not all make it to publication.

Karen's kitchen - big on floor space, small on counters - is ground zero for drops, bars and cut-out treats. She actually had the energy to make these photographs of her kitchen during full-tilt baking.

After baking nearly 75 recipes since 2005, she has several pieces of advice. Most importantly, make sure you understand the recipe's techniques and ingredients. For the cookie issue, this is a challenge because many of the recipes submitted are handwritten. Sometimes, we call readers to double-check what they wrote. Did you really mean 7 cups of flour? Could these cookies really include whole coriander seeds? Did you mean ground?

Even with recipes from cookbooks, you need to know the difference between evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk, among other distinctions. But because those recipes have been tested by professionals, you'll find fewer problems, Karen says.

Karen is an accomplished cook and baker, so she feels confident experimenting. In fact, she'd add shredded coconut to everything if she could. You can play culinary scientist, too, after you've made the recipe once the way it is written.

Don't be afraid to make a recipe your own, she says.

You can tell by her kitchen, Karen's not.