When I was growing up, they were simply “Christmas cookies” to me—not butter cookies or cutout cookies. Just Christmas cookies: the quintessential sweet of the season.
Of course, there were many cookie varieties on the platter my mom kept stocked on the kitchen counter throughout the holiday season. I had to taste each of the others at some point—the gingerbread, the mini pecan pie shells, the coconut and chocolate “magic bars,” and the shortbread squares with salty cashews pressed into the caramel on top. But when the platter was offered with the instruction to “just take one,” my small hands only hovered over other choices before inevitably gravitating back to a beloved “Christmas cookie.”
As an adult, I consider these classics a family recipe, but in truth, the five-ingredient list is hardly complicated, or a secret: butter, flour, sugar, an egg, and—most importantly—a half-teaspoon of real almond extract (imitation is forbidden!). First, as with all cookies, the butter and sugar are creamed together before adding the egg and almond extract. Then the flour is carefully stirred in. For years I had to hand over the spoon to my mom when the last cup of flour went into the bowl, and for years I was in awe of how strong she was, as I watched her effortlessly finish the job my wimpy arm couldn’t handle.
After the dough was chilled (a step I was never a fan of waiting through), my mom and I rolled it out to a careful ¼-inch thick round ready to be puzzled into Christmas shapes. It was with Christmas cookie dough that I learned to use a rolling pin: gently but firmly, keeping the pressure even between left and right hands, learning to lift the rolling pin slightly as it reached the outer perimeter of the dough, so as not to leave the edges too thin to be cut.
Opening up the tin of cookie cutters each December was as thrilling to me as unearthing my family’s boxes of tree decorations. All the old favorite shapes were there—stocking, tree, candy cane, wreath, star, santa, and the gingerbread boy and girl (which we didn’t hesitate to use on non-gingerbread dough)—as well as the surprise of a new cookie cutter or two we had added to the collection the year before. I learned to be strategic about arranging each shape before pressing it into the dough, minimizing the scraps of dough to be gathered and rolled out again. The outstretched leg of the reindeer nicely made use of a little strip of available dough left along the top of a tree’s point, and the positive points of one star could utilize the negative spaces left by another star.
Frosting and decorating the cookies, though, was the best part of the process. The bowls of colored frosting and various sprinkles were laid out on the table, drawing the whole family as if they were a feast rather than work to be shared. Over the years, our approach became increasingly elaborate and creative. Armed with toothpicks, we discovered techniques for swirling two or more colors of frosting in the middle of a star, and for picking up and placing tiny candy balls exactly where we wanted them, along the hem of an angel’s dress. In his teens, my brother went rogue with his approach, transforming traditional shapes into entirely different objects—an upside-down stocking became a hobby-horse, and bell became a space shuttle, with USA spelled out carefully using those small, stick-shaped chocolate sprinkles.
As a college student, making and decorating “Christmas cookies” was always my first order of business upon arriving home after finals. Years later, after having my own children, I could hardly wait for them to be old enough to sit around the kitchen table and decorate cookies with Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Bill. When I eventually met Jason, I knew immediately he and his daughter would embrace the slightly-competitive fun of our family’s cookie decorating marathons. (A man who would scoff at such an activity would be no man for me!)
Our three daughters are now teenagers, and the “Christmas cookie” tradition continues—even beyond Christmas. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that “Christmas cookies” could be made at other times of the year, so I began buying new cookie cutters: tulips and rabbits, pumpkins and maple leaves, hearts and snowflakes.
A few weeks ago, on a cold Saturday morning, we sat down around the dinning room table, where stacks of naked autumn cookies waited for their sweet, creative disguises. Each of the girls had invited a friend to join us. “I didn’t realize other people even did this any more,” one of our guests said, picking up a toothpick and getting intricate with her design.
The cookies are definitely special—everyone who sees them and bites into one agrees. But for me, it’s the tradition of time spent together—evolving as our family evolves, yet remaining the same from year to year, in a life where it seems nothing really remains the same—that I crave most this time of year.