When I was a kid, every year my mom and I would bake the same roll-out sugar cookies in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with the same set of cookie cutters. I don’t know where the cookie cutters came from, and I know the recipe was nothing special – just your standard sugar cookie mix from the 1979 edition of Pillsbury Kitchen’s Family Cookbook. Still, they were my favorite, and I was obsessed with them every year.
They took a long time to make. Together we would patiently hand-mix the dough, chill it, and roll it out on our round, flour-covered card table. Again and again we pressed down on the cookie cutters and waited for each batch to bake to a perfect golden brown in our oven. We had to wait until they had all cooled before icing them, making our own concoction with powdered sugar and a tiny splash of milk.
We made them up until our last Christmas together in 2006. My mom died right before Thanksgiving the following year, after a frighteningly quick battle with cancer. I tried making the cookies a few weeks later, with my best friend by my side. They didn’t turn out, and I was devastated. I was worried I’d never be able to re-create them without my mom.
This year, I decided to try again, after taking the last few years off. I recently moved across the country, so I had to re-invest in a lot of the baking staples I’d need. My kitchen is small, but I decided it was time to get counter containers for the dry goods. I love baking, but I haven’t made the time for it since moving. I dug out that old Pillsbury cookbook and found the recipe, right where it had always been, on page 166. I bought flour, sugar, powdered sugar, butter, eggs, and vanilla.
The night before Thanksgiving, I mixed the dough so it could chill overnight. I am lucky enough to have a stand mixer now, so this part was a lot easier than it was when I was a kid. I carefully followed the recipe, not wanting to make any mistakes. The next morning, I pulled the cool dough from the fridge and rolled it out on my kitchen table, just like my mom had taught me years earlier. I opened the tin of cookie cutters my dad had saved for me from our old house, and felt a flood of memories wash over me. Here was a very tactile reminder of my mom, a solid thing I could point to as something on which she had left her mark.
I cut and baked three dozen cookies and froze the rest of the dough. After they cooled, I realized I’d forgotten to buy food coloring – this was key, since we would mix up several different colors for decorating. I opted instead to frost mine with white vanilla icing, again made easier with the stand mixer. I accented the cookies with a black frosting decorating pen I’d forgotten I had.
I taste-tested a cookie and felt relieved. Though slightly thicker, they tasted just like I remembered them. The sensation made me miss my mom, but it also made me feel like she’d be glad I was carrying on our holiday tradition. Additionally, the step-by-step process made me feel so loved – those cookies take a long time to make, yet she set that time aside for me year after year.
I took a dozen to my friend’s for Thanksgiving dinner and gave the rest to my neighbors. I can’t wait to make them again at Christmas, and maybe someday it will be an experience I can share with my nieces. I’ll tell them their grandmother would have loved baking with them, just like she loved baking with me.
[Images via author]