Every year my Christmas season starts with a day spent inside, a little spilled sugar, soft butter and a hot oven. When my sister and I were young, we’d spend this day in my grandmother’s basement kitchen. We’d start with gingerbread, eager to try out all of the cookie cutters in Grandma’s unusual collection of metal lions, Scottie dogs, even playing card suits like clubs and spades. “Close together,” my mother would urge, guiding my hand with hers as we pressed a metal star into the molasses-colored dough. “Go around the edges first. Then cut out the middle.”
Before long, a dusting of flour had coated Grandma’s black-and-white table, formed a small pile on the gray concrete floor and smudged my sweater. From Grandpop’s workshop in the other part of the cellar came the sound of a drill, which competed with the music from the radio that sat on top of the cabinet that held Grandma’s dishes and mixing bowls.
Next up were sugar cookies, which we sprinkled with red and green sugar— “Just a little,” Grandma admonished— and buttery spritz dough that emerged like bubble gum from the copper top of the cookie press to become fat little Christmas trees, wreaths and even camels. By the end of the day we’d have baked four types of cookies, including the deep-brown discs of black walnut cookies sliced from dough Grandma had made and refrigerated the day before. By Christmas, there would be even more: fruity spirals of date and nut pinwheel cookies, lacy Swedish oatmeal cookies and almond crescents dipped in powdered sugar.
Over the years, my grandmother, mother, sister and I accumulated new recipes from pages torn from magazines or from friends or work colleagues. We ventured into ethnic traditions other than our own, spooning thin batter onto a pizzelle iron to make the crispy waffle-like Italian cookies and dipping egg-shaped cookies into honey and walnuts for Greek finikia. We tried different flavors such as anise in drop cookies (“Don’t make those again” was Grandma’s judgment) and combinations like lemon and poppyseed (another no-go, according to my sister). One year we skipped making gingerbread. Because we missed it, we decided to make it again the following year.
When, in 1992, I began a series of moves that took me from Baltimore, I found that I still needed to bake cookies in December. It wasn’t the sweets I craved; it was the ritual. In apartments in Chicago and Morgantown, W.Va., I baked alone, rolling lumps of chocolate dough into little balls while listening to tapes my father made for me of our old Christmas albums (several of them relics from the days when companies like Firestone and Goodyear produced Christmas LPs).
When I flew home for the holiday, I wrapped cans of chocolate crinkles in sweaters and nestled them in my luggage. By the time I moved back to Baltimore in 2001, my sister had married and moved out of the area, and she, too, found herself baking solo and bringing home her favorite cookies: peanut butter blossoms and red currant filled thumbprints.
Since 2006, however, Kathleen and I both live on the East Coast, and once again we bake together with my mother. This year, on an early December Saturday, I’ll walk into my mother’s kitchen to find the table covered with cookie sheets, half-drunken mugs of coffee and sticks of butter, softening. The Ames Brothers’ version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” will be playing from the turntable in the dining room stereo. Dad will yell hello from the basement where he’s unpacking Christmas decorations. Mom and Kathleen will have already started making one batch of cookies, and before long we’ll have coconut balls in the oven and chocolate mint batter in the mixer.
We’ll bake throughout the morning and into the afternoon, the kitchen reverberating with the sounds of too many cooks multi-tasking: “How many sticks of butter does the recipe call for?” “Did you put sugar in?” “Who’s timing the cookies?” “Where’s Milo [my sister’s energetic puppy]?” We’ll recall Mom’s “Pillsbury’s Best Butter Cookie Cookbook, Volume III,” a 20-cent treasure filled with cartoon elves called Whitey, Choosy and Freshy, and cookies with names like Chocodiles, Slice o’Spice and Jam Strip Cheesers. For some reason, those cookies never became part of our repertoire, but whenever Kath or I reminisce about cookie baking, that cookbook— and its recipe for Jam Strip Cheesers, in particular— comes up.
Some of us talk more than we bake; some of us sample incessantly; all of us sing along with John Gary’s version of “The Christmas Song” and with the cast of the television show “Bonanza,” as Lorne Greene and Michael Landon warble “Merry Christmas, Neighbor” on my and Kathleen’s favorite Christmas album, “A Partridge in a Pear Tree.” By evening we’re ready for pizza and just about anything but a cookie (though Dad never loses his taste for them).
Mary K. Zajac