Tis the season, and you decide to go back to your hometown to celebrate the Holidays. You have a red-eye flight tonight and a few hours to spare before you need to call an Uber to the airport. You are excited to see your parents, siblings, and childhood friends again at the huge annual Christmas party that your family organizes, but there is a lump of anxiety eating away at the bottom of your stomach. You haven’t been home in three years. Your dad warned you about that before you left for grad school. He said that you would rarely see him again, only coming home for short visits that would become increasingly sporadic as you grew older. At the time, you swore that you would visit every few months and always stay by mommy’s and daddy’s side.
Dad was right, as usual. You drifted away from your family, floating up into a whole new world of adulting. Before you lose yourself in these new heights, you want to visit the ground at least one more time. So you’re going back home with an anchor dangling down, determined to reform a connection with your family.
It’s easy to be up in the sky by yourself, not having to care about others. Your only obligation is to be in the lab every day for eight hours. At work, there is always another email to write or a new issue to debug. You tackle one to-do after the other until your desk is surrounded by a dark silence. You sit in an empty subway and trek through the darkness before arriving back at your apartment. It’s already close to 9 pm, so you quickly heat up some leftover mushroom pizza from yesterday. Repeating this day in and day out is easy, but it’s boring, like drifting through the same clouds over and over again. At this point, you tried all of Trader Joe’s frozen dinner options a million times.
You miss those times when you spent the entire day with your brother testing out a “simple” Julia Child French recipe. Beef bourguignon, a rustic farmer’s dish that required every pot and pan in the kitchen. Pêches cardinal, a light summer dessert of poached peaches covered in raspberry puree, which wrecked the Vitamix blender. The two of you would argue about different recipe interpretations, while mom and dad constantly poked their noses into the kitchen, taking pictures and asking for samples. You don’t know if you can get that again when you come home. Your brother just became a father, which puts him on a whole nother level in the family hierarchy. Even so, the closeness and warmth of being home is more than enough to cure your loneliness.
However, you can’t go back home empty-handed. Mom taught you to always prepare a gift when you are a guest, and until you arrive back home, you feel like a guest, an outsider. It’s taboo to grab something random sitting in your apartment, and your savings are dangerously close to the “will I be able to afford next month’s rent?” threshold. Souvenirs at the airport are so ridiculously overpriced. You chastise yourself for not thinking about this sooner. Maybe you can make something within the next five hours? Parents always like getting handmade gifts from their children even if they are in their late 20s. The living room back home is covered in paintings of flowers and wine bottles, even though your art teacher technically did most of them. Dad constantly shows you the Father’s Day card you drew him when you were five with a sloppily written “I love you” next to a stick figure. The typical “shoot I forgot that I have to make a card” kind of gift. Unfortunately, that tactic no longer flies. You forfeited your position as the family’s cutie pie three years ago. You have to make something that a grown-up lady would. You step into your kitchen and start rummaging through the cabinets.
You used to bake like crazy, claiming it was your greatest passion. Watching The Great British Bake Off, flipping through baking science textbooks, scrolling through a million ASMR baking videos on YouTube, and scavenging the internet for recipes that you could mash together. You did all of these while dreaming that one day you could make something that looked and tasted just as amazing. Unfortunately, you weren’t super talented. You rarely got a recipe right on the first try. Most of the time, you screwed up a little thing and ended up with a subpar dessert. Accidentally forgetting to peel the apples before making apple butter and ending up with an apple sauce pie instead of a smooth and thick berry apple butter pie. You totally freaked out when the peels refused to dissolve with the pulp, and dad had to fix the blender so you could patch up your mistake. Over proofing your matcha sesame babka, resulting in a nearly burnt bake. Mom claimed that she loved the hard and slightly bitter crust because it reminded her of a treat from her childhood. Doing who knows what wrong with a Japanese cheesecake and having to cover up a large crack on the surface with blueberries. Your parents thought your blueberry decoration was intentional and wanted to take a bunch of photos before cutting the cake. Each mistake weighed down on you, but your parents were always there to encourage you to keep trying. You worked hard, got better, even worked at a cafe for a summer. But baking takes time, especially if you want to do it well, so once grad school started and you lost your cheerleaders, you put away your apron and redirected your determination to your research.
