A Tradition Deeper Than Cookies
I’m three batches into our annual cookie baking celebration when, ZAP, our twenty year old sunbeam mixer from my parents wedding electrocutes me. It’s not bad, just enough to wake me up. See, every year our antique, cookie batter coated mixer zaps me. It’s like a painstaking game of Russian roulette trying to guess which batch I will get zapped during. The funny thing is, it’s never electrocutes anyone else, it has a vendetta against me. I know every year that at any given second during our holiday cheer filled celebration, I could fall victim to our mixer. It makes the whole experience much more exciting.
In my house when the mixer comes out and the fire is lit, it’s officially Christmas cookie season. I look forward to this because it means getting to spend quality time with my dad. I spend all the time I can with my dad; doing yardwork, working on cars, searching for antiques and even baking cookies, he’s my best friend. Every season my dad and I whip out the battered recipe card for my grandma’s famous butter cookies. The recipe dates all the way back to my dad’s childhood when him and his brothers snuck the sacred cookies out of their hiding spot in the attic.
We started making them in my house one year when my grandparents came up from Florida. My Grandma brought with her a little recipe card with the list of ingredients on it. My dad knew instantly what it was and that year at Christmas we started baking them. Now they’ve found their way into our house where we look forward to baking them every year. They fill the house with the aroma of warm, melted butter mixed with my mom’s candles: pine tree and cinnamon. When the front door opens this perfume of smells mixes with the embers in our fireplace to create one of the most heart warming smells I know.
These butter cookies are arguably the best in the world; the recipe has stayed in our family and my dad refuses to let anyone else have it. They’re so buttery that they actually crumble and melt into a pool of happiness in your mouth if you eat them slow enough to taste them. They’re smooth like silk and eating them is like a ballet of satisfaction. Using butter that is softened and not completely melted is a key part to our recipe. If the butter is too soft the cookies will turn out dry and there is nothing worse than dry butter cookies. Their name itself implies that they aren’t supposed to be dry!
Baking these cookies is a process and it often takes the whole entire day and leaves the house and ourselves a huge mess. I usually get put on cookie batter duty while my dad taste tests and shoots them into shapes using our “cookie gun”. My dad’s a funny guy and throughout the whole cookie baking experience he cracks jokes, sings, dances and fools around with the dog. He always thinks his jokes are so funny and he laughs for way too long at them.
My dad has this deep laugh that echoes throughout our house and makes you smile, sometimes he laughs so hard that he loses his breath and starts snorting like a pig. I always tell him that it’s not his jokes that are funny, it’s his reactions to his jokes that are funny. As we bake he coaches me on batter consistency, “it’s too lumpy, you softened the butter too much” he’ll advise, or “did you mix up the salt and the sugar?” he’ll scold, all in good fun. While I’m busy mixing, my dad goes to work on decorating. We shape them into wreaths, trees, hearts and swirls using a “cookie gun”.
A “cookie gun” is a frustrating piece of machinery that is supposed to make the dough into fun shapes. This rarely happens on the first try. Apparently these used to be made better, the one we have is a cheap plastic one though which breaks almost every year. My dad and I get super frustrated always vowing that we will invest in a nice one the next year but it never happens, instead we let ourselves get frustrated by this year after year. The dough has to be the perfect consistency and you have to pull the trigger two times to get the ideal cookie. It often takes multiple tries to get the perfect shapes and any unsightly cookies will be removed from the tray and returned to the bowl with all the other dough, awaiting its destiny. We even use red and green colored dough for Christmas spirit.
After that, sugar sprinkles are a necessity, this is easily my mom’s least favorite part. Since we make armies of cookies we don’t have time to carefully sprinkle each one. We often take the bottle of sugar sprinkles and shake it over the whole tray like a monsoon of Christmas rain. They bounce from the tray like bouncy balls onto the floor, into the crevices of the oven, under the fridge and make their way into every place imaginable. Walking through the kitchen barefoot on cookie day reminds you of the beach, sand or rather sugar sprinkles between your toes.
While all this commotion is going on in the kitchen my mom is usually in the living room watching some reality tv show like The Real Housewives. We spend the day teasing her about it because my Dad and I can’t stand reality TV and she laughs along. She scolds me, making sure I don’t leave the kitchen a mess. The fireplace roars and every once in awhile my dad will ask me to go turn over the logs to keep it going. This usually involves me having to push our heat hog of a dog, a 150 pound English Mastiff, out of the way.
Ben’s only two and we rightfully call him Big Ben. He truly is man’s best friend: him and my father are inseparable. When they play together it’s like an earthquake, Ben is so big that he makes everything on the shelves rattle and the furniture wiggle. While we make cookies my dad plays with him in between batches and my mom and I watch always wondering who will get hurt first. Ben’s young still so he doesn’t understand Christmas cookie day yet not like our last dog at least.
Our last dog, Timber who I grew up with, was also an English Mastiff. He was a lot smarter than Ben and was a huge part of our cookie extravaganza. Timber knew what Christmas cookie meant. When we started making them my dad would jazz him up by chanting “Christmas cookies” in a voice strikingly similar voice as Scooby Doo. Timber would go nuts ripping through the house and destroying what was left of our hard wood floors. When a batch came out of the oven he would sit and wait eagerly and we’d toss them into his mouth like a sea lion at a show. He missed every time of course, Mastiffs aren’t that agile.
All of this was going on during the process of putting cookies in the oven and taking them out, the buzzer rang every ten minutes revealing cookies perfectly golden, lined on a tray like soldiers. They even marched their way right into our mouths and eventually into containers when we started to feel sick. When the cookies are fresh out of the oven, they aren’t as good. It takes painstaking patience letting the cookies cool off and then chill. The remaining bowl of artificially dyed dough has to be protected like the Crown Jewels.
My dad is the main culprit for stealing spoonful’s of dough while he waits for fresh batches to come out of the oven. He always claims he’s checking to see if the doughs right, but, I’ve come to realize that he just loves the dough. By the time we’re done baking, we usually have hundreds of little Christmas trees and wreaths lining our counters and ready to be loaded into containers.
Butter cookies are best served cold according to my dad, that’s why my grandma kept them in the attic. Keeping them in the refrigerator is too easy, they get eaten way too fast that way. Our cookie storage is one of a kind. We store them in the garage in my dad’s primer coated 1967 Chevelle. The garage stays cold and most people don’t think to search for cookies in a half restored muscle car stripped of its interior. Of course our whole family knows they are there, but, most of us are too lazy to go into the freezing cold garage when we have a late night cookie craving, this is probably for the best.
The biggest challenge is getting these cookies to last until Christmas. Everyone knows about these cookies, I get questions every year asking if we’ve made them from friends and family awaiting their annual delivery. I usually package them in holiday themed plastic containers with cliché penguins in scarves, polar bears on skis and animated gingerbread men. I deliver them to close relatives and friends, spreading literal Christmas cheer along the way.
See, in my family, I feel as if it’s not about the cookies, at least to me. It’s about the vivid memories that I have baking these cookies with my family. The experience helps strengthen my relationship with my family. It’s a time to come together, make delicious cookies and be goofy. The cookies are good, but nothing can beat my sarcastic dad and his silly antics, the dog laying by the fire and my mom sticking close by, sometimes, if we’re lucky my sister even graces us with her presence. Physically, the cookies are loaded with disgusting amounts of butter, but metaphorically they are loaded with love and my precious memories and nothing beats the melt in your mouth happiness of our annual cookie tradition.