Christmas cookies always makes me think of my grandmother. I know that probably conjures an image of a sweet little old lady baking a single batch of chocolate chips. But what I remember most is not the warm oven in a cozy kitchen, but the staggering output she managed. Grandma baked cookies not by the dozen but by the gross. Her entire kitchen was an assembly line.
She was the General Motors of Snickerdoodles.
Let me set the scene.
Once upon a time she’d been a farm girl, then a Flapper, then a young mom in the Great Depression. During the war, she worked the line at a munitions plant — a real Rosie the Riveter.
But the woman I remember (in her late 60s when I came around) was confined to a wheelchair, rarely able to leave her house, yet still possessed of the same drive to stay active. Even in her hospital bed, her hands were constantly in motion with craft-making.
Christmas gifts started in August.
She made gift boxes each year, one for each child and adult grandchild who visited her house, plus always something for the little ones. Usually you would find a homemade Afghan or pottery, homespun decorations for your tree, jars of pickles and jellies canned from her garden.
And, ah yes, the cookies.
Every gift box contained a dozen each of the chocolate chips, the raisins, the dates, and the gumdrop cookies. Then on top, packed with great care, her crowning achievement — the cut-out sugar cookies.You’d find layers of precisely and uniformly decorated Santas, elves, wreaths, Christmas trees, and even Rudolphs with Red Hots for noses.
Forty years later, I can close my eyes and picture the cinnamon-scented frosting factory that her small kitchen became. Her dining table, sewing table, and several card tables became holding areas for cookies while they cooled. And still she worked, pounding fresh lumps of dough with flour and attacking it with her rolling pin and cookie cutters. In the 8 minutes that one sheet was baking, she’d get another one prepped. Then with one hand she’d wheel herself around the table, spin around to the oven, swap out the sheets, and circle to the other side of the room to line up more creations — Santas to the right, Rudolphs on the left.
The next morning, she’d start whipping up bowls of colored frosting and assembling the sprinkles. I got to help on the easy designs, provided I stuck to the established patterns. Exactly nine Red Hots went on each wreath so she could make her whorls of green frosting around them like bows. There were a lot of rules. You couldn’t go overboard and run out of decorations before you finished all the batches!
And at the end of the day, wiped out and crashing from the inevitable sugar rush (I got to eat all the ones that were too burned to use), I’d sit back in amazement looking at the rows and rows of artwork before us. But Grandma was still in motion, packing everything into Tupperware and already thinking ahead to decorating the tree.
As an adult, I try to keep her assembly-style baking tradition alive, plowing through batch after batch of drop cookies (I have neither the artistic ability nor the patience to try the sugar cookies on my own). Each season holds for me a day of baking madness while I listen to the old favorite carols.
But let’s face it, I’ll never be as impressive as that tough old lady, wheeling herself in circles over the linoleum with a hot tray of cookies in her free hand.