On Holiday Baking , Or: Why I Love Ugly Cookies

Every November/December I start scouring every food magazine for recipes and pictures of pretty Christmas cookies. I love them all. I love the cookies that sparkle. I love the cookies that leave a trail of powdered sugar as you eat them. I love the spicy ones. I love the jammy ones. I love the cookies that are pretty much just a vehicle for frosting. And I love making Christmas cookies. I always have. But I don’t do it anymore (or at least I haven’t for at least six years now). Why? The whole business turns me into an anxious puddle. There isn’t a single step of the process that doesn’t fill me with dread or feelings of inadequacy.

My friend’s mom makes the prettiest Christmas cookies I’ve ever seen. To be on her cookie list is one of the highest honors a Seattelite could hope to attain (though most don’t know it). Her cookies are every bit as perfect and detailed as every inch of her home. They’re curated. They’re delicious. They are the product of hours and hours of labor, hundreds of dollars in supplies and gadgets, and, I suspect, a team of housekeepers. They look, feel, smell, and taste like a million dollars.

I will never have a million dollars ever, in my life.

The first time I made cookies to give as gifts, is one of my most bittersweet memories. I remember a rare snowfall outside as I creamed the butter and sugar together, watching “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with my mom as we frosted the cookies, the inch-thick layer of sprinkles that lined our kitchen countertops when we were finished. I also remember the ingredients themselves costing $40, a sum that, to my seventh-grade mind, was obscene. I could have gone to Claire’s and bought each of my friends a pair of earrings for less than that! But that was also $40 of my mom’s money. We didn’t have a lot. I felt really guilty for spending enough money to feed us for three days, on cookies that were just going to be eaten within five minutes of gifting—or worse, not eaten at all, what if they actually tasted nasty?!?!?!!!

I can’t tell you what these cookies looked like or tasted like because I don’t remember. I remember a slight sense of pride at having made something, at being able to share that work with other people. But mostly I remember feeling guilty about wasting my mom’s resources and time. She never complained, by the way, this was all in my head.

My cookies never come out perfect. I almost never have enough space, or the right tools, or even enough time. Sometimes the cookies themselves come out a little too dark around the edges, or the frosting I make is a little too runny, or I end up buying the wrong kind of sugar to decorate them with, or, or, or…

The cookies I make that aren’t meant to be visual showstoppers always come out fine. Why don’t I just gift those? Nobody’s going to be upset with getting a box full of chocolate chip, Nutella, or molasses cookies. But that’s not the point. This is the time of year where you pull out all the stops, go the extra mile, throw the extra tinsel, just to prove to the people you love that they are special to you. That’s the point, right? We do all this to show our people that they mean everything to us.

Why does it cost so much to say to another person, “you mean a lot to me?”

Ok, I’ll spare you the Charlie Brown diatribe against the commercialization of Christmas. But I’ll ask you something instead: have you ever thought about those extreme holiday baking competitions? Have you ever thought about how many people a life-sized Christmas tree cake can feed? Have you thought about the folks who can’t afford a loaf of bread, while somebody out there is baking a 6 foot cake that only three judges will take three bites of?

Granted, extreme cooking challenges and at-home baking are two completely different things. But I can’t help but see some similarity between the two when it comes to holiday gifting and entertaining. How can I justify making batch upon batch of elaborate cookies when I know people down the street from me are worried about freezing to death before they can find their next meal?

Put a pin in that question. Let me tell you about the first time I was given ugly cookies.

I was in high school, a vain teenager, and I didn’t want to eat them. They were lumpy, and discolored, ugly af. But somebody made them just for me. I couldn’t not eat them. Maaaaan, these cookies tasted like love! They were not the best cookies I’ve ever eaten, but every bite carried a message, “I keep you in my thoughts… you deserve a treat… be kind to yourself…”

I think that’s what we all mean to say when we give food as gifts. We give each other food because we want our people to fill themselves with those nice sentiments.

So I guess, this is where I’m supposed to tell you to go forth and make ugly cookies, use whatever you have, and just pour all your love into the recipe. And I want to say that. But I know that five minutes after I post this I will be back on Bon Appetit’s website, researching complicated cookie techniques, looking for the finest castor sugar and whole vanilla beans on Amazon. I will continue to chase perfection. I will spend more money than I would ever find reasonable, and I will continue to beat myself up when my confections don’t look the way I expected them to. Or maybe, I just won’t bake anything at all. It’s likely that my anxiety will get the best of me and I’ll decide a nice card with a handwritten note is probably all that my loved ones really need.

But I give you permission to make and gift ugly-ass baked goods. I give myself that permission, too.

Just make sure they taste good, ok?

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