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Zoe Denenberg; Prop Styling: Rachel Mulcahy

The Baking 

Every Christmas for as long as I can remember, my mom and I set aside two full days to bake Christmas cookies. It sounds sweet but it’s an intense 48 hours that involves lots of rolling, measuring, chopping, and the inevitable emergency runs to the local market. My dad knows to only step foot in the kitchen if he’s offering to lend a hand – or to make a coffee run. Mom’s friends know their phone calls will go straight to voicemail. There’s just no time for distractions. My mom is a great baker. My mom is a focused baker. She learned everything from my grandmother, whose faded  handwritten recipe cards are pulled out every December. Mom puts a lot of pressure on herself – and her plates. See, my mom’s cookie trays are the most anticipated treats of the season. Family members, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, even my old high school friends look forward to these seasonal specialties that she delivers from door to door. Everyone knows what to expect too: Butter Cookies, Walnut Balls, Shortbread, Pecan Crescents, Thumbprints (with strictly strawberry preserve), Hello Dolly bars. Like my grandmother, my mom is a traditionalist, a creature of habit, a perfectionist. Only the best cookies get a spot on her plates. 

Everyone has a favorite. Uncle Larry requests a separate tray of  "the extra" Walnut Crescents. My niece and nephew plea for a secret stash of the Christmas tree butter cookies so they can dig in throughout their holiday visit. (They also ask for those Christmas trees on summer vacations and their birthdays.) My aunt, who rarely eats sweets, loves the shortbread. We keep track of personal favorites so that trays can be personalized for recipients. That’s what makes them extra special. A lot of work and a lot of love go into those cookies. 

The Cookie Plate 

My mom gives cookie plates, which should not be confused with the ever-so-popular tins. She thinks tins are “cute” but that they cover up the beauty of the cookies. “People want to see what we’ve made for them!” Fair enough. So, her cookies must look just as beautiful as they taste. No broken pieces, slightly burnt edges, or half-sprinkled trees. Extra pressure. The packaging is almost as intricate as the baking. We start with 10.5” holiday round plates, load with cookies strategically placed, wrap with just the right clear wrap, and finish with a big billowy bow. There have been a few years when a new cookie makes its way onto the tray but it must serve a purpose and be really impressive. There was the Peppermint Bark in 1996. But the flavor didn't work with the rest of the group. There were the Spiced Stars in 2002. But they didn't really look like stars. There were the Red Velvet Crinkles in 2012. But they got too mushy. Few additions actually stick around. Mom is a tough cookie critic. “Why mess with what everyone loves?” 

This year I suggested we consider the Peanut Butter-Chocolate Chip Cookie. I told my mother that these were a very popular Southern Living recipe, and were a hit at the office Cookie Swap. Like every cookie, she gave it a chance.

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Many of the cookies we make are time-consuming and complicated. The Peanut Butter-Chocolate Chip were quick and easy. I decided to use a cookie scoop for the first time, which make it even faster: just scoop, squeeze, repeat. Using the scoop created five dozen equally sized, perfectly round cookies. While the peanut butter-chocolate chip combination earned rave reviews from my niece and nephew, it was the neat little round gems that could be nestled between the Christmas Trees and Crescent Moons that won my mother's approval. A sweet surprise and a sweet new addition to this year’s tray. Let’s see if it gets invited back next year.

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