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When Getting It Right Isn’t the Point

by Carilyn on May 7, 2017

sugar cookies

When I was five, some new people moved into the neighborhood. I was beyond excited. New people meant new kids to play with, new jungle gyms to hang upside down from, a new mother to ask some of the fifty billion questions I had that seemed to annoy everyone else. Fresh meat.

But this new family was different. They seemed sad. And a little scared. The parents yelled a lot, even at us neighborhood kids when were at their house playing. None of the other parents on the block yelled in front of company. The boy seemed to cry a lot, at least compared to any other boy I’d ever met in my five years on the planet. I had two brothers and had rarely seen them cry. They were more likely just to throw something at me or lock me out of their rooms. All the crying from this new boy on my street unnerved me.

The girl was one year younger, just four to my “big girl” five years. She didn’t cry, but she didn’t say much. At first, I thought this was great because I loved to boss everyone around and bossing is much easier if people stay quiet. But after awhile, her quietness made me not want to boss her anymore. Bossing now felt more like bullying. Everyone else I knew came from big families like mine and was used to loud, bossy girls. Something about this little girl was different. At five, I couldn’t put words to it, but I felt it.

At Christmas, the new neighbors gave everyone the BEST SUGAR COOKIES EVER. Buttery and light, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. Each cookie was decorated with spray can frosting (the best kind). These sugar cookies were magical miniature works of art for your mouth. I tried to get my mom to find out the recipe, but it never happened. Maybe she felt like it was a special thing the sad family had, or maybe she was afraid of the new neighbor mommy as much as I was. I’ve asked her, and she demurs, never one to talk out of school.

A few years after they moved in, the not-so-new neighbors moved back out. I don’t remember them leaving, as I’d long since quit playing with the quiet little girl. I only remember that one day they were gone. As an adult, I keep trying to put together the pieces of what happened to the family, but my memories seem locked in that vault where children keep hard things from their childhoods.

Forty years later, I’m still trying to recreate that special sugar cookie that made the sad family seem happy. I’ve tried almost every recipe I can find. I’ve bought cans and cans of spray icing. Often, the cookies are so bland I just end up spraying the icing straight into my mouth while watching Sweet Home Oklahoma or Transparent. Why waste the calories on bleh cookies? Go straight for the good stuff.

This recipe is one of the keepers. I got it out of my mother’s old copy of the Betty Crocker Cookbook, circa the 1970s. I don’t think it’s the right recipe, but it is good. And maybe I will never find the “right” recipe because maybe it doesn’t exist. And maybe that’s better. Maybe remembering specifics about a sad family isn’t helpful. Maybe it’s more important to remember how happy they seemed delivering the most beloved Christmas treat in the whole neighborhood. Maybe what I’m trying to hold onto is the memory of something good and happy connected to my neighbors, the part of their story that stayed with me all these years.


Sugar Cookies


1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 egg

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

2 1/2 cups AP flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, mix the powdered sugar and butter until light and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla and almond extract.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and cream of tartar.

With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients. Mix just until well blended and a dough forms.

Refrigerated dough for at least 2 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Scoop out (use a small ice cream scoop or a tablespoon) one inch balls onto the baking sheets, two inches apart.

Bake approximately 8 minutes, or until the edges are light brown.

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