Monday, December 23, 2013

The Quest for the Perfect Gingerbread Cookie

Holidays and food go hand in hand.  At least in my world they do.  It’s really not my fault, I am Italian after all and do we know how to mangia!  For example, when I think about the Fourth of July, I can still taste the sugary crust of the blueberry pie my Grandfather would make.  Around my birthday I crave a slice of my Grandfather’s peach pie, made with peaches from my childhood yard, or the New York Cheesecake my grandmother would make, both of course made upon my request.  My Grandfather died less than ten days before Christmas one year, and although he had been sick for awhile, there was one thing I wanted, no scratch that needed to have.  One of his legendary gingerbread cookies.

These cookies were the best.  They were huge, and not crunchy, they had that perfect soft texture as you bit through the homemade frosting and your teeth made their way to the soft cookie that as a child seemed as if it was half an inch thick.  I looked forward to them every year.  They were better than any you would find in a store or a bakery.  It could be the recipe; it could even be the homemade green frosting that outlined each gingerbread boy and girl cookie.  After making these cookies every year for the previous five Christmases, I now know what the secret is to these cookies, as corny as it sounds.  To bake like that you really have to love someone!  In my thirties after baking a batch of these delicious treats my back is screaming my feet ache and I’m exhausted.  How my Grandfather did this in his sixties is astonishing to me.  (And considering that the man thought dressing down meant simply going without a jacket and I bake these in 100% comfy sweats and a tee is beyond me!)
When he first passed, I knew that although he hadn’t made them in a few years due to his declining health, I had to pick up the torch.  So I did.  They had to be perfect; they had to be the right size, made with his cookie cutters, using his recipe.  I got the recipe, but the issue I had was the cookie cutter, or the lack of one.  I couldn’t find the ones my Grandfather had used, and nothing was comparable in stores.  I went to every store, gifts virtually forgotten in my quest for a replica.  I had to get this right.  That first year I did my best, and was overjoyed when I thought I found a decent replacement- a pancake mold that was the right size.  Sure, his head always ended up with this Alfalfa type hairstyle, but nothing a little frosting couldn’t fix right?  This year after a move last Christmas, I seem to have lost the Alfalfa mold.   

This year’s cookies consist of trees, snowmen and Ninja gingerbread men.  After five years of agonizing how they looked, if they tasted exactly the same, I decided to admit a certain defeat.  I will never replicate the cookies exactly.  I try, some years I may come close, but they’ll never be the same.  What these few hours spent bent over the mixer and the breadboard do every Christmas is give me some additional time to remember all the fun times I had with my Grandfather.  How he took it upon himself one day when I was maybe twelve to teach me how to make an apple pie.  He took pictures of every step, and gave me the pictures, with each step written on the back.  How he would always have talk radio on in the car, and now I find myself doing the same thing frequently.  And how open he was if I had a question about what they were talking about on the radio.  How he would grab me by the hand when I was about nine years old to walk down to Newport Creamery, and endure the teasing from his sister in law upon our return since she said he walked with his chest puffed out with pride as we went on our way.  When I began to drive, how he would clip out articles about teen accidents, and how he very seriously told me once that if I was ever at a party and people were drinking and I needed a ride, I could call him, any time no questions asked.  How when I met Dave and it became apparent to everyone that this would be my happily ever after, that he would tell me to “be a good girl”, his way of hoping I didn’t make him a great grandfather too soon.  Or the night of my Bachelorette party when we parked our cars at my Grandparent house and returned after the clubs closed.  We thought it would be fitting to light up some cigars.  The next thing we knew, there was my Grandfather, in his late seventies, knocking on our car window scaring the living daylights out of us!

It’s amazing how food, of all things, can evoke such memories.  I thought of this tonight as I let B “help” me make the dough for the cookies as we built new memories together.

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