Baking cookies is a holiday tradition at our house. At our first cookie party in 1991, we had just one guest, Bronwyn, my son Nick's kindergarten classmate. The feisty little redhead loaded her cookies with frosting and nearly a bottle's worth of silver dragees--those decorative balls sold in the baking aisle as cookie decorations. It wasn't until the next day that I read the bottle more closely and discovered, to my horror, that the dragees weren't meant to be eaten. By the time I reached Bronwyn's mother, the cookies were long gone. Luckily, Bronwyn wasn't.
Fortunately, her mother let her return the following year. My little nieces joined us, along with our young neighbor, Julia. While the other children were busy cutting out trains and reindeer and stars, Bronwyn began cutting geometric shapes and slabs of dough and decorating the baked shapes in un-Christmas-like colors: black, orange, and olive green.
I treasure the photos from those early parties, which show the children--each in an apron--crowded around our kitchen table, intent on their work. In one, Nick, with a fringe of dark bangs, stands elbow-to-elbow with Bronwyn, cutting out cookies from a freshly rolled sheet of sugar dough. Four-year-old niece Gina, in pink glasses, meticulously decorates the gingerbread cookies on her baking sheet while my pre-schooler, Jordan, ponders two bottles of sprinkles: red or green? In another photo, a much younger version of me, a blotch of flour on my shirt, smiles encouragingly at my niece, Gemma, who proudly holds aloft a cat cookie.
It's always a bit of a madhouse. My job is to direct traffic: remember whose turn it is to cut out cookies, roll the dough, and mix up another vat of frosting when the supply started to dwindle.
Our cookie fest has evolved over the years to include more children and more adults, but some traditions remain unchanged. The night before, I mix up a quintuple batch of my family's sugar cookie recipe:
1 cup butter (I use unsalted)
1 cup white sugar
½ t. salt
2 t. vanilla (I use Madagascar)
2½ cups flour
by the "conventional method"--blending first the butter and sugar, adding eggs and vanilla, and finally the flour sifted with salt--before wrapping it in waxed paper and sealing it in a Tupperware container to chill. Then I whip up a batch of Swedish Gingerbread cookie dough from a recipe I cut from The New York Times in 1981, made with lemon rind and heavy cream instead of butter.
The morning of the party, I cover the table with an old, clean, fitted sheet--one that can handle stains from food coloring and blobs of dough--and shield the upholstered seats of our dining chairs with old towels to protect them from spills. I haul the big box of cookie cutters upstairs: the trees and bells and angels and teddy bears, but also the geckos and coyotes and pterodactyls, because bakers like to branch out.
I was six when my mother first showed me how to roll out Aunt Jean's sugar cookies, cautioning me to cut as many shapes as possible from the first batch, because the dough gets tougher each time it's rolled. What I figured out myself was how important it is to roll the dough thick and pull the cookies from the 400-degree oven just before they start to brown so they're a perfect canvas for the icing that follows.
I use the delectable buttercream recipe from mother's Joy of Cooking, circa 1943, a gold mine of cake and icing recipes and my most treasured cookbook, despite its browned pages and detaching cover. The secret is letting the frosting sit over--not in--hot water for 15 minutes to let the flavors "get acquainted."
I never do the actual decorating. Over the years, my husband, Greg, has taught a generation of bakers to adorn their cookies using grown-up pastry tubes and metal tips. Greg learned from his mother, who baked wedding cakes and insisted he practice fashioning frosting roses from royal icing and laying down perfectly scalloped cake borders on cardboard--scraping the rejects back into his tube and trying again--until he got the hang of it. He couldn't have known then how handy this skill would be when he had a family of his own.
The children who came to our parties in the early years are grown. Bronwyn is an artist in Los Angeles now--too far away to travel for a day of baking. But the cookie alumni who live nearby still join us. Our autistic friend, Mari, now 21, likes to video the goings on with her iPhone so she can watch them later. Julia has asked me to bequeath her my cherished Joy of Cooking.
What brings them back year after year? For me, it's the homey fragrance of cookies just pulled from the oven and the cheerful banter of the bakers as they reminisce about cookie feats and snafus--like the time Bronwyn pressed too enthusiastically with an X-Acto knife and cut geometric patches out of the pad on our dining room table, a fond memory that surfaces each time we change the tablecloth. It's the moment when cookie and silky buttercream meet taste buds, evoking childhood, holidays past, and a simpler time when people interacted one-on-one instead of through their devices. It's the primal pleasure of gathering at a dark time of year, creating Christmas in the company of family and friends.