Picture this: The next day, there were cookie sprinkles in my bed.
You really can’t make this stuff up. How did the little multi-colored devils make their way from the kitchen? Certainly not because I was eating in bed; I was too exhausted by that time to even open my mouth, much less chew. Most likely they were stuck to the paws of the cat, who jumps on the bed to nudge me awake, no small job on this particular morning.
Heaven knows the kitchen floor was a virtual garden of sprinkles, topping a thick carpet of flour, dough crumbs, and what-all. It was all there for the strolling after a worn-out grandmother collapsed in bed before she finished cleaning the floor. For all I know, the sprinkles were stuck to my own feet.
It was the morning after the annual holiday cookie-baking extravaganza, with grandkids Buddy, Sis, and me. The kids are competent, trained clean-up staff, but the schedule went awry for this baking session, and I had to hustle them home before they could do their part. So, I was a clean-up staff of one, surveying the damage.
More evidence of the previous day’s culinary chaos was traveling on four feet. Reaching down on to clip on the dog’s leash for his routine morning stroll, I lightened his load by plucking a small nugget of dried meringue from the fluffy black spikes of hair just above the base of his ear. Not hard to figure that one out; he knows exactly where to loiter under the island counter to catch whatever falls.
Why is this baking process so messy? For one thing, we make the dough from scratch and roll it out the old-fashioned way. We follow a recipe in my grandmother’s handwriting that attributes the recipe to her own mother. (That’s right, the great-great-great grandmother of my baking co-conspirators.)
And truly expert bakers may have other thoughts, but in my experience, the answer to all questions about working with scratch dough is more flour, everywhere and always. Dough getting sticky, or splitting under the pin? Dump more flour on the hands, on the rolling pin, on the dough ball. When this technique is employed by bakers ages 9 and 11, turning the kitchen floors into a decorator’s “Dusty White” finish is but the work of a moment.
Next comes the decorating phase. Supplied with red, green, and white icing tubes, a box of edible eyeballs, the whipped egg whites for texture, and four colors of sprinkles, Buddy and Sis set to work on holiday masterpieces. A highlight for their G-ma is observing their artistic inclinations evolving as they get older. In a short year, pre-teen Buddy has blown past friendly gingerbread men with smiles and standard icing trim to a tray full of one-eyed cyclops characters and a tenderly crafted skeleton.
While Sis opted for some more traditional formats—striped candy canes, and dotted Christmas trees—the concept of excess does not haunt the vocabulary or the thoughts. Gentle suggestions about the thickness of icing or the volume of sprinkles were cheerfully yet determinedly unheeded.
Happily, the children have matured into a phase where humor may trump heartache when disaster strikes. I feared a hardworking young baker’s disappointment when I pulled a tray of his smaller cookies from the oven. Apparently, decorative eyeballs require a certain dough thickness to maintain shape while cooking. The little cut-outs were not thick enough, and they emerged looking like a pack of forest creatures that had been slain by a mythical cave monster, their eyes plucked out by vultures. “Oh, dear,” I mumbled, and before I could utter anything more helpful, Buddy looked over my shoulder at the melted carnage. Hahahaha, he hooted. “That looks WEIRD! Eeewwwww!”
My girlfriends asked maddeningly logical questions about our baking plans when I shared them in advance. Why not just buy the dough, make it easier? asked one. Don’t you want to get a decorating kit with instructions? queried another. How great that you let them do them however they want, said a third, kindly, with only a tiny pinch of surprise.
Staring at the next-day sprinkles sparkling on the bed linens, I admit I pondered those questions. Is doing things the hard way a family trait, I wondered, not for the first time? Do the cookies really taste better, from scratch—and is that even the point? Maybe I just wanted to focus on one family tradition, and the memories attached, in this first Christmas since my mother died. In the company of the children, this one felt so right.
Observing the wreck that remained for remediation, I remembered one more detail. Sometimes I actually like the sight of a messy kitchen. Sometimes, it is a vivid, aromatic illustration of shared fellowship, creative outcomes, and more than a few unexpected laughs. Even if I am left with melted eyeballs stuck like glue to non-stick cookie sheets and meringue-wearing dachshunds. It’s the best kind of holiday chaos.
Merry Christmas to all. May the chaos reign.