Every Day is Saturday

Finding Joy in the Here and Now

Cooking Up Christmas

on December 10, 2013

Christmas Cookies

At this time of year I am always seized by a powerful urge to bake.  Visions of festively decorated cookies and pound cakes and fudge and mince pies begin dancing in my head, and I start to eye the rolls of parchment paper at the grocery store with intent.  I have found, though, that the visions are far more frequent than their manifestation.  That doesn’t mean the impulse is any less strong in the years I don’t bake (or don’t bake much), just that most years I decide I can’t be bothered.  I have cultivated many excellent reasons for not busting out the rolling pin.   Here are some handy ones I use; please feel free to apply them to your own situation, as necessary:

  • My friend (insert name) makes those (choose all that apply: cookies; mince pies; cupcakes; peanut butter balls; other) so much better than I do, and I know she’s going to bring us some;
  • There’s no way my lame attempt to make a (Christmas pudding; Rum Cake; Chocolate Torte) could possibly be better than what I can buy in the store; and
  • I don’t have a (stand mixer; food processor; double boiler) so I really can’t make (that enormously complicated confection) properly.

These (completely rational!) explanations have served to assuage my self-inflicted guilt about not magically turning into Betty Crocker every December 1st for many a year.  But why do I feel guilty at all?  What is the origin of this compulsion?  I’m glad you asked, because if I’m going to keep feeling like a frustrated pastry chef for a month every year, I’d like to know why.

Without thinking too hard, I’m pretty sure a lot of it is rooted in memories of Christmases past.  I have clear recollections of my mother standing in the kitchen, a big bowl held in the crook of her arm, stirring its thick contents with a big spoon and a lot of determination.  Mom made exactly three things at Christmas:  fudge, divinity, and fruitcake.  The fudge and divinity were always warmly received by us kids, but the fruitcake was solely for my grandfather, which was fine by me.  It smelled fantastic as it was cooking, but those clear plastic containers of brightly colored “fruit” always looked suspicious.  One event that has gone down in the family lore is the year Mom made the divinity during a rain storm.  It was too humid for the candy to set, so for two days the dining room table was taken up with wax paper covered with these small white blobs that refused to dry.  Every now and then one or the other of us (mostly my Dad) would wander in and swipe up a blob with a forefinger; they still tasted good, even if they never did firm up.

I don’t know how old I was when I began experimenting with Christmas baking, but it was probably in junior high.  It started with sugar cookies.  I found a recipe somewhere and worked hard to perfect my rolling pin skills, cutting and decorating the cookies with ever improving results.  Emboldened by my success, I moved on to Yule Logs.  Well, I called it them Yule Logs, but the ones I made never did achieve the log-like appearance of the one in the picture that accompanied the recipe I cut out of a magazine.   The example they showed had a little knot that was created by cutting off an end of the rolled up cake and sticking it on the side into the icing.  In the picture, the knot had a decorative sprig of holly “growing” out of it.  Personally I felt like this was overkill, so mine looked more like a giant Swiss Roll snack cake with mocha filling.  It was at this point in my life I realized I wasn’t destined for a future in the culinary arts.  But it was fun.

I don’t have any clear memories of doing much baking between graduating from high school and when I got married (and there’s a dozen years between those events), and I don’t remember feeling the lack.  That all changed when I suddenly had a house to decorate and a husband to cook for; the annual impulse to bake appeared that first Christmas.

Before I continue I want to be clear about something – my husband in no way, shape or form has ever made me feel as if he expects me to live in the kitchen, at this or any other time of year.  He knew when he married me what he was getting.  Martha Stewart I am not.  That being said, I do enjoy cooking when I have an audience, and my husband’s unfailing appreciation for my efforts has guaranteed him a fairly consistent output of interesting variations on dinner over the years.

So if the baking blues don’t come from some kind of perceived matrimonial obligation, what is it?  Is there some sort of collective unconscious or cultural imperative that has driven me to spontaneously wonder about the freshness of that box of brown sugar on the top shelf of the cabinet?

After much contemplation, I’ve decided that I don’t really know where the compulsion comes from, but something has become clear to me as I’ve been thinking about it, and it is this:  I’m really not all that interested in the end result of my baking.  I don’t have a huge craving for sugar cookies or cupcakes or any of it.

What I yearn for is the sensory experience that surrounds the art of baking.

There’s an excitement about putting on an apron and gathering up the ingredients particular to holiday baking – vanilla extract and sugar and cinnamon and ginger.  Those smells invoke the deepest of holiday remembrances, memories from earliest childhood of the warmth and love of family.  When we visited my grandmother at Christmas she would keep a small saucepan of cloves simmering in water on the stove, and the whole house would fill with their sweet, pungent scent.  The smell of the Christmas trees on display outside my local grocery store overwhelmed me the other day, taking me back to the days of searching with my parents and siblings for the perfect tree in the forest of choices available.  I remember being in the kitchen of my family home, rolling out cookies or beating eggs into stiff peaks, peeking into the den to see what the others were watching on television, or dancing around to whatever music my father had going on the stereo.  The sounds and smells of Christmas carried magic through the house, covering those memories in a bright, golden haze.

So I suppose, subconsciously, I have equated the magic of Christmas with the smell of fresh baked goods.  That must be it, then – it isn’t Christmas until I’m standing in the kitchen covered in flour, peeking through the window of the oven as whatever delicious treat I’ve concocted rises up from its pan to give off the aroma of Love.

I guess I’ll be getting the rolling pin out after all!

***********

Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

photo credit: eamylove via photopin cc

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