Why I Ruin a Few Christmas Cookies Every Year
It’s my meaningful way to keep past holiday memories alive.
Growing up, my siblings and I all knew Christmas was near when our kitchen counter became littered with pounds of butter, some neon red and green candied cherries, a battered wooden spoon and a slightly bent, round cookie cutter. Those simple items meant only one thing: It was time to make shortbread.
My mother was a great baker who loved the holiday season, so every year she went all out making at least a half dozen types of cookies and cookie bars, which were piled onto a platter and became the centerpiece of our Christmas day dessert. There were some repeat favorites, some new ones clipped from magazines or butter boxes, and some whose recipes had been gifted by neighbors. The only non-negotiable cookies were the shortbread, which were made exactly the same way as my grandmother did when my mom was growing up.
But before you think this is an image worthy of a Norman Rockwell sketch, let’s pause. The real talk is that my mom had a love-hate relationship with this 4-ingredient cookie. The recipe is so simple that it can’t be original to anyone. It’s just butter, sugar, flour and egg. The key to this cookie is the execution. One misstep and it’s just not right. And, of course, there was a misstep every year.
When making the dough, you have to knead in just enough flour until the lump of dough lightly cracks as you fold it. Too much flour and the cookies would be heavy and have a dusty texture. Too little, and they might taste greasy or have a thin line of uncooked dough running through the middle; it was an occurrence we fearfully referred to in our house as: "The Line." "The Line" incited more than one all-night frenzied baking session, leaving my mom’s eyes both wild and exhausted the next day. Additionally, the cookies needed to be fairly thick, smooth on top and a perfect ivory color with only the bottoms very lightly browned.
When I was young, my job was to add the cherries to the center of each cookie, the only acceptable decoration, and then skedaddle. This was fine by me as there was always a game or book more interesting. But as I got older, I would join my mom in the kitchen to sip tea and flip through magazines while she baked. She still didn’t really want help, but I kept her company and tried to support her when a batch came out wrong. We would wonder together if the oven was running low or if the problem was the new brand of butter she had purchased. I was no longer a pesky kid, but rather her partner in flour-dusted crime. The fact that every cookie she made tasted delicious was neither here nor there. If they weren’t just right to her, they had to go.
Fast forward a handful of years to living on my own and then as a couple. I would sometimes make shortbread and sometimes not. Truth be told, they weren’t my favorite cookie. But then my mom passed away somewhat suddenly and I started to feel the urge to faithfully make a batch every year. I even found her favorite not-quite-round cookie cutter when we packed up her house and brought it home with me. The year I had to be dairy-free, I still made them and just passed them onto my neighbor.
I know it’s almost Christmas when I’m in the kitchen muttering to myself about whether the dough has achieved "crack" status or breaking a test cookie in half in search and fear of “The Line”. I curse my oven or my forgetfulness to set a timer, if any brown kisses the tops or edges of those ivory cookies. It all feels so comforting and familiar that I swear my mom is standing just a few feet away.
I used to think the holidays were defined by the things you do or make, but have come to realize it’s about all the moments and people around and between them. These nooks and cracks of imperfection and process are where our memories and our loved ones live. For me, making shortbread cookies is about holding close to my memories and my mom. And if I haven’t ruined a few, it’s not quite right.