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Cooking with ghosts

My Christmas cooking list is lengthy and specific:  Indian cookies, Neopolitans, short bread, stollen, boeuf bourguignon. Plus assorted candies, cookies, sweet breads.

Indian Cookies are the taste of my childhood Christmasses: tooth-achingly sweet chocolate haystacks of coconut, oatmeal, and peanut butter. One of the earliest cooking memories I have was standing over my mother’s Revereware copper-bottom pot, stirring the hot fudge and judging just when it hit “rolling boil.” If you choose the wrong moment to declare it “rolling,” then your cookies won’t set up right and will be either fudgey sludge or rock-hard chunks.

My mother got the recipe from her friend’s mother when she was a kid and when we were kids we all loved them so much that she declared that they were “Just Christmas cookies,” and could only be made between Thanksgiving and New Years. In all my years of cooking, I have never violated that rule, not even by one day.

I never met my mother’s friend’s mother, but she’s just one of the ghosts I cook with each year at Christmas.

My Aunts Gail and Thelma hang out there, too. Every year they made Neopolitans — those tri-colored cakey peti-fours. I don’t eat Neopolitans — they are made with the ever-harder-to-find Solo Almond Filling and I don’t like almond flavored sweets. But it’s not Christmas in my house without a plateful. The first year after Aunt Gail died, no one said anything to me about Neopolitans. But they are my brother’s favorite cookie in the world. My brother is the nicest, most self-effacing, laid back guy — he would never impose. But I couldn’t stand the idea of Seth waking up on Christmas morning and not having a plate. So I made them.

Badly, as it turns out. Solo Almond Filling is hard to find and I used Solo Almond Paste instead. Seth gamely ate most of the cookies, but years later informed me that they were terrible. Now there’s a family-wide search every December when we scour the shelves of local shops to find those coveted two cans to make the cookies.

Mine are not the same at Gail’s. First of all, I make a double batch, because I find doing things BIG is easier than doing them small. Secondly, I cut them in squares, not fancy diamonds. I don’t have Aunt Gail’s patience. But all the same, as I stand there in the kitchen, batter caking my hair and jeans, I can almost feel Aunt Gail over my shoulder.

This year, there’s a new ghost in my kitchen. Louise, my husband’s maternal grandmother, died in the spring. I didn’t know her well — she was a quiet woman — but every year she handed out a one-pound brick of shortbread. (The Murray family is VERY Scottish and Louise went entirely native.) Christopher, every year, would nibble at it for a few days and then, about a week after Christmas, just gorge on the whole block. It came wrapped in tinfoil and a tartan ribbon.

I’ve been testing shortbread recipes for the past three weeks. Again, no one said anything to me. It’s something I’ve taken up myself.

We live in a world where traditions are fleeting and the phrase “instant classic” isn’t an oxymoron. Where the nostalgia is for something just one or maybe two generations old — those Elf on a Shelf books, for instance, or getting your photo taken with Santa at a particular mall.

As part of my drive to be sustainable, I want to create sustainable traditions, too. And no where are traditions as enduring as in a kitchen. Butter, flour, sugar, eggs… women have celebrated holidays with these things for hundreds and thousands of years. I want to be able to tell my daughter, as she helps me make shortbread, that I am making it in honor of her great-grandmother, who made it in honor of her mother-in-law. Five generations isn’t a lot when you look at some recipes, handed down since Christ was still a free-love radical, but it’s better than the plastic manger from your mother’s Baby Boomer childhood.

This time of year, I think of baking as a sacrament, a way to connect to the past and to grow roots for my daughter’s future. It sounds hopeless sentimental, but I think that there’s some real holiday alchemy that comes out of that mixing bowl I inherited from my great grandmother. My daughter never met my great-grandmother, Leona, and won’t remember her’s, Louise, but when we make Louise’s shortbread together in Leona’s bowl, I like to think that I’m standing in a kitchen full of ghosts of Christmases past. And future.

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