It’s been months since you baked something. Your pantry is quite diminished, but the essential ingredients are still there: all-purpose flour, sugar, baking powder, butter, and eggs. What should you make? Muffins? You don’t have a muffin tin. A sponge cake? How are you going to fit that in your backpack? Cookies? Yes, shortbread cookies are an option! Before your brother left for college, he would bake your grandmother’s shortbread cookies every Christmas. Sometimes, you would help him sift the flour, dig through the cookie cutter box, and coat the tops of the cookies with egg wash before baking them. Your brother constantly forgot to write down the recipe, so every year, the cookies tasted a bit different. Some years were too dry, others tasted like mini cakes. Baking shortbread cookies seemed like the most complicated recipe in the world, especially the part where you roll out the dough into a uniformly thin sheet. Eventually, he stopped baking cookies, and the family tradition went on hiatus.
When you were back home for Christmas near the end of college, you stumbled upon your grandmother’s original recipe written in German. Your dad helped you translate the instructions, and you adapted your grandmother’s shortbread recipe to your own tastes, cutting down as much sugar as possible without impacting the chemistry. You experimented with different baking conditions and made the recipe your own. After two tries, you were able to reproduce the best versions of your brother’s cookies. Your parents love those cookies, so you decide to go for it. You open your fridge to fish out the butter and eggs. It’s important to have cold ingredients at room temperature, so they would more easily bond together, creating a seamless and evenly textured batter. Additionally, butter and eggs trap more air at room temperature, which would result in a more tender cookie. You pull out a few sticks of unsalted butter and a couple of eggs, leaving them to warm up on the counter while you dig out your little baking notebook.
The softcover notebook is smaller than the palm of your hand. The pages are stained and wrinkled from various ingredients that escaped from measuring spoons or bowls. You flip to the page with your shortbread cookie recipe and start measuring out the ingredients using a $10 kitchen scale from Amazon. The measuring ingredients game is still as vexing as always. You weigh 250 grams of butter and 180 grams of sugar in two separate bowls. In a slightly larger mixing bowl, you measure out the dry ingredients, 500 grams of all-purpose flour and 1 tsp of baking powder. The baking powder is tricky since it’s even more powdery than flour. You can’t just stick a teaspoon into the container and expect to scoop out exactly 1 tsp. The natural alternative would be to weigh baking powder, but 1 tsp is 4.8 grams, and your scale doesn’t have that many significant digits. So you slowly add baking powder into the mixing bowl and watch the scale hit 4 grams. You add a tiny bit more and then the weight shoots to 6 grams. Urgh! The baking powder is already camouflaged among the flour. You try to scrape off the topmost layer, but the scale stubbornly stays at 6 grams. Ahh! Whatever! You’re out of practice and don’t have all day. You whisk together the flour and baking powder, finalizing the measurements. Your mom would have stuck the teaspoon right in the container and saved all that trouble, but accuracy is needed to create the perfect cookies.
The last ingredients to prepare are lemon zest and juice. You grew up with a huge lemon tree in the backyard that provided an endless supply of large yellow lemons year round, which meant that all your recipes contain some form of lemon. In Boston, lemons are expensive, but old habits die hard, and you pay the extra few dollars to always have 1-2 lemons in your fridge. You take out your last lemon. The skin is smooth and light yellow, unlike the rough and darker skin of lemons back home. You cut the lemon in half and squeeze each half over a small bowl, carefully removing the seeds. Before throwing away the hollowed-out shells, you harvest the yellow skin with a microplane grater, tightly gripping one side of the lemon as you slide it back and forth.
