Several weeks ago, I wrote about how I discovered that I had lost all of my “special” ornaments – not the filler ones, the glass balls and glittery snowflakes. The special ones. The Norfolk mermaid. The Hershey’s bar. The whisk. The ones that say, hey, I represent Dana this year.
My friend (and former roommate) Andrea was rifling around, looking for Christmas lights to make a book tree with, and she stumbled upon a bag of ornaments she didn’t recognize. Oh yeah. My ornaments, mixed in with hers. She returned them to me at lunch one day, and that afternoon, I carefully put them on the tree, happy to have them back.
It’s amazing the meaning we attach to small things this time of year, the ways that those small things symbolize so much. Last night, Amanda and I watched Miracle on 34th Street, the version I grew up with, starring Mara Wilson and Elizabeth Perkins. Kris Kringle repeatedly describes himself as a symbol, one that has meaning and value, one that people believe in not for material gain or obligation, but because of what it represents: cheer, joy, peace, goodness.
When I was teaching literature this semester, my students would get hung up on symbols. How do we know, they would ask, when something is a symbol and not just an arbitrary detail? When does it cross over?
My answer was that it becomes a symbol when it matters enough to be considered one. I told them to look for repetition and weight – what does it mean to the story?
When I look at my own life, I notice certain symbols. Birds, for instance, which I’ve written about before. The ornaments symbolize so much more than just decorations. They’re symbolic of my past, my family, my traditions. They’re special because of that.
I think recipes become that way too. They are the flavors we associate with this time of year: sweetness and savory and salty and buttery. We can take comfort in those flavors because they’re not just cookies: they’re us. They’re how we grew up and where we come from. They’re family and tradition and comfort. They’re the compilation of moments when we licked beaters and rolled cookie dough and waited for cookies to come out of the oven. They’re aprons that were too big for us when we were children, the ones that fit just right now. They’re the benches we stood on to see over the counter. They’re the last minute phone calls to mothers and fathers and grandmothers to double check details of a recipe.
I started off the 12 Days of Cookies with a traditional recipe that my mom has passed down to me: Forgotten Cookies. It’s not Christmas without them. Plain and simple. And over the past couple weeks, I’ve made lots of different cookies and treats, from pinwheel cookies that Amanda found on the website for Trisha Yearwood’s cooking show (yeah, can we start a letter writing campaign to get me on that show?) to rum balls from Martha Stewart.
And in all of this, several times, Amanda voiced a desire to have plain old sugar cookies. Buttery, simple sugar cookies. But we got too tired, too busy, too bogged down with social engagements and gift-giving and all the familiar trappings of Christmas.
On Friday, my first real day off since school ended, I found Food 52’s recipe for the Best Chewy Sugar Cookie, and I made it for Amanda while she was at work. It uses three different sugars, a good helping of salt (for that salty-sweet thing we love so much), and butter rather than shortening.
These cookies smell delicious, taste even better, and are soft with a crunchy exterior thanks to the turbinado sugar. I used kosher salt instead of sea salt, and it worked great. I made the 1/2 teaspoon into a heaping 1/2 teaspoon because we love salt with our sweet. So if you’re craving simplicity, or if you’re not like me and you don’t have quite enough cookies in your house, whip up a batch of these and enjoy the symbols, traditions, and familiar pastimes of this time of year.
Soft and Chewy Sugar Cookies
Serves about 2 dozen
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 large egg
- 1 1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached flour (I use King Arthur)
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt (I used kosher)
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup turbinado, or coarse sugar
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line 2 large sheet pans with parchment paper.
- Cream butter and sugars for 1 minute. Scrape sides of bowl. Continue beating for another minute. Scrape bowl again.
- Add vanilla. Beat for 1 minute. Scrape sides of bowl.
- Add egg. Beat for 1 minute. Scrape sides of bowl.
- Add flour, salt and baking soda. Beat 1 minute. Scrape sides of bowl and beat for another minute.
- Place course sugar in small, shallow bowl. Using a small cookie/ice cream scoop (mine is 1 ½“ in diameter), scoop balls of dough and drop a few at a time in the course sugar and gently roll around. Place balls of dough on parchment, leaving about 1 ½“ space around each. My pans fit 12 cookies very comfortably.
- Do not press the balls down. This will ensure a chewy middle.
- Bake for 8 – 10 minutes, turning and reversing pans midway through baking. Resist the urge to bake your cookies longer, or they won’t be chewy. The tops don’t get much color, but the bottoms will be nicely golden.
- Place pans on cooling racks. When cool, store cookies in air-tight containers.