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The Ghosts of Christmas Pastry

ĎDid you write about the Christmas cookies yet?Ē a friend asked me.

I was on the phone, cradling it between shoulder and ear, my hands deep in dough, the column deadline looming.

ďI donít write about my Christmas cookies,Ē I told him. ďYou donít know what itís like. I have a very personal relationship with my Christmas cookies.Ē

ďIím sure you do,Ē he said, mollifying. ďBut maybe itís time for you to spill the beans.Ē

ďToss the cookies,Ē I said.

ďYeah,Ē he said, ďYou can do it. Write about the Christmas cookies.Ē

But see, itís like this: I come from a family of fine bakers. I was the youngest kid and the competition was tough. My mother made astonishing Danish tidbits and pastries. My sister makes tiny cakes of multi-colored layers of marzipan mortared together with apricot preserves and glazed with chocolate.

It took me a while to hit my cookie stride.

But all that pressure kind of warped me in a way, too. Because Iím not very generous when it comes to Christmas cookies. Maybe it has something to do with birth order, who can say? I bake lots of Christmas cookies. But itís been years since Iíve given away plates of Christmas cookies to my friends.

Because I know what happens with Christmas cookies and you do, too: Somebody gives you a plateful and the anise flavor mixes with the butter cookies and the meringues are sodden from the jam leaking from the thumbprints and the biscotti are hard enough to crack your fillings.

You eat two of them and leave the rest for Santa.

I donít like the thought of Santa getting all my butter cookies.

The way I see it is, anybody who wants my cookies has to go to the trouble of coming to get them (though I suppose you could argue thatís just what Santa does).

Look, I know this is not a very mature attitude. Iím not very mature when it comes to cookies.

Take the shortbread, for instance.

I was at a party the other night and somebody tried telling me that Scottish shortbread was the ne plus ultra of all other claims to the shortbread name.

Iíve had Scottish shortbread, I said with a shrug that sent my crab roll flying. It was OK, I said.

But what I didnít say was mine is better. More buttery, saltier, crumblier. Itís shortbread to make a MacDougal weep with envy. I stopped short of saying all that. I was at a party and it would have been rude.

Nor did I talk about the espresso shortbread. I started making that two years ago.

Itís all about sibling rivalry, I know that. But my sister has already been declared the Maker of the Perfect Apple Pie. I wasnít about to let her edge into the shortbread territory. Not that hers isnít adequate. Itís fine. Rolled out a little thin, if you ask me. And she cuts it into little stars. But really, brown stars? So much for verisimilitude.

I like my shortbread thicker. I cut it in the shape of sturdy little Christmas trees. If Robert Frost were alive he might even write a poem about my shortbread Christmas trees. Maybe.

I also make anise cookies.

And chocolate pepper cookies.

When I was in seminary I got the bright idea to buy feet- and hand-shaped cookie cutters with the politically-correct thought that I would make light cookies and dark cookies in the shape of hands and feet as a sign of racial harmony.

People shouldnít try to make humanitarian statements with cookies.

Because after Iíd rolled out and cut the dough, baked the cookies and lined them up on racks to cool, I looked down at what I had done. There were 30 disembodied black hands and 30 disembodied white hands. There were 30 pairs of disembodied black and white feet. I felt I ought to be brought up on human rights abuses charges.

But the cookies sure were tasty. Now I make them as interracial angels. Fewer body parts to mess with.

Which was why Iíve dropped chestnut fingers from my cookie repertory. Each year Linnea asks me if Iím going to make them. Each year I lie and tell her I canít find the chestnut puree in the supermarket. Because something went awry with the chestnut fingers.

What happened was, after Iíd baked up a batch of 50 and laid them all out on the counter before me, they sure didnít look like fingersówhich was a relief, given my past experiences.

Trouble was, they didnít look like much of anything. Just skinny, 3-inch long cylinders of dull brown dough. To truly be a successful cookie they needed that certain je ne sais quoi.

Chocolate, I figured. That will be a fast fixówhich was a good thing since it was one in the morning and the chardonnay was gone.

So I melted some chocolate and coated one end of each little cookie and laid it back out on the counter to dry. When I was finished I stood back to assess the effect.

The 50 chestnut fingers certainly had acquired a recognizable shape. Sometimes a chestnut finger is not just a chestnut finger. No sir, not a bit. And, at that moment, I was relieved I didnít have any sons who might become alarmed when they took the lid off the cookie tin.

Anyway, itís a new year and Iím back at work rolling and cutting and shaping and icing. Coconut pyramids, anise angels, espresso trees, shortbread fingers, bittersweet truffles, coriander crescents, chocolate teddy bears. Come and get them.

óJo Page

 You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org


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