With all the ingredients, you follow the recipe step by step, making sure the butter is malleable to the touch before creaming it with the sugar, 2 eggs, lemon, a sprinkle of sea salt, and a dash of vanilla powder. From there, you slowly sift in the flour and baking powder. After dusting the batter with a thick layer of white snow, you force the hand mixer through the thickening mixture at a crawling pace. Sift and then mix. Eventually, the batter becomes a clay-like dough, and you abandon the mixer in favor of your hands, gently kneading until the dry powder disappears without a trace.
To firm up the butter and create shortbread’s crumbly texture, you chill the dough in the fridge. After two hours, you take out the hardened dough and roll it out until it is 1 cm thick. Having made thousands of pie crusts at La Terra cafe, rolling dough into a flat plain is almost second nature. You take a small metal ruler and measure the height of the edges, making sure they are very close to 1 cm. All your fancy Christmas cookie cutters are at home, but you have a practical 12-piece round cookie cutter set, which you use to cut a diverse range of circular shapes. You cover two parchment-lined baking sheets with circles and coat the tops with whisked egg yolk before sliding the trays into an oven preheated to 350°F. You close the heavy oven door with a thud and wait for the cookies to finish in around 15 minutes.
After freezing the leftover dough and washing the bowls, you hover around the oven. You can’t focus your attention on another task, just like when you were a little kid and sat on a stool in the front of the oven, watching the timer countdown. You keep wondering if the cookies will turn out okay and whether you accidentally messed up. Maybe the 1.2 grams of extra baking powder will make the cookies expand too much? Could there be egg shells hiding in the dough? You turn on the oven light and peek through the blurry glass window. You can barely make out clumps of dough on the baking sheet. What’s happening in the oven is completely out of your command. The measuring, mixing, chilling, and cutting that you spent hours on were just preliminary stages to prepare for these 15 minutes in the oven. You did all the hard work setting the stage, but it all comes down to the bake.
Butter melts and releases trapped air and water, which expands air pockets formed during the mixing process. This gas expansion needs to be carefully timed with protein coagulation to create a cookie with both structure and lightness. Egg and flour proteins trap water and form a continuous network that surrounds the expanding air pockets, creating a home that protects the gases from the outside world as they mature. A cozy home with a large lemon tree, cornflower blue walls, and a narrow kitchen filled with enticing flavors. A home with a thousand books, a well-stocked pantry, and a million baking supplies. But children can’t stay inside forever. They have to leave the house to go to college and then find their own air pockets to protect.
Once the gases grow up, the air pockets are no longer able to contain them, and the support structure ruptures, forming a porous sponge-like texture where gases freely pass in and out. When the dough becomes a sponge, its shape is finalized, and the excited gases surge out of their nests and go on their own adventures outside of the cookie world. The structure builders are left behind in a home covered in doors that are always open for their children. Some gases will calm down and eventually remember to visit their homes. Others will forever remain outside the cookies, even escaping the oven into a whole new universe. With all the empty nests, the cookies lose a lot of moisture and weight. The lack of water forms a dry and hard crust on the surface, a network of scars on the proteins that are left behind. The crust eventually browns from sugar caramelization and maillard browning, forming a sugary lemon scent that spreads throughout the apartment. The cookies are almost ready.
The timer on the oven starts blaring, and you quickly shove on bright-red oven mitts and crack open the oven door. The orderly rows of cookies have a bright orange shine on the surface and a light brown complexion on the bottom. They look perfect. You extract the trays and place them on a towel to cool for a few minutes. The cookies will continue to bake for a while longer. You call an Uber and then rummage through your closet to find the new pack of tupperware you bought from Target but never opened.
To test the quality of your cookies, you eat one of the smallest cookies. The cookie is still warm and part of it melts on your tongue. The sweetness from the sugar and sourness from the lemon dissolves to reach your taste buds. The more complex aromas of vanilla, citrus, and caramelized sugar drift to your olfactory cells. The texture perfectly complements the flavors, a crumbly but soft base with a hint of denseness from a thin layer of egg wash. Flawless, as far as you could tell. You pack the rest of the cookies in the container. You can’t wait for your parents and brother to taste them. With some shortbread cookies, there’s no way they wouldn’t invite you home with open arms.