It’s a little Pavlovian, but when the cold sets in and the snow starts to drift, I am compelled to get out the mixing bowls and measuring spoons and bake. There is nothing that sears your pleasure centers faster than filling the house with the heavy scents of cocoa and vanilla and sugar. Baked goods are trays of happiness capable of healing and soothing, they are edible order and logic when nothing else makes sense, when nothing else is able to steady the rising tide inside of you.
That’s a lot to put on a dish of brownies, you might think. Fair enough. Many of my friends who are amazing cooks are less than outstanding bakers. They admit this freely. Baking, they tell me, is too exacting, too, literally, measured. There’s no room for improvising with a dash of this or a pinch of that, which makes cooking exciting and fluid. A pinch of “that” when it really should be a tablespoon of “this” is the difference between scones and bricks. I get it. Cooking is alchemy. Baking is more like magic.
My father was hospitalized the weekend before Christmas. We didn’t know it at the time, but he was in the end stages of his battle with cancer. He was unresponsive, out of reach, but we stood around his bed anyway, waiting for the needle to move in either direction, staring at the room in all its offensive blandness as if looking at the walls long enough would make them disappear and we’d all be transported elsewhere. The nurses told us kindly that he would likely remain sedate. Nothing we could do. We’d have to wait until Monday to talk to the doctors to gage our next move. We didn’t know there were no more moves to make. By Monday he would be gone.
We left the hospital that Saturday afternoon under a typically cold and bracing December day. By 4:30 the sky was jacked up to an ultra-violet blue that is almost palpable in the way it presses the early winter night against window sills and doorways. My mother and I were quiet on the ride home, the silence speaking for us. We flicked on lights and settled in. Not knowing what to do next, I did the first thing that came to mind: I reached into one of the high cupboards and brought out the plastic containers of sprinkles and colored sugar. I fished out the pastry mat from under the sink. I found the dough we had made weeks ago in its neat, delicious rounds in the freezer. I got out our baking sheets.
Making Christmas cookies was a holiday tradition that I loved more than decorating the tree or going out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve. My mother clipped the recipe out of the newspaper when my brother and I were infants. It wasn’t anything fancy or complicated, but a dough made from a deliciously lethal combination of butter, heaping cups of sugar, vanilla, and flour. My mother would let my older brother and I sit on the Formica counter top of our kitchen island while she rolled out slabs of dough. We were in charge of cutting and decorating, usually getting more sugar and sprinkles on the counter or each other than we did on the cookies.
Some of the cookie cutters were made of that flimsy metal, others were thick, red plastic etched in ornate detailing—a gingerbread house with doors and windows, a reindeer wearing a harness made of bells. We learned to dip them in flour and press them deeply into the dough to make the details stand out and to keep the cutter from sticking to the dough. She even had cookie cutters handed down from her mother. Simple shapes like stars and hearts and triangular trees made of tin. Each had a small green wooden knob screwed to the top of the cutter for a handle. My brother and I had our favorite cutters that we used so that any given tray might end up with fifteen bells and six hearts. My mother was always good about plucking one of the lesser used cutters—a chick, a wreathe—and giving them some real estate on the cookie tray.
That year we rolled and sprinkled and floured while miles away my father quietly drifted out of this life. But our hands were busy and our minds were occupied with what felt reasonable: green sprinkles or chocolate? Cinnamon candies for buttons on the gingerbread boy cut out? Too many stars? Where is that old fashioned snowman cutter? For a brief few hours it was like we were standing inside a chalk-drawn circle, the kind made by kids playing some made up game on the playground, where inside everything was ordinary and outside the world was moving sideways.
Baking is ritual of a sacred variety. It requires mindfulness and patience; it demands you nurture; and it connects you to an old rhythm made of body, earth, and senses that is primal. That afternoon I conjured a little bit of peace for myself. I found a way to feed the ache of uncertainty, to ease the gnaw of fear and temper the sadness that I could feel creeping closer. That day baking was an act of love mixed with a little bit of salvation.