Uhm, so rich!
The crunch of raw sugar crystals between my teeth.
Lightly crumbling apart in my watering mouth.
Butter, yes, yes!
Ooh, cardamom, what a lovely surprise.
What better start to the holiday season than that first bite of shortbread fresh from the oven?
It's magic really. A bowl of simple ingredients carefully combined, shaped, chilled, sliced and placed on a metal sheet that’s then slid into a hot oven. Five minutes later aromas of vanilla and caramelizing sugar fill my kitchen, and I am transported by the sweet smells to places I have long since forgotten.
The kitchen floor is covered with crumbs - too many even for the dogs to eat. Racks and trays, bowls and books are precariously arranged throughout the awkward kitchen. The various phases of the baking process are chaotically represented in every direction, like a chemistry lab experiment that’s gone horribly, deliciously wrong. Every available horizontal surface in the kitchen, dining room, and back porch are covered with cookies. Mom says she has orders for 500 dozen this year.
Johnny Mathis is crooning from the den. Grammy is sitting at the kitchen table wearing her pearls and a beautiful silk blouse (the kind most people “save for good”) covered with a snap-front Santa apron. She’s carefully pressing cream cheese dough into mini tart pans. I eagerly wait for her to finish with the dough so I can add the sugary pecan filling. She looks like a cherub with her smooth and seemingly ageless ruby cheeks. When we finish filling the pans I race them to the oven and set the timer.
Mom blows in from the grocery store with more supplies. Grammy and I greet her quietly, hoping she’ll find everything to her liking. Mom expects perfection, demands it, with cookies, with everything and everyone—except herself. She doesn’t always let you know when you have achieved perfection, but you certainly know when you haven’t.
“You two have been busy,” she says. We take this as a compliment, but say nothing in reply. Grammy exhales an audible sigh of relief. I start making another batch of dough. Mom insists every batch be handmade – electric mixers are only to be used for icing—and she has the forearms to show for it. Grammy’s arms are too weak to make dough; she sips her water while she waits for me to finish. The double batch of dough takes a while to come together. My ten-year-old girl arms are a big disappointment to me and likely to mom.
Dad’s in the next room hard at work on a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a castle. Westinghouse closed the plant last summer, so he’s around a lot these days. Mom says he’s supposed to find a job, but he doesn’t seem to share her enthusiasm for the task. She hands him a cookie sheet covered with wax paper and a big bowl heavy with peanut butter dough. Dad’s sole source of pride this year is rolling the dough into perfect 1” balls to be dipped in chocolate. If he succeeds, he’ll get a rare compliment from mom and maybe postpone another argument about his laziness.
He takes the dough to the living room and sets up shop on a TV tray in front of a Hawaii Five O rerun. He returns to the kitchen for an Old Milwaukee and gets to work. Later, he’ll get the compliment he’s after and ruin it by drinking too much and repeating over and OVER again that he makes the best peanut butter buckeyes.
The dogs start barking madly from the living room drowning out Johnny. Dad is yelling at the dogs to stop – he can’t hear what Danno is saying, which shouldn’t matter because he’s seen every episode a million times before. My big sister is here and the cause of the canine ruckus. She’s 20 years older than me and my mom’s favorite, which doesn’t bother me, because I know I’m my sister’s favorite. She hugs me tightly. I don't want to let go. Her cheer spreads through the kitchen lifting everyone’s spirits. She and mom play their usual game where my sister pretends she’s stealing a cookie, and mom pretends to get mad. It’s ironic because no one else is really allowed to eat cookies – not until Christmas Eve after mom has filled and delivered all her orders. Still, I don't mind because I'm so happy to see her.
Mom pulls a tray of pecan tassies from the oven with her bare hands. She sets them on the stove and gently taps one on the top. I continue filling pans until I hear her say, “They’re perfect.” Why do those words make my heart ache? Grammy reaches across the table and gently squeezes my arm. I feel a sob form in my chest as it tightens. I will not cry. I will not cry. I will not cry.
What is that noise? I can’t hear Johnny….
It’s the timer on the oven, my oven. I’m standing in my kitchen alone with my memories. I can still taste the butter on my tongue. And what I thought was cardamom now tastes like pecan pie.