A Taste of the Past

By Susan Yanguas

Holiday baking was a strong tradition throughout my childhood. I remember sitting in the kitchen when I was little, watching my mother bake. She’d start around Thanksgiving with the fruitcakes, which had to “ripen” for weeks before being served and progress in a prescribed order up until Christmas Day: sugar cookies, gingerbread men, toffee bars, press cookies, pumpkin bread, date nut bread, cranberry bread, coconut macaroons, and my father’s favorite, the ultra-dense Czechoslovakian bars that contained half a pound of butter and had a layer of jam in the middle. Some recipes involved a multi-step process, where she made the dough one day; rolled it out, cut the cookies and baked them another; and frosted them in a third session.

When I was old enough, I helped–first with the frosting, and eventually with the baking itself. My dad was her original “froster,” but he was hopeless at it. He’d slap on multiple colors of icing with the back of a spoon, add a mishmash of colored sugar or sprinkles, and end up with reindeer and Christmas trees that looked like something out of a Kandinsky painting. I took much more pride in the task, drawing buttons and faces on the snowmen and gingerbread people with the tip of a toothpick. Needless to say, my mother set the ones I had frosted out for company and kept my dad’s creations for our immediate family’s consumption.

In those days, people who visited our home around the holidays left with an assortment of baked goods. The demand for these goodies grew as everyone who tasted them praised them lavishly and hinted around for more. Those who received a small sampler dish one year graduated to a large plate of cookies and whole mini breads in subsequent years. Consequently, we ended up making multiple batches of each recipe as the years went by.

When I was a teen, my mother cut back on her involvement in the baking, subcontracting much of it out to my sister and me. With the three of us participating, our kitchen became a factory, with every waking hour of the holiday season devoted to cookie production. Over the years, we added new recipes to our repertoire. Thus, what had been an exciting tradition that heralded the arrival of Santa Claus now became an onerous chore, keeping us up until all hours on a school night waiting for the cookies to cool enough to be put away.

Our numerous tins of cookies were stored in a seldom used dining room closet, and the breads and fruitcakes were relegated to the bottom drawers of our refrigerator. One day in late February, while searching for a serving platter in the dining room closet, I came across a tin of moldy Czechoslovakian bars that had been overlooked during the holiday season. Another summer we found an untouched fruitcake in the back of the fridge, petrified. It seems we had gone too far in our baking frenzy.

The baking at our house greatly decreased after my sister and I graduated from college and moved away. When my mother later became wheelchair bound, my father attempted a few of her recipes (under her careful direction) and managed to burn only the occasional batch. But even this proved too much trouble, and a couple of years later the factory shut down entirely.

Nowadays I rarely eat sweets, since I must avoid gluten (flour), dairy (butter), and eggs for health reasons, but last December I experienced a strong longing for Christmas cookies. And not just any cookies: I yearned for the ones made in my family’s “factory.” Of all my family’s Christmas traditions, homemade cookies are what I miss the most. I realize it’s probably not a craving for the actual taste of the cookies but for what they symbolize: a wonderful childhood tradition and an advent-long project that brought my family together to create something special.

About this writer

  • Susan Yanguas

    Susan Yanguas

    Susan Yanguas is a Baltimore-based writer. She is contemplating publishing a cookbook of gluten free vegan desserts based on her creative experiments in the kitchen.

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3 Responses to “A Taste of the Past”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Your wonderful holiday story is filled with sensory details that made me want to taste those delightful and delicious yummies that your family lovingly mass produced.

  2. Rose Ann says:

    Nothing like a pile of decorated cookies and the smell of gingerbread to welcome the spirit of the holidays!

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