My mother was another extraordinary woman that shaped my life in so many ways. She was funny, and smart and quick witted and sarcastic and so many things that I am today. In addition to those things though, she was also a fantastic cook and baker; and her time to shine was always around the holidays. I mean any holiday, but her favorite was always Christmas. There are a lot of things I could talk about when it comes to the holidays and food and my mother, but I think I'm going to focus on Christmas cookies this time. Mom was a Christmas cookie machine, from sugar cookies to chocolate dollops she had it on lock.
The mayhem would start always a few days before Christmas Eve, she would do her annual Christmas cookie shopping trip (sometimes I was allowed to go) and would come home with pounds of flour and butter and sugar of all types and of course sprinkles. She even had a special tin that housed all of her most special Christmas shaped cookie cutters and she would set up shop in our small rowhouse kitchen (at least for my first 9 years) and I would always want to be there to help. Like I said she made all kinds of cookies, but my favorites were always her special Italian cookies, recipes passed down for generations. The best one being the Pizzelles, a flat waffle like cookie flavored with anise, the perfect crisp wafer cookie to have with coffee, hot cocoa or eggnog (or just on its own).
To make pizzelles you need to have a pizzelle press, ours was about 100 years old and had belonged to my grandfather Mario (I still have it). The plug was very old and looking back likely not to code and every year we weren't sure if it would work, but somehow it always did and still does; don't ask me how. It is a large silver press that pretty much resembles a waffle iron which made sense since the dough for pizzelles is actually more a batter than a dough, like pancakes or, well waffles actually but the cookies never puffed, they were paper thin, golden brown, crispy (yet pliable) and amazing.
As a kid I always thought that making Christmas cookies was something very special. I was sure that Santa would know the difference between store bought cookies and special homemade cookies, so I always wanted to make sure we saved some of the really good ones to leave out for him. In fact I was adamant that Santa got homemade cookies to the point where I was slightly obnoxious about it, but I always got my way. It was something to do with the Christmas magic that seemed to hang in the air that time of year. People were always in a better mood, strangers would smile at you and teachers would give less homework, it's a feeling of bliss. Magic, and I still feel that way around Christmas time.
There was also a point of pride with the cookies too. My mom made the Christmas cookies, it was her thing. When we would go to my families annual Christmas eve party my mom would always bring a platter of cookies, and she would always feel so good at the end of the night when the tray was completely bare. I get that pride. There is something special, not only about cooking, but about people enjoying the food that you've prepared. It's a special feeling that's a mix of this selfish pride and selfless giving that just somehow seems to work.
The first time I had that feeling I was 7 years old. It was the first year my mom let ME do the pizzelles. She sat me down at the dinning room table (because Pizzelles were the only cookie she made that did not require the oven-sometimes I think she did this just to get me out of the kitchen, but that's another story all together) and I began my first journey into cookie making. Mom sat with me as I mixed all the ingredients in the bowl and made the batter. Then she showed me the first two cookies. You had to place a dollop of batter in the very center of the cookie molds (it made two cookies each time) and close the lid and latch it. The light on the machine would be red, and when the cookies were ready it would turn green and then you had to move fast to make sure they didn't burn. It was quite the process for a 7-year-old but I got the hang of it pretty quickly and only four burned cookies and one tiny finger scorch later I had it down! I made about two dozen cookies, and I was so proud of myself that I couldn't wait for Christmas Eve.
I helped my mom make the platter of cookies on that day, we edged the platter with my perfect pizzelles and layered the rest of the cookies all around and gave the entire plater a nice sprinkle of powdered sugar, just to give it a snowy look. All during that party my mom told everyone that I had made the pizzelles and I got so many compliments that I was simply beaming. It was the first time I had ever made something for other people, and it was a stunning success, I would say it was that moment that gave me the bug to learn all I could about cooking. I wanted to chase that feeling, those smiles and that pride that comes with making something great that people go crazy for.
It was more than that though. Now that I'm older I realize that sitting at the dining room table with the press and the bowl of batter; my mother and I would talk. She would tell me stories about her parents (whom I had never known) and sitting with her while she mixed and scooped and cooked, it was our special time together. Making more than just cookies but making memories. To this day when I'm in my kitchen it's my happy place and when I give people something I've made, and they love it; I'm right back at that dining room table. Watching my mother take a bite of the first pizzelles I made and the look on face knowing she had passed it down to me, just like her parents had passed it down to her. Not a day goes by that I don't think about my mother and miss her like crazy, but I never feel her with me more than when I'm in my kitchen, over a bowl mixing up some love and connection.
I'm still a big believer in Christmas magic, and I know I got that lightness about the holidays from my mother. She taught me, not only how to make cookies, but that the holidays were a time to forget about your troubles and to love fully the people who mean the most to you. Thanks mom; and Merry Christmas.