I just baked 12 dozen Christmas cookies for no one.
I do the baking every year; the “no one” part I’m still getting used to.
When I ran a magazine, I’d make a batch of these each December week and bring them in on Mondays for the staff. A junior editor who became a senior editor and went on to launch food magazines and publish cookbooks dubbed them the “Like Heroin Cookies,” a moniker I treasure. It was hard to stop eating them. The art director came to my desk one afternoon. “Are there any of those cookies left?” he asked hopefully. I shook my head. “O-kay,” he said, sounding like Eeyore, and shuffled out the door.
When the scent of them used to waft from the oven, my ex would pull up a kitchen table chair, sit down with a huge glass of milk, and wait. “I can feel myself getting fatter while I eat these,” he said every year. And kept eating. After our divorce and long radio silence, he sent a rare email: “Could you give me that recipe?”
When my daughter was away at culinary school in Vermont one holiday, I shipped her a box of these. She picked the delivery up at the post office, clutched the box to her down jacket, and told the student adviser (who later told me), “This is home.”
They’re just sugar cookies, made with a few extravagant ingredients, rolled thick and barely baked, like shortbread. Then I cover them in gloppy frosting that is mostly butter and vanilla, which clogs up decorating bags, refuses to squirt out of those little tips, and cannot hold the exacting lines that the icky-tasting but artistic Royal Icing is meant to do. Then, there’s a little secret thing I do about storing them so the frosting and cookie make the most of each other, and voila! Heroin.
For years, when I went out to an office and managed a family back at home, I’d make a batch, they’d be gone in 48 hours, and I’d be up at night, rolling out another. This year, I made two batches in one day, filled up all the Tupperware in the house, and days later, there the darn things still sit.
This is not the first year the kids are grown or that particular ex is gone. It’s not the first year that I’m working from home. It’s not the first winter of pandemic isolation—and I happen to like hanging out my own, anyway. Isolating a writer is like forcing to golfer to go putt.
Yet something sort of lonely just snuck up on me this year.
I like Christmas traditions, and if I were stranded on a desert island (but magically knew what month and day it was), I would deck the palm trees with something hopefully non-poisonous. It makes me happy, sitting here alone at a keyboard, looking around the room and seeing stuff twinkle. Visitors are swell, but truthfully, I do holiday-making because it gives me joy.
So I put an insipid Hallmark movie on my laptop, tied on an apron, and baked—in a kitchen bereft of little people running underfoot, missing young voices yelling “Mom! What’s for lunch?,” minus happy chaos and wet mittens on the radiator and cold rosy cheeks brushing up against mine.
Remarkable how easy it was to crack the eggs, measure the flour, and roll the dough without damp backpacks to trip over and messy homework scattered on the kitchen counter.
Remarkable how fast the choosing of the cookie cutters goes without lengthy sibling debates about whether or not the dinosaur-shaped cutter qualified as a Christmas critter.
Remarkable how smoothly the rolling and cutting out and baking and decorating go when no tweens need rides to band practice or their hockey jerseys washed right now.
Once the Hallmark credits rolled, I looked around the kitchen and said aloud to myself, in imperfect grammar, “Well, Pamela, who did you bake these cookies for?”
I thought about trying to donate a few dozen to a shelter or a food shelf, but they don’t accept homemade food. I thought about walking door-to-door with cookie-stuffed ziplocs, but I don’t know most of the neighbors, and who wants baked goods from a stranger in the age of COVID? Of course my two grandboys cannot possibly eat 144 cookies, yet I went right ahead and made them anyway. What on earth had possessed me to crank out treats for nobody?
Well, maybe not exactly nobody. I have people, and they will eventually come eat at least some of these. I’ll eat too many myself, leading to New Year resolutions that I will immediately break. I tucked a few deep in the freezer, though they’ll taste like cardboard come Easter. I guess I didn’t really bake for ghosts.
And it was never about eating them, anyway.
Buried in the backache that comes from all that rolling and decorating, and hidden in the mess of measuring spoons and beaters piled in the sink, are decades of magnificently ordinary and wondrous moments that are somehow revealed in the scent of baking lemon zest. Proust with his childhood madeleines understood this.
It’s my link to Christmases past, to my years as a young and exhausted mother who could not have imagined a day with an empty kitchen and an unraided larder. So I split some of the cookie cutters into three piles—I’m giving one to each of my kiddos this year, along with the recipe for the Like Heroin Cookies.
And the recipe for making Christmas, even alone, out of butter, eggs, and sugar.