The Demon Baker

Holidailies 2004December 14, 2004

Mother turned into a demon baker at Christmas. She made sand tarts rolled so thin you could read through them, and fat almond crescents dusted with powdered sugar. She crushed Kellogg’s corn flakes between layers of waxed paper and rolled blobs of dough in the crumbs, then plopped a quartered maraschino cherry in the center. Her version of Toll House cookies reflected her thrifty nature. She doubled all the ingredients except the chocolate chips.
— Margaret DeAngelis, b. 1947
Here Are Poinsettias: A Child’s Christmas in Harrisburg

The passage above is an excerpt from the memoir I wrote in 2000 and offered to (or, some might say, foisted upon) my party guests and year-end letter recipients as a gift booklet. That’s the first year I included the childhood memory table, where I put the Lussibruden doll and the cardamom buns mentioned yesterday, a Whitman’s Sampler (with a little tool to stick into the bottom of a chocolate and extract a smidgen so you know what you’re getting), and a plate of the cookies. I also put up the picture of my mother shown below.

RoseMy sister took this picture in 1960 with (we think) a Kodak Brownie camera, a gift from a family friend (again, a guess, based on a short walk through the labyrinths of memory). She was in fifth grade and I was in eighth. We lived in half a double house on Fifth Street in Harrisburg. John Kennedy had just been elected president, and we saw record snowfall that season. Behind Mother is our 1958 two-tone gray Ford Fairlane, she is wearing a black Persian lamb coat that she loved, and she is smiling.

This picture symbolizes every positive memory I have of my childhood and of my parents. I have many such memories, but I also have others that have fueled a long relationship with a therapist. Every year I find more peace with myself and with my past, and when I get out this picture at Christmas all I feel is joy.

That’s why I want those cookies. They are my madeleines.

My cousin’s mother and my mother were sisters, and recently he and I talked about their proclivities in the kitchen. Both were indifferent cooks. The food was nutritious (by 1950s standards) and it kept you alive, but you didn’t look forward to their meat pies or turkey stuffing. You did, however, crave Aunt Mary’s chocolate-covered Easter eggs and my mother’s Christmas cookies.

Alas, I have not inherited my mother’s zeal as a baker of cookies. Pies and cakes and elaborate breads, yes, but not cookies. A cookie baking session for me results in bits of batter stuck in my hair and up my nose, an alarming number of utensils and mixing bowls and cookie sheets to wash, and a yield far below that which the recipe suggests. My sand tarts especially turn out misshapen and burned on the bottom.

In recent years I have subcontracted the cookie portion of my party. Schenk’s Bakery on Mountain Road in Linglestown turns out gorgeous sand tarts and acceptable chocolate chip varieties. Nobody makes the cherry corn flakes kind, but I sort of solved the problem by developing a pan cookie version which mixes the corn flakes in with the batter instead of having to roll a sticky blob in a pile of crumbs.

Schenk’s sand tarts look nice, but they don’t taste the same. And it’s a family joke to make the Toll House cookies the way my mother did, with only half the chocolate. This year, I wanted things real. So yesterday I tackled the task.

I labored mightily the entire day and brought forth four dozen sand tarts (not six dozen — you can’t read though mine), four dozen (not five dozen) corn flake cherry drops, but only two dozen instead of five dozen Toll House cookies. I did not do them à la Rose, but à la Dennee, to honor my best friend from Fifth Street, Dennee Frey. She taught me that not only did you not have to double all the ingredients but the chocolate, you didn’t have to make the cookies so small you got a yield of five dozen.

As usual, I got dough in my hair and dough up my nose. But last night I was able to sit on the floor in front of the lighted Christmas tree and enjoy a plate of homemade cookies, remembering.

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