It’s been over a decade since I popped that first (doomed) batch of cookies into the oven. My older daughter, Ana, was in second grade. That was the year I threw myself into volunteering at her school. I became the class parent, which required me to be present for most fundraising events. They always needed food at these things— sweet and savory — the list was pinned to the door. It was a good way to rack up volunteer hours.
I lack sufficient skill in the kitchen to do much more than scramble eggs and boil water. At the time, I’d never rolled out any cookie dough that didn’t come premade. But it was the holidays and my kids, ages 7 and 4, were at that sprinkles-and-frosting stage of childhood. With visions of Martha-Stewart like perfection and cheer dancing in my head, I decided to bake cookies from scratch that year.
I didn’t have a heartwarming holiday cookie recipe to draw from, no yellowed index cards (curled at the edges and crusted with ancient bits of flour and dough), but I did have the internet. I used a recipe that floated to the top of Google when I searched for “gingerbread cookies that don’t use gingerbread” — my rationale being that gingerbread has a very distinct flavor that seven-year-olds might not like. I wanted to make gingerbread people that tasted good.
My recipe (and it is mine now, after a dozen years of tweaking, retweaking, and perfecting) uses butterscotch pudding mix, brown sugar, and cinnamon, ingredients that make the cookies look very much like gingerbread without that pesky gingerbread taste. I’d called them “ungingerbread cookies” — a joke that was totally lost to the second grade class who, if I’m recalling this correctly, mostly avoided them.
I can’t remember any particular batch of cookies, no matter how hard I try. There were pumpkins for Halloween, Santa hats, gingerbread people, and Christmas trees throughout December. There were stars, moons, and hearts for the months in between. There was the year I made cookie-shaped karate people with yellow, blue, and black belts and the year I made mustache cookies for one of the girls’ birthdays.
Each year, I got better at making them and less prone to cookie-related disasters. As my confidence grew, so did my boldness for tweaking the recipe. They were my signature contribution to holidays, birthdays, and potlucks. They dominated many Saturday mornings — mornings spent covered in powdered sugar, flour, and cinnamon. And through it all, there were my girls, peering over my shoulder as I pulled a fresh batch from the oven, choosing which sprinkles and shapes they wanted to use, sneaking a bit of raw dough straight from the mixer.
Like so many other bits of nostalgia, the cookies have become intertwined with my memories of the girls’ childhood.
So visceral is the smell of cinnamon mixed with butterscotch pudding mix, that it pulls me down, down, down into the murkiest corners of grief — that place where my daughter’s voice echoes through my maternal memory. I see her dimly fading — a child cutting stars and moons from rolled out dough while I smooth parchment paper over a cookie sheet and disappear into the kitchen to preheat the oven.
The frosting is a project in and of itself. I used to make butter frosting, smearing it onto those already too-sweet cookies with a butter knife as though I were decorating a cake. But glaze works best for sheet cookies — just three ingredients, thank-you-very-much (light corn syrup, confectioner’s sugar, and milk).
I used to use vanilla too, but it turns the white glaze a dull yellow and that won’t do at all.
The cookies rarely survive long enough to be glazed. They’re good without any frosting at all (dipped in milk, munched with coffee, surreptitiously carried upstairs to bed to nibble while reading). By the time I get around to glazing them, I often find there are only one or two left in the plastic container where I store them after baking.
Glazing is sticky and messy and stressful, which is why I always put it off until there are not enough cookies left to justify the work. But when I do manage to get the cookies glazed, they glisten and shimmer like magic, becoming almost too pretty to eat.
At least, that’s how it always plays out in my head. In reality, the glaze is where it all falls apart. I used to get so uptight about the glaze looking perfect, that I would yell at the girls when they piled blobs of red and green glaze onto my perfect ungingerbread men. “Watch what you’re doing,” I’d say. “You’re ruining them.”
This memory grips my heart, dragging me back down to the desolate place of fading memories. I wish I could shake some sense into younger-me. I wish I could scream at my clueless self for not enjoying every single messy cookie, every misplaced sprinkle, every blob of congealing glaze. Tears and cookies. That’s what the holidays have become.
