It was my first cookie swap, and I was ready to wow friends and co-workers with my culinary skills and creativity. Of course, I would bake my mother’s semi-famous, wholly delicious pineapple cookies. Of course, this would be a fantastic success!
Do you remember your first Christmas away from home? At twenty-two, I was living in the Fan with a roommate. We had an oven, but I can’t remember ever using it. Now, I had signed up to make twelve dozen cookies and trade them with grown-up guests during a holiday party. There would be no alcohol. A friend assured me I would enjoy this.
First things first, I had to secure my mom’s pineapple cookie recipe, which meant calling her and taking down the instructions over the phone. Two ingredients in, I asked her if baking powder and baking soda were the same thing.
“Maybe you should make the peanut butter cookies,” she replied after a moment of silence for my confidence.
My mother is a Christmas cookie maven. Every year, she made at least ten varieties, including pumpkin raisin, oatmeal gumdrop, pecan balls, cherry nut, peanut butter, the aforementioned pineapple cookies, and others. All members of the family were under strict orders not to eat a single cookie until Christmas Day. Only the parish priest and a favorite teacher or two received cookies in advance of Christmas.
One way to score a pre-Christmas cookie was to help my mom in the kitchen. Peanut butter cookie prep was my favorite: ball rolling, criss-cross smashing with a fork, and finally, adding a pinch of rainbow sprinkles before baking (this was her only cookie that required decoration).
My mom never trusted a pretty cookie. At any event with a cookie table, she would steer us away from the ones that were covered in colored icing or overly decorated. You never would have seen a gingerbread man at our house. Cookie cutters were verboten.
She stored hundreds of cookies in old fruitcake tins and separated the layers with wax paper. To each tin, she added quarter slices of bread, the theory being that the cookies would absorb moisture from the bread, keeping them soft longer. It worked, although most of the cookies didn’t last very long anyway. (I use this method still!)
The first time my husband Scott visited my mom and dad’s house over the holidays, he was smitten. Not with the charm of the West Virginia town where his one-day wife grew up. Not with the hospitality of said wife-to-be’s parents. No, it was very clearly the cookies. Specifically, he liked the oatmeal gumdrop cookies – which were fabulous with coffee – and as it turned out, my mom’s favorite, too. Pineapple cookies were a close second. My brother-in-law Doug has always been a pumpkin cookie man. Hmm. I’m starting to think my mother made all those cookies to help marry off her six kids.
For my dad and me, the pineapple cookie reigned supreme through the years. The cake-like inside was airy and chewy; the outside was delicately crisp. A dab of sweet golden glaze topped each cookie.
For quite a while, my husband was convinced my mother had been purposefully holding back information from her recipe so my pineapple cookies wouldn’t measure up to hers (okay, he still is). For example, it might come up in conversation one year that a certain brand of crushed pineapple was better than another. The next year, Mom might remind me – with all due respect, of course – that using a stand mixer to make cookies (like I did) instead of mixing them by hand (like she did) would never result in the perfect pineapple cookie.
My daughters grew to treasure Christmas visits to Grandma and Pap’s house. Where else could you eat cookies for breakfast? Each year when we visited, I copied another one of her decades-old recipe cards.
“We make these at our house, too!” my daughter Sam announced one visit.
“Oh, you do, do you?” Grandma replied with a smirk on her face.
The next year, we staged our first pineapple cookie challenge. There were blindfolds. My cookie-baking skills were real, and my mom knew it. For the next five years, Grandma’s cookies won out, although behind the scenes, my daughters liked to assure me that Mommy’s were almost as good.
I’ve come a long way from my first cookie flop (I mean, swap). That day at the party, my pineapple cookies went twice as far because every time someone tried to pick up one, it literally broke in half. I’d say it took me close to fifteen years to perfect my mom’s specialty cookie, plus a few others I have added to my repertoire.
This year, for the first time in forever, my mom’s not baking any cookies. She’s at a senior living center where we’ll visit her over the Christmas holiday. We’ll take her some pineapple cookies so she can enjoy a few, and perhaps – if she says they’re good enough – give some to the people who take care of her. We’ll swap cookie stories and talk about our taste-test challenges when the girls were little. We’ll remind her that her recipes will live on forever.
Here’s my wish for you: a joy-filled holiday season and a chance to bake some cookie memories of your own.
Want to make Karen’s mom’s
pineapple cookies? Here’s the recipe.