Sugar cookies


It was nearly midnight when Kay pulled out the mixing bowl and carefully cut a quarter pound off a block of butter.

Efficiency“, she thought, as she measured the sugar to cover the butter, then placed it in the microwave for fifteen seconds. The butter melted to perfection, not yet clear, still an opaque buttery yellow but soft enough to save a quarter hour of creaming it with the sugar.  She added the milk, the egg, the teaspoon of vanilla and blended it all into a frothier state.

Next she measured the flour and the baking powder and mixed those in. In no time, she was rolling the dough and placing the cut shapes on to parchment paper on her baking pans.

Now there’s an invention,” she gloated to herself.  Parchment paper saved all the elbow grease of cleaning the pans.There was no one around to listen.

It had been two years since she had done any serious baking, but with a large number of people coming on Boxing Day, she would have to have things for them to nibble on. Store bought stuff was so….  so un-homey, so commercial, so not Christmassy.

Kay settled into a artisanal rhythm  of rolling dough, cutting shapes, arranging them, baking them, pulling them from the oven, cooling them, placing them on a plate to harden, then starting over. It was much like Paschabel’s  Canon. While the baking was going on in the oven, she was already starting on the rolling of dough and cutting of shapes for the next batch. When she pulled them from the oven and that cycle was ending, the next tray was ready for the oven and she started again.

Nonetheless, she could do many of the tasks by rote, and she reflected back to the last time she had spent with her mother baking for Christmas time. Besides the shortbread, they had made plum puddings. Mother’s hands, gnarled with her ninety years of kitchen duty were ugly in some ways – spotted, blue veins popping out above the bones, the white tendons shifting as she manipulated the dough, but in other ways they were so beautiful. There was an elegance to her hands, the way she held things carefully, preciously, as she worked, absorbed in one of the few helpful tasks she could still participate in.

Her mother had been anxious to pass along the tradition of making Christmas pudding. The recipe was only words. It couldn’t demonstrate the necessary techniques, the curious necessity of drying the bread until it was completely hard  and then soaking the bread again in water. It didn’t make sense, but according to her, it was  essential to the process.

The timer rang irritatingly. She ignored it since her hands were sticky with dough and she needed just a few more seconds to complete her task. The timer continued to chime insistently and though it could only have been another ten seconds, by the time Kay opened the oven, the edges of the cookies were browning too rapidly. Two of them were burnt on the bottom. An adjustment would have to be made. Kay would have to answer the annoying signal. It had to be obeyed!

Now Kay had a plateful of two inch rounds. With fondness, she remembered her first Christmas in Europe. She had been living just outside of Paris, studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. At Christmas break, an English student from the International Business School invited her to join three other students driving back to London for a two week school break.  Kay leapt at the chance.

For three days in London, she shared a two-bedroom flat with six other people, some who worked on shift; others who were at school; and with the holidays, there was a daybed in the living room for Kay to sleep on.

On the fourth day, she took the train for Holyhead and then the boat to Dublin to stay with some acquaintances at SeaPoint in Monkstown.

She had met this Irish couple at a side-walk cafe in France; the woman was an artist, as was Kay; they’d given her an invitation to visit at any time.  When Kay called from London, Ellen had sounded enthusiastic. “Yes, please come!”

But Kay was not confident; she was arriving just before Christmas. Studying herself in the mirror, she realized how tenuous her invitaion was. Christmas was for families. She’d have to get a move on to  somewhere else before Christmas arrived. It was one thing to be invited to stay; but to intrude on Christmas day itself without an invitation was some nervy kind of gall!

It was bitterly cold. The air was damp and the cold penetrated. On an early walk out to see the village of Monkstown, Kay had seen a hardy localresident go down to the sea and swim.

“Brrrrr,” Kay shivered. That was just too bizarre, wanting that kind of hardiness; deliberately forcing oneself to suffer so.

Late in the afternoon, preparations were underway for the big day. Kay offered to lend a hand and was assigned decoration of the cookies with some white, green and red icing.

There are moments in life that seem to be suspended in time. Time out of time, Kay liked to explain it.  There were no other demands. The only thing in the world that she had to do that afternoon was this baking. If it took an hour or if it took three, there was no difference.

And so it was that Kay took up her paint brush and began to paint the cookies with pictures.  She carefully covered the cookies with a hard and smooth white icing. When it dried, she took a portion of leftover icing and dyed it in green, another portion in red, another portion in blue, another in yellow, according to the food dyes at her disposal.

With a new paintbrush, she drew a green fir tree on the first cookie. It was simple. A child’s drawing, really. On the next, she drew two fir trees. One after another she decorated the rounds with Christmas images – of snowmen, of baubles in their many variations, of wreathes, of snow covered houses with smoke coming from the chimney, of holly and mistletoe, of Santa Claus.

One of the children came and helped, making her own designs. Another came to inspect them and to pile them up carefully in tins readied for the baking crop.

While other memories of that stay faded away, always, crystal clear, was that time-out-of-time that Kay had spent baking decorated cookies. And twenty years after, Ellen, her Irish hostess, also only remembered the cookies

Kay lifted her last batch of naked cookies out of the oven. Where, she wondered, could she find a recipe for icing? A simple thing like icing, and the formula had escaped her!

It was after one in the morning when Kay finally turned off the oven and stopped for a cup of vanilla hot milk. She selected a burnt offering and tasted it. Aside from the edges done in brown, it was perfect. The vanilla disappeared as a distinct taste, which was as it should be. Then Kay looked at the bare, cookie-cutter trees.

Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow is another day. And she wrapped things up and went to bed. Tomorrow, she would see if she could make some coloured icings for her cookie treasures.

She turned off the oven; checked that the coffee pot was off; left the baking dishes in the sink for the morrow and went to bed.



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