You don’t need to chill the cookies for an hour in the fridge like the recipe says. You don’t need to roll them in flour, but you do need to add an extra half cup of flour to make the dough firm enough to roll without chilling. This makes them more bread-like, and it’s why I call them Jackie’s Cinnamon Bread Cookies.
I roll them in powdered sugar, sprinkling it directly onto the dining room table (always to my husband’s horror) and smoothing it onto the flattened lump of dough. I rub it onto the rolling pin too, and only then will the cookies roll smooth, cut smooth, bake smooth.
I’ve used the same cookie cutters for twelve years, the same cookie sheets, the same rolling pin which finally broke this year, refusing to roll. “Some people prefer it like that,” my husband said, when I lamented that the rolling pin was stuck in position, having finally succumbed to 100 batches of cookies over a dozen years. That doesn’t seem like many, now that I think about it. I’m no baker, after all.
Both girls had lost interest in helping me make the cookies even before Ana’s cancer became terminal and her appetite dwindled away. They were 12 and 15, long past the age of sprinkles and frosting. Even so, I baked them throughout the final season of Ana’s life, through October, November, and December as she grew pale and wan and the cookies sat unglazed and untouched in the plastic tub that kept them fresh.
I am perpetually distracted by firsts and lasts, endlessly trying to remember the timeline of Ana’s life — her first words, her final hug…the very last cookie she took from the bin, her eyes bright with anticipation in preparation for the first tiny, happy bite. But I can’t remember.
I can’t remember.
This year, I made the first batch of cookies on Thanksgiving morning. It seemed like the right time to do it. We weren’t going anywhere or having guests. The perfect pandemic Thanksgiving involved a much smaller turkey than usual and lots of free time.
I lined up the ingredients on the counter and fell into the familiar cadence of mixing and measuring. The smells brought back their childhood, wrapped it in cinnamon and sugar as I rolled love into the dough and baked grief into the shape of snowflakes that would not last to see glaze.
The cookies are the only recipe I can truly call mine — my invention, my ritual, and my gift to the girls. They are the manifestation of a dozen Decembers filled with powdered sugar smiles and cinnamon sprinkled hugs. They let me become a domestic goddess every year for a brief, glorious moment or two, and for this I am truly grateful. Now I just need to figure out how to perfect the damn glaze.
Jackie’s Extra Special Cinnamon Bread Cookies
(Makes bout 2 dozen 2 inch cookies or 3 dozen 1 inch cookies)
· 2 packages cook and serve butterscotch pudding mix (make sure it’s slow cook)
· 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
· 1 cup brown sugar
· 2 eggs
· 3.5 cups all-purpose flour
· 1 teaspoon baking soda
· 2–3 tablespoons ground cinnamon (I put lots of cinnamon in, but you don’t have to add this much if you don’t adore cinnamon the way I do)
1. In a medium bowl, cream together the dry butterscotch pudding mix, butter, and brown sugar until smooth. Stir in the egg. Combine the flour, baking soda, and cinnamon; stir into the pudding mixture. Cover, and chill dough until firm, about 1 hour (note: I rarely do this. If you add a bit more flour, the dough is firm enough to roll out immediately after mixing it).
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease baking sheets (or use parchment paper, which I prefer). On a floured board (I actually use confectioner’s sugar instead of flour), roll dough out to about 1/8 inch thickness and cut into shapes. Place cookies 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets.
3. Bake for 10 minutes in the preheated oven, until cookies are golden at the edges. (I often take the cooking sheet out of the oven after 10 minutes and leave cookies on the hot cookie sheets for 2 minutes)
4. Slide the cookies off the cooking sheet and onto the countertop while still on the parchment paper (no need for wire racks for cooling if you do this)
· 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
· 2 tablespoons lite corn syrup
· 1–2 tablespoons of milk (depending on how thick you want the glaze)
Mix it all together in a bowl and add food coloring.