“Write something funny about baking,” the editor said.
Oh, editors. You gotta love ’em this time of year. Holidays mean doing double the work in half the time, along with looking for new ways to write about the biggest yet most traditional food-related six weeks of the year: the span from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, which spins Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa into a blur of cooking and eating.
What’s funny about baking? Everything. Especially when the holiday vortex sucks in the unwary, who succumb to the pressure of advertising and TV chefs.
It all looks so easy, they think. They’ll take out the paper plates they’ve been storing in their ovens, then use those ovens for their intended purpose.
My mother was not easily swayed by holiday baking pressure. I grew up in Winston-Salem, and as long as Dewey’s Bakery was cranking out Moravian sugar cakes and fruit-studded stollen, she saw no need to fill the house with the warm scent of baking in her own oven which (the ads say) form a child’s cuddly holiday memories.
Occasionally, she’d make fruitcake using a box of spice cake mix and a tub of mixed candied fruit, the extra-gelatinous kind.
However, as a child I was not as strong.
I was about 12 years old when I found a recipe for the famous Moravian spice cookies and begged that we try making them. In a moment of weakness, never to be repeated for reasons you’ll see, my mother agreed.
If you haven’t eaten Moravian spice cookies, you’re really missing something, because they’re great. Besides the cinnamon-nutmeg-clove flavor, the crispy cookies are known for being ultra thin. I measured two popular Winston-Salem brands once with calipers. The cookies are 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick.
I need to make another point. The house I grew up in had a weird humidity problem in the winter. When it was very cold outside, condensation would form on the inside of the windows.
Add in two inexperienced and impatient cookie bakers. If you’re thinking the enterprise didn’t look good, you’re right.
We had to dig around to find a cookie sheet. I’m not 100 percent sure we had a cookie cutter; we may have used a juice glass.
As I remember, making the dough wasn’t especially difficult, even using a hand mixer my mother had received as a wedding gift that apparently was powered by sleepy gerbils.
Then the recipe cautioned to refrigerate the dough thoroughly. And keep it chilled while rolling it out.
“How are you supposed to do that?” my mother asked.
After a short period of time in the refrigerator, we plopped a clump of dough on the counter and started rolling. Within 10 minutes or so, the thick dough began to stick to everything it touched: the rolling pin, counter, cookie cutter, our fingers and the spatula we tried to pry the cookies up with.
The stuff was like spice-scented grout. We tried rushing the dough back and forth from the refrigerator, but it heated up faster than my mother’s temper.
Words emerged from my mother’s mouth that I’d never heard her say before, nor ever heard her say after. Those cookies caused her to lose her religion.
After what seemed like hours, we got a dozen cookies on the cookie sheet. They were as thick as dish towels and looked like Moravian spice floor tiles. My mother glared at the remaining dough and chunked it in the trash.
My family ate every chewy cookie. We wouldn’t have dared not to.
The point of this story – besides that no one should try to make those cookies at home unless inside a humidity-free refrigerator and while on heavy-duty happy pills – is that holiday memories are cooked up from many sources. Some of them aren’t the sorts of things Dickens wrote about.
This time of year, do whatever brings you joy, not what someone on Pinterest tells you to.
And if you happen to know any hard-working editors, take them some cookies. Maybe just buy them. They’ll be fine with that.
Debbie Moose is a freelance food writer and cookbook author. She can be reached at debbiemoose.com, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.