Something clicks in the Family Cook's mind about this time of year that compels her to make Christmas cookies. It's superfluous, really, since all Family Cooks do the same thing and the cookies travel back and forth between houses like so many fruitcakes. They are left at the front door or marched home from school, and then they are either gobbled by big-eyed munchkins who can't eat dinner afterward, or crushed into the rug.
But this is too much bah and humbug. In the spirit of unstoppable optimism, the Family Cook continues to make Christmas cookies. I suspect she does this because it is fun. Cookie dough is one of God's great gifts to the taste buds. Cookie cutting fulfills our need for precision, which is something the mothers of young children don't see much of. Cookie decorating is an art that not only brings back warm memories of childhood, but actually becomes more interesting and challenging as we age. Done well, cookie decorating is as complex as bargello.
Nonetheless, cookie baking is not something a mother of young children would do in a rare moment of solitude. Christmas cookie making is at its most convivial, its most nostalgic, its most uproarious, its messiest, and its absolute best when done in the company of young children.
If you are making cookies for show, reserve another time. But if you are making cookies for fun, gather up some neighborhood pals (three at most), scrub their hands, and range them around the kitchen table. Age is almost no object; a child of a year or so can play with a little ball of dough, by 18 months he can decorate just as inexactly as a 7-year-old. It's some time before they can roll (even most Family Cooks can't use a rolling pin all that well), but by 3 they can use the cookie cutter and, of course, the sprinkles.
To start, you'll want to make the basic roll-out cookies in the recipe that follows. These are a little bit difficult and a little bit delicate, but you have to make this dough if you're going to use cookie-cutters at all. To ease the rolling out, use a pastry cloth on the board and a rolling pin cover on the rolling pin if you have them. Otherwise, you'll have to use a lot of flour, which will make the cookies look dusty and taste a little more bland. Preheat the oven completely before baking; place the unbaked shapes on a greased (no salt in the grease, please), cold, shiny baking sheet. To prevent burning, fill the sheet completely. When you run out of sheets, don't use a pan with high sides, or the reflected heat will burn the cookies. Turn the pan upside down, if you must, and grease the bottom.
Once you've finished tucking the roll-outs in the oven, the kids might want to do something a little more basic. Then it's time to pull out a big bowl and make Aggression Cookies, which involve such basic human needs as dumping, kneading, mixing and pounding. Mothers can get into the act too, and on some days, well that they should. After these are baked, they turn into lovely, lacey, oatmeal cookies.
And finally, because nobody can wait any longer, you all whip up a batch of Quick Energy Pick-Ups, which require no baking whatsoever and even contain a certain amount of protein and calcium.
After everybody has snacked and rolled and so forth, it's time to wash hands again and decorate the roll-outs. The easiest way is to buy little tubes of frosting (the very small size) in white, one for each child. Let them squirt this onto the cookies in any design, then throw on some sprinkles, which will stick where the frosting is.
Now pack up individual boxes of cookies for each child to take home. Hose down the kids and the kitchen, and send them home. Their mothers will be furious and guilt-ridden. At your house they bake cookies, at her house they watch "He-Man." Don't you feel great? BASIC ROLL-OUT COOKIES (Makes 30 cookies) 1 cup butter 2/3 cup sugar 1 egg, beaten 2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vanilla
Soften butter and blend in the sugar, then the beaten egg. Combine flour, salt and vanilla, then add it to butter mixture. Combine thoroughly and chill dough in a ball for 3 or 4 hours. Roll chilled dough out to 1/4-inch thickness and cut with cookie cutters. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes, watching carefully. The cookies have tanned slightly when done. AGGRESSION COOKIES (Makes 24-30 cookies) 1 cup flour plus extra for stamping cookies 1 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 cup softened butter 2 cups oatmeal
Dump all ingredients into the bowl. Mix well with hands and form into 1-inch balls.
Lay balls out on cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Spill flour out in a shallow soup plate. Have children make a fist and stamp end of fist in flour, then greatly press down each ball with fist to flatten. Bake 10 minutes in a 350-degree oven.
Adapted from "What Can We Do Today, Mommy?" by Kathy Farrell and Mary Sweeney, Growing Together Press, $6.95 QUICK ENERGY PICKUPS (Makes 30 balls) 4 squares graham crackers 1 cup confectioners' sugar 1 cup crunchy peanut butter 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips 1/2 cup instant nonfat dry milk 3 tablespoons water
Crush the graham crackers with your fingers onto a sheet of waxed paper. Mix remaining ingredients thoroughly in bowl. Shape teaspoonfuls of the mixture into 1-inch balls. Roll the balls in the graham cracker crumbs until coated. Arrange the coated balls on ungreased cookie sheet and refrigerate for about 20 minutes, or until firm.