In many ways, my mom and dad were very brave, remarkably tolerant parents, bless them. For instance, perhaps against all common sense, I was allowed to learn how to cook, by myself, by the age of seven. It wasn’t Cordon Bleu cuisine, but I could manage quite edible scrambled eggs, bacon, French toast, and even pancakes without burning down the house. The deal was that I could mess up the kitchen as much as I found necessary, but I had to clean it up afterwards.
At the age of ten, I decided it was time to try something more complicated, something that involved chocolate, something ‘from scratch’ — that exciting phrase that meant a cook had truly arrived. Cupcakes from mixes and instant pudding from boxes no longer satisfied my ambitions. Somewhat unwisely, I chose to try an old recipe that my great-aunt May had cut out of a newspaper decades earlier for chocolate meringue pie. No instant anything. A single pie crust was involved, which of course stuck to my hands, but managed to fit the pie pan nonetheless. I also had to learn to separate eggs. The egg yolks went into the chocolate pudding, along with the melted baking chocolate. The whites went into the meringue. I liked the culinary balance of that. It seemed at the time that cooking chocolate pudding from scratch took an eternity of stirring over a hot stove, but I pressed onward, and magically, about a year later, the pudding thickened. The final results — rich, dark, melt-in-your-mouth pudding, topped with fluffy clouds of meringue, perched in a flaky, albeit uneven, crust — were a revelation. Subsequently, I could only sneer at boxes of Jello instant pudding and store-bought pie. There was no turning back.
By the age of thirteen, I was an old hand in the kitchen. And that grand opportunity for culinary excess, Christmas, was around the corner. I found an ad in a magazine for a lovely set of copper Christmas cookie cutters, with a recipe book for various options, including decorated roll-and-cut sugar cookies, plus a set of frosting tips and a pastry bag for decorating them. I sent in a money order, and about three weeks before Christmas, my package arrived. The cookie cutter shapes were supposed to represent an international theme, with designs from various European countries. That added to their cachet, in my opinion. No snowmen or bells or wreaths or even Santa shapes. Instead, a reindeer for Finland, a fleur-de-lis for France, a windmill for Holland. I’ve forgotten what countries the other shapes were supposed to represent, but one can make some educated guesses.
The following Saturday, I decided to try everything out. Wisely, my mother decided this would be a good time to get out of the house and do some grocery shopping. The cookie recipe stated that the yield was for 2 to 3 dozen cookies, which hardly seemed enough, so I doubled it. Later, it occurred to me that perhaps the yield prediction was based on using much larger cookie cutters. In any case, I proceeded to assemble my ingredients. I was reasonably organized about it, and since the cookies only took about 7 minutes to bake, I had quite a production line going along the kitchen counter, with a rolling and cutting area, a baking sheet area, and a cooling rack area. Very soon, I ran out of counter space, so I began to move racks of cooling cookies to the dining room table. Six or ten racks later, the dining table was full, so I placed the last few dozen cookies to cool on the credenza in the living room. I’m not sure how it happened, but some sort of biblical miracle appeared to have taken place, and I ended up far exceeding the expected cookie yield. By the time my mother arrived home from shopping, there were 12 dozen cookies cooling all over the house.
With a full brown paper grocery bag in each arm, my mother shoved her way through the back door and into the kitchen. Not unlike Mary and Joseph, seeking accommodations in Bethlehem, she surveyed the kitchen counter and realized there was no room at the inn. She was not overly alarmed at that point, and deftly took a right turn into the dining room. And halted.
I still endeavored to be a considerate child then, and rushed to her side to wrestle a grocery bag from her arm.
“Um, I, um, ended up with a lot more cookies than I thought I would,” I said, somewhat unnecessarily.
My mother remained speechless for a very long minute, while several emotions played over her face. We made our way into the living room, where my mother looked at the credenza, then at me, then back at the dining table, then at the grocery bags, and back at me again. I’m fairly certain of the gist of the conflicting thoughts running through her mind at that moment. They were not new thoughts. One of them was, “I should be used to the way her projects take over the house by now.” Another was, “Well, I’ve got to hand it to her, she’s ambitious.” Still another was, “I don’t know where she gets it from. She doesn’t take after me.” The final amalgam of these thoughts produced an expression of bemused resignation. I’d seen this look many times. As usual, I didn’t know whether to apologize or grin.
“I’ll just clear some of the cookies off the dining table,” I offered. “They should be cooled by now.”
“Oh, never mind. We can just put the bags on the dining chairs,” she said. “You don’t have cookies on the chairs, do you?”
“Well, that’s a relief. Here, take this bag and put the milk in the refrigerator.”
Eventually, the groceries got put away, and the cookies got carefully arranged in layers on a couple of large trays, between sheets of waxed paper. Naturally, I had to clean up the kitchen, which took some considerable labor, and we had to eat dinner that night. So, I thought it wise to postpone the decorating portion of the program until Sunday afternoon.
Decorating 12 dozen cookies turned out to be less entertaining than I thought it would. At first, it was splendidly fun whipping up butter cream frosting, separating it into little bowls, dyeing it different colors, and trying out all the decorative frosting tips. Tucked in amongst this array, spread across the entire dining table, were little containers of cinnamon hearts, colored sugar crystals, and chocolate jimmies. Each cookie, like an art canvas, required a gesso foundation of plain frosting, onto which I applied various realistic details.
My mother strolled through the dining room from time to time, glancing at my progress.
“How much butter and sugar have you gone through?” she asked at one point.
“Uh, I think maybe a couple of pounds,” I said.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Well, I hope you realize this is coming out of your allowance.”
I managed to decorate about six dozen cookies, with judicious breaks for tasting them, before my hands started to cramp up. I took another break and ate a few more cookies — they were delicious, I admit — but my will and imagination were faltering. I had to throw in the towel for a few days.
It took about another week to finish decorating them all. I had to give up on the notion of artistic purity, and convinced a few of my girlfriends to help me out after school. At first, they were delighted at the prospect, but I discovered that their enthusiasm wavered much more quickly than mine, after perhaps a dozen or so cookies. I won’t say that I came to hate Christmas cookies. They were my creation, after all. But by the last dozen or three, my girlfriends and I lapsed into making rude jokes about them. And admittedly, those final cookies were not the creative masterpieces they might have been.
I also discovered that there was a limited number of potential cookie recipients in my immediate circle of friends and family. No one really wanted more than a dozen or two. Between snacking and gifting, I managed to dispatch about six or eight dozen of them. I was so tired of them all by then that I didn’t want to keep any more of them myself, a decision with which my mother heartily concurred. In the end, about a week before Christmas, my father drove me and the final four dozen cookies to the local hospital, where they were accepted perhaps more enthusiastically than the fruitcakes, fudge, and pies that other festively-minded citizens had already pressed upon the staff. “We’ll bring these to the children’s ward,” one of the nurses assured me. “Kids don’t really like fruitcake.”