It's Christmas Cookie baking day. And yes, per my request. But every year, as I'm icing my 200th cookie (really, truly), I wonder why it is I want to do it so badly.
When I finally arrive at my parents', my twenty-year-old sister is still in bed, so the Peyton and I go jump on her to wake her up. My mom is grumbling around the kitchen; as the family's matron, she's in charge of making the dough, a laborious task, I assure you. Our German lebkuchen recipe is a few hundred years old and has never been updated to suit modern appliances or ingredients. Each year, my sister and I hear, "You two need to learn how to make this, you know." And we will. Someday. But for now, all I know is that part of the dough-making process involves chilling it outside, in a large tub, until it is cool enough for us to knead, but still very, very sticky.
With the sister up (albeit still in pajamas), all members of the household are taking their traditional places for the day. As we have done since we were 1 or 2, my sister and I will knead the dough and cut the cookies, while my mother runs the ovens. In years past, our nana would help us with the cutting, and our great-grandmother would sometimes be on hand for the icing later in the day. The dogs lay around, heads and noses in our laps, and our grandpa will stop by later to help with the icing.
No matter what, every year, my father is indisposed. Usually, this means occupying himself outdoors with the hanging of the Christmas lights, a task which both removes him from the cookie process indoors, and gets him in my mother's good graces. This year, however, we have celebrated Thanksgiving on a Friday, due to my sister's late flight in from Colorado, and Cookie Day is taking place on Rivalry Day.
As we set up in the kitchen, our Volunteer dad is completely and fully plugged in, which means, out of the cookie loop. He sits on the couch, feet up, laptop open to a live feed of his game, headphones in, running Twitter simultaneously in another tab and on his iPhone. This year, the lights have already been (partially) hung. This year, he will watch the Vols beat Kentucky for the 26th year in a row.
We used to break our process up into two days: one for baking, one for icing. We used to make two batches, which yields several hundred cookies. Now we make a batch and a half, which leaves plenty to divide among us all and give away. This year, I went back to my little apartment this year with a tin holding 65 cookies, which I pray to God I don't all eat.
We used to listen to Christmas carols when we made the cookies. We used to start the Christmas carols with our beloved Alvin & the Chipmunks Christmas cassette tape. But a few years ago, around when my sister started grumbling about the process, she started grumbling about the Chipmunks, and then, a little while later, it was the music itself. Now, well, this year, the sounds of football fill the air.
My sister hates making the Christmas cookies. My mother suspects she uses only the biggest cookie cutters so she doesn't have to make as many. She's always looking to pawn her job off on somebody, and she always drags her heels. There is always a fair amount of grumbling in her Christmas cheer.
But rolling them out is nothing compared to icing them.
You see, our mother is detail-oriented. Extremely so. Each and every cookie gets its own special treatment - a collar of sprinkles for the reindeer, and antlers as well. A Christmas tree has each of its limbs be-decked, and a star to top its boughs.
I think we used to think this was the only way to ice. And maybe it should be - there was a time when I enjoyed it, after all - did we not try to make it through several hundred cookies - after baking them - in a day.
Did I mention that icing these cookies is an especially important part of the process? Our particular lebkuchen, curious as they are, harden almost immediately out of the oven and it takes icing them - along with a few days wait - to soften them so that they are ready to eat.
It's a process.
A long process.
An involved process.
A thoroughly exhausting process.
So why do we do it? Why do we make them every year, and why so many? Why do we continue to want to do this to ourselves, even though, the day of, I will lie in bed, putting it off as long as I can? And not rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor ill health (this year's cold + utter exhaustion did nothing to get me out of icing early), nor prior obligations (I also had a lingerie shower + bachelorette to attend that evening. Oh and did I mention, I wasn't feeling well?), nor age (we started at the tender age of 1, and my grandpa, in his 80's is still lending a hand) will get you out of the Cookies. And this year, not even football would, because for the first time since I can remember, we had my dad helping out, by running the iced cookies out to the sunroom to dry, away from sniffing dogs' noses.
So why do we do it?
Grumbling about these cookies has become as much our family tradition as giving them away to friends and telling them their story. They are a part of us as a family. The cookie cutters we use were given as gifts, handmade by great-grandparents and passed down through the years, or bought as souvenirs, or as a special treat: we make trumpets for my grandfather, trout for my dad, Montana moose for my sister, Jayhawks for my mother. We re-count stories and traditions and family lore surrounding them:
"We used to go to grandma's house - my grandma - and for Christmas, that's what she would give all of us kids, one cookie each." - my grandpa
"We started you at 1 or 2, and figured you'd just have fun putting your hands in the dough, but no, you stayed until the end (about me). Your sister, however, didn't like to get her hands dirty. When I was a little girl though, I remember all the grandma's, from both sides of the family used to come and help." - my mother
We discuss how difficult this process must've been for our ancestors, cooking on wood-burning stoves, without the aid of electric mixers, or two ovens, making their own icing (we fudge a little on this and buy canned frosting).
We remember. And we make. And we do.
We remember all those who came before us, and, amidst the grumbling, the complaining, the flour up our noses, and the sore backs, we are a family.
Forgive me for asking, but isn't that just one of the many things that the holidays are really about?
And so, after all of that, should your family decide that you too, might want to embrace (my family's) tradition and tackle this one out, here it is. The recipe. Enjoy. Don't forget to grumble a bit.
2 Cups Karo syrup
2 Cups sugar
6-9 Cups flour
4 eggs, well beaten
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking soda, dissolved in a little cold water
1/2 tsp. anise oil (not extract)
Mix together Karo syrup and sugar. Cook and let come to a boil but do not boil. Make a well in 6 Cups of flour, and pour over. Let cool until lukewarm (which can take well up to an hour - hence why it goes outside to cool). Don't let it get too cool or it won't mix up. Into the syrup, add soda first, then eggs, salt, and anise oil. Keep stirring in the flour well, gradually stirring out into a little more and more flour until all the flour has been stirred in.
Then add enough flour (up to 3 Cups more) to roll out dough, being careful not to get dough too stiff. Roll out small amount of dough at a time, about 1/4 inch thick on flour board, adding flour as needed. Cut out cookies with cookie cutters.
Bake at 375 F, arranging cookies of approximate same size on cookie sheet, for 8-10 minutes. Take cookies off sheet right out of the oven or they break. Cool. Makes approximately 200 cookies (varies according to cookie size).
Ice and decorate when completely cool. Can make icing or buy plain vanilla icing. Store in layers between wax paper. Adding a piece of lettuce or apple will help to soften the cookies faster so they are soft enough to eat (can take up to a week).
Enjoy! Genlesen se!
P.S. If you'd rather we just did the work for you, which, well, who wouldn't, I've got 64 cookies at my place, and a few hundred with my mom. I bet your name's on at least one (really, ask my mom. She might have sprinkled your name on one).
P.P.S. Happy #Cookie Week!