Baking annoying Christmas cookies reminds the author about the joys of life
While perfection is attainable, presentation isn't everything
These cookies remind Shetterly that the gift really is in giving
The day after Thanksgiving, our bellies full of all the turkey, stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce two slices of toasted bread can hold, I turn to my husband, Dan, lying in bed, the newspaper halfheartedly dangling from his hands. “What are we going to do about those %$#*&-ing Christmas cookies?” I ask. Dan groans. If I had any mercy for my husband, I wouldn’t let this question linger in the air. But I let it hang there because, as crazy-making as they are to bake, these cookies remind me of six crucial things about the holidays:
1. Perfection is attainable.
Our Penobscot Bay Ginger Cookie recipe was given to us by my surrogate grandmother, Cherie. She lives on an island in Penobscot Bay, off the coast of Downeast Maine. The recipe calls for the usual things: butter, brown sugar, an egg, molasses, baking soda, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, salt. But then there’s a twist: chopped crystallized ginger. The cookies are chewy and gooey, crunchy on the edges, and the little pieces of ginger burst like tiny bombs on the tongue. Without a doubt, these are the best damn holiday cookies we’ve ever tasted. They taste as you might imagine the word “Christmas” would taste, if it were edible. And each time they come out right, I am giddily grateful that I, a mere mortal, can make something not just good but downright perfect.
2. The problem with trying to attain something as maddeningly elusive as “perfection” is that you may go crazy in the process.
Unfortunately, this Penobscot Bay Ginger Cookie recipe never quite works. Each year, with the 25th bearing down on Dan and me, we find that despite the careful notes we made the year before, despite the undaunted chutzpah with which we’ve rolled up our sleeves, the recipe requires more jiggering, more additions of thisses or thats and more frustrating moments hovering over a hot oven while batch after batch doesn’t come out quite right. Finally, at around midnight on the 22nd, we’re about to either kill each other or throw our cookie pans out the window. But then we get it right. And each year, like suckers, we are so grateful – indeed, we feel so stupidly touched by grace we are actually gleeful.
3. Presentation isn’t everything.
Days before I start baking, I start looking for tins. I want tins that somehow accentuate that these oddly shaped, dark, squishy cookies are a gift, not just some holiday craziness from an aunt who’s been sipping too much parsnip wine. One year, I went to thrift shops, hoping I’d find “antique”-looking old tins and recycle them. But people do not, sadly, donate nice old cookie tins. Another year, at 11 p.m. on the 22nd, I found myself standing in line at a Christmas-ravaged Walmart, buying generic lime green tins with red Santas “ho-ho-hoing” away on the tops – those laughing Santas were mocking my pain. Last year, I found reusable (but decidedly bland) Pyrex containers at the hardware store. And though I’ve never found quite the right vessel, I’ve learned that the only thing that matters is that our cookies eventually do arrive.
4. It’s true what Hallmark says: The gift really is in giving.
In a way, these cookies have come to define “Cait and Dan.” The stories trickle back from family members and friends: that there were tears of delight because once again we’d done it; that someone got into bed with the whole tin the day after Christmas and polished off every cookie while reading a new book (I think that was my mother); and, once, that an argument erupted between two family members over who got the last cookie in the tin. When I hear these stories, I am reminded that we gave something special, something no one but us could give.
5. You always have the option of pistachio brittle.
One year, after I’d run back and forth from the grocery store so many times it seemed as if it might make much more economic sense to just forget the whole “homemade” spirit of these cookies and instead purchase some practical gifts, like tube socks, I turned to Martha Stewart. There, laid out on the glossy pages of her magazine, was a pistachio brittle recipe. I drove back to the store, muttering, “%$*&^% those cookies!” and stocked up on pistachios, sugar and more butter. When I came home, I ignored the pile of just wrong cookies on the kitchen counter and tried Martha’s recipe. Ta-da! Everything worked just as it was supposed to – no muss, no fuss. I was flabbergasted: I could actually choose the easy way to do something and put the hard way behind me.
6. Every year, you get to decide if traditions define you or drive you to drink.
In the days since Thanksgiving, the cookie question has hovered between Dan and me. We have been eyeing each other warily – all it would take is one of us to cry “uncle” and the cookies would cease to be a question! But Dan and I both know that our 2-year-old son will love the gooey chaos that descends the minute the Penobscot Bay recipe is pulled out. So we’re silently weighing two possibilities: the “experience” we’ll get as a family making these cookies, which has the potential to be great, versus Martha’s easy peasy pistachio brittle. And though I love the idea of “easy,” I have to admit that the one year I made Martha’s crunchy green brittle, something was missing, and it wasn’t just the frustration. What was gone was something less tangible, something possibly insane about myself: I might actually like the hard route. This morning, my mother sent me an email asking if I wanted to join her in a gift box of jams for each extended family. I wrote, “Well, we’ve got those cookies to make…” She shot back, “I think you’re too tired for those!” I typed carefully, “Ah, Mom, you’re so right. But I still feel some dumb hope.” So this “hard way” girl is on her way to the supermarket to stock up on butter and flour, molasses and ginger.
Caitlin Shetterly is the author of “Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home.”