Gingerbread Cookies, Christmas Trees, and the Family Dog

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Christmas tree is like the family dog. Everyone in the family wants one, but it’s the mom who sees to it (even if she has no choice in the selection). And, like the family dog, the tree requires attention, takes time, and seldom behaves as expected.

I was a junior in high school when I fell in love with baking, something my mother thought was a good idea. It kept me from sneaking over to Barbara’s house and staying. It kept me from Jimmy, who she and my dad distrusted because he tutored school kids in Newark, NJ (we lived Short Hills, a tony suburb),  he got me to join his Clean Up the Raritan River Action group, and he wore sandals in December.

On a quiet December afternoon, baby-sitting my brother and sister, I decided to surprise my mother and bake her favorite holiday cookies. We’d been fighting about the length of my skirts, amount of mascara, etc. I wanted to show her I could do something nice for a change, think of someone besides myself, and that, unlike Jimmy (who railed against rampant consumerism), I liked Christmas.

With my sibs plunked in front of a cartoon show, I began baking gingerbread ornaments to hang on the tree. The deliciously gooey recipe required flouring the kitchen counters, which turned to Elmer’s glue as I rolled and rerolled the dough. Decorated with silver balls (that skittered under the stove and fridge) and red and green sprinkles (that stained the tile grout), they were whimsical, beautiful, and tasty — crisp at the edges, moist within. I poked a hole in the top of each to thread ribbons to hang on the tree — eight-dozen cookies, ninety-six cookies.

Our family tree was always magnificent, the star scraped the ten-foot ceiling of our colonial home, and it was draped with hand blown ornaments, many of them passed down through generations, each with a story. It twinkled merrily as I hung each pretty cookie on the branches, the smallest at the top, great big gingerbread men at the bottom. And that was my biggest mistake.

We had a golden lab named Daisy, who was sweet and gentle, cuddly and docile. She slept in my room, played fetch for forever. And, she loved to eat.

As I was cleaning the kitchen, Jimmy called to say he was on his way over. I ran upstairs to change and put on make up. Soon after, before I finished scraping the Elmers off the kitchen counter top, and just as both Jimmy and my parents were pulling in to the circular drive (nearly in a head on collision), Daisy reached for not one, but all of the cookies. And in one spectacular swoosh, the whole thing toppled.

This year, after thirty-five years of wrestling enormous Christmas trees in our own home, I chose a tiny tree-top.  We’ve had trees whose stars brushed the ceiling. We’ve had trees so wide and wobbly that one year, I duct taped the tree to the radiator, after it had flopped over twice, like tipsy Aunt Ruth, whose scent of Shalimar and Scotch announced her entrance to dinner.  We’ve had several ill-behaved, though entertaining Labradors, who have eaten their share of cookies. No more big trees or big dogs.

This tree’s skinny limbs slump under the weight of a few select ornaments that survived the crash. Our dog — my dog — is a little, lap-sized mutt, who couldn’t reach the cookies if she wanted them. But, I’m making them once again, as I have every year, while our three adult sons are wrangling trees of their own. I’m not sure why I continue with the baking, the mess, and the memories, except that Christmas, with a tree big or small, so loaded with expectations and heartbreak and ambition and conflict and overpowering love, is here.

Beth Dooley is a cookbook author who leads local food trips for Wilderness Inquiry. Her latest book is Minnesota’s Bounty: The Farmers Market’s Cookbook.

Gingerbread Men
Makes about 4 dozen

⅔ c molasses or sorgum
⅔ c brown sugar
1 ½ tbsp ginger
½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp baking soda
1 c unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ tsp salt
3 ¾ to 4 c unbleached, all purpose flour

  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
  2. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or lightly grease.
  3. In a large saucepan set over medium heat, combine the molasses, brown sugar, and spices.
  4. Remove and stir in the baking soda and then the butter, several pieces at a time, melting it all in.
  5. Whisk in the egg, then stir in the salt and 3-3 / 4 cups of the flour.
  6. Remove and gather the dough into 2 balls and flatten into discs. Refrigerate  for about 30 minutes.
  7. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and roll out the dough using a lightly floured rolling pin.
  8. Cut the cookies into shape and transfer them to the baking sheets.
  9. Bake until the edges are slightly dark and the cookies are just firm, about 10 to 13 minutes.
  10. Remove. If using the cookies for decoration, poke a hole in each cookie using a straw. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool before icing.