Last year my son watched from his bouncer while I sat at the dining room table on Christmas Eve, spreading sugary white icing over the tops of baked stars, angels and snowflakes. After biting off the foot of a gingerbread man, I looked down at him and smiled. “Next year, you can help me,” I said.
Now it’s next year, and twelve more months have flown by, as they do, unleashing something unmistakable—a disorienting blended cocktail of fear, anxiety, sadness, and occasional rage. I feel it when I read the news, when I scroll through my Facebook feed, when I’m trying to sleep but instead wondering if we have enough supplies to survive the overdue earthquake Los Angeles has been promised. Some moments feel like a long dream we’re due to emerge from, and others a steady march as we keep to daily routines.
As I write this, my state is burning. It’s one disaster in a string of several, some of the natural kind—earthquakes, hurricanes—and some of the unnatural kind, like mass shootings and rumors of nuclear war. Every day, a new headline makes us catch our breath.
There’s the small comfort of knowing we are not the first to face down difficult circumstances. Two generations ago, in the shadow of racing to space, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War, my grandmother stood in her kitchen, baking.
“Making Christmas cookies is a family enterprise which really pays off in fun, good eating, and holiday giving.” She wrote this in December 1962, in one of her columns for Let’s Live, a Southern California health magazine. Her thoughts accompanied a molasses cookie recipe I’ve been making for the past few years. Craving a “cozy afternoon making and packaging sweet morsels” always sounds like just the thing to ring in the season and turn our attention inward, no matter what’s happening outside our kitchen walls.
My son climbs into his seat at the table, ready for the activity I promised before his nap. “Which shape do you want to decorate?” I ask, pulling a few cookies into my palm. “A gingerbread man, a tree, or a star?”
He studies the three shapes, then bursts into a smile. “Staaaaarrrr!”
Star it is. The decorating is messy and outside the lines, naturally. I help him scoop a bit of frosting and spread it onto the cookie before he smears his fingers and looks up at me. “Eat the star?” I glance at my husband who shuffles around us, snapping photos. “Just a few more seconds,” I say.
“Eat the star?” He is adamant, yet patient. “Okay, eat the star!”
He devours the cookie, breaks its edges into pieces, asks for more. Today, it’s easy to wipe away crumbs on the table or brush them off where our dog happily combs the floor for morsels. But holding just a drop of the world’s brokenness in our hearts every day? I’m certain we’ll need more than glossy frosting to put those pieces back together.
So I make dinner. I read books. I write. I go to work. I stand in the playground on Sunday afternoon, marveling at the warm light. I donate to a food bank. I give my old clothes to shelters. I email my senators, again. I unfold a favorite sweater to wear when the weather finally turns. I light a pine-scented candle. I try not to cry thinking about the children dying in Yemen. On any given day, a few actions can temporarily soothe us, providing some illusion of being in control of something, however small. Cookies may help.
Spiced Molasses Cookies With Royal Icing
Ground ginger isn’t as potent as fresh, but it still commands a distinctive presence and gives the cookies their subtle spiciness. It’s a welcome flavor alongside other seasonal favorites like cinnamon and clove. This dough makes wonderful gingerbread men, stars, or whatever shapes you’d like, but heed the flour advice and be sure your board and your rolling pin are well coated to prevent sticking. For another take that doesn’t involve rolling and cutting, scoop rounds onto a baking sheet and bake for 8 minutes. This will make for a slightly softer cookie that’s perfect for ice cream sandwiches you can keep in the freezer.
Makes about 30 cutout cookies
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ½ cup unsulphured molasses
- 1 large egg
Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. On low speed, add the molasses, followed by the egg yolk, and mix until incorporated. Slowly add the dry ingredients and blend until most of the white flour has disappeared and a thick, brown mass appears. Divide dough into two disks; wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate until chilled, about 2 to 3 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. To roll out the cookies, work with one disk at a time and keep the other refrigerated. Let sit at room temperature about 10 minutes, just long enough to warm the dough so you can roll it without cracking. (If it does crack while you work, just press the pieces together again.)
Be sure to flour your board, hands, and rolling pin well. Flatten with a rolling pin, stopping to add more flour as needed, until thin, about ¼-inch. Cut into shapes, then gather the scraps and repeat. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, until slightly puffed and crisp. Let cool, then decorate with royal frosting (recipe below).
Royal Icing Ingredients
- 3 ounces egg whites
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 cups confectioner’s sugar
Beat the egg whites and vanilla in a stand mixer until frothy. Add confectioner’s sugar and mix on low speed until sugar is incorporated. Increase speed to high and beat until frosting forms stiff, glossy peaks, about 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a pastry bag and pipe onto cookies. If making the frosting in advance, refrigerate up to 3 days, and thin with a bit of water if needed.