The bakery teeters on excess; in cookies, in gluten freeness, in cupcakes and coffeecakes. One might think my rolling pin would have crossed over to the dark side of sugar cookie dough this month, but the reality is there are more than enough pies and tarts ordered for the holiday weekend. Additionally, tube pans call to me requiring pounds of spicy gingerbread cake batter. Thank goodness I was able to scratch the ugly Christmas sweater cookie itch earlier this month.
Following the ‘pie for all and all for pie’ that defines Thanksgiving, the weeks leading up to December 25th are filled with dozens, no hundreds, no actually thousands of cookies. Many are diminutive, modestly adorned with a dip or a dab of chocolate or a dusting of powdered sugar, then tucked into boxes. But the showstoppers, the raison d’etre for children to meltdown in front of the display case, for caffeinated grown-ups to gesticulate wildly, and for bakers round the bench to get slightly testy, hands cramping in carpal tunnel syndrome, is the decorated sugar cookie. There are small, medium and large cookies, some with just a hint of sparkly sugar, others painstakingly elaborate. By elaborate I’m not saying Sistine Chapel ceiling details, but not far removed. Which is why I am constantly in awe of the cookie artists wielding icing bags in the bakery.
Christmas cookies do not arrive without their share of drama. In the sheer volume of cookies pumped out of a modest kitchen, it is not uncommon for a snowman’s eye to smudge like mascara in the rain or Santa’s hat to prove non-colorfast, red royal icing bleeding into the white cuff.
Sugar cookies are an entity unto themselves requiring agonizing conversations about colors, outlines, Sprinkle King adornments. No longer gussied up for the season in simple candied cherries or a squiggle of royal icing, today’s cookies are destined for bright holiday lights and tabletop scene stealing. They are intricately iced, in colors as eclectic as a Pantone color chart. How did we get here? How did this happen?
The history of holiday cookies dates way, way back stretching around the globe to places that celebrated early winter solstice festivals. At some point during the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations began to overshadow the solstice. Fortunately for anyone wielding a wooden spoon and a mixing bowl, wintry spices and dried fruits were becoming more widely available. Unlike larger cakes and pies, cookies were slightly less expensive and less cumbersome to bake and exchange, encouraging sweet gift giving.
With the advent of tin cookie cutters, it was just a matter of time and travel before immigrants brought cookie recipes and cookie cutters to the United States. Both recipes and cutters were handed down from one generation to the next. Cookie tins and jars quaked in anticipation as butter and vanilla extract permeated kitchens. And then in a word, something changed sugar cookies forever.
The word? Pinterest. Developed in December 2009 and launched in March 2010, Pinterest dubs itself the ‘world’s catalog of ideas.’ Its aim is to inspire, prompting viewers to peruse thousands of photographs. Dazzling, yes. Dizzying? More so. Oh-so frustrating to log onto? Guilty.
Pinterest has taken the humble cookie and elevated it to pop culture status. One needn’t have a single original idea in their head; just click, peruse and ‘repin’ from other users. Is it an exchange of ideas? Certainly. Does it allow you to borrow freely, often without giving credit where credit is due? As sure as there are sprinkles in a box of Sprinkle King.
I am spreading my fair share of royal icing around this holiday, particularly to those on my designated Nice list. For anyone deemed Naughty, not to worry. Pinterest dedicates hundreds of ideas for cookies decorated with screaming red and green candied cherries. Happy Everything.