(Author’s Note: This story is based on a real event. Names were changed to protect those embarrassed by excessive wine consumption.)
Mid-October twilight dropped a chill over her sister’s backyard after a balmy day of swimming, eating, and enjoying the company of friends and family. Anna’s head was hazy, but her heart was full. “This has been has been a lovely day,” she said to her sister Jean.
“The last pool party of the year,” said Jean. “Glad you could come. You plan to stay the night, right?”
“Well, I hadn’t.”
“You’re going to though. If you feel anything like I do, you shouldn’t be driving.” Jean held up a bottle. “Last Obsession of the year.”
“OMG. You are incorrigible,” said Anna.
“I’m your sissie. You love me.”
“Let’s clean up while we enjoy that.”
While they cleaned, they chatted about childhood memories and made plans for the holidays. When Anna and Jean were children, the holidays were special, but especially exciting was when a large box arrived right after every Thanksgiving that rivaled any Amazon mailer. Grandmother’s Christmas cookies, hand decorated, lovingly packed, and individually preserved in Saran wrap before she placed them into the box. They lasted for weeks. The family favorite was the pillowcase of Pfefferneuse at the bottom, tiny button sized rounds of goodness that had been baked in the early fall, and dried in a dark closet until Thanksgiving. It was tradition to enjoy them floating atop early Christmas morning coffee, hot chocolate or eggnog. They seldom lasted through New Year’s Day.
Jean pulled a folded piece of paper off her refrigerator door, a photocopy of a recipe card, front and back. “The Pfefferneuse recipe you sent me several years ago. I have all the ingredients for it.”
“Really?” said Anna. She had wanted to bake Christmas cookies with her sister for a long time, but life got in the way. When Grandmother had taught her how to make Pfefferneuse, she talked about baking with her own sisters, a bee of women laughing and sharing with dough on their hands while they waited for the wood stove to heat.
Handed down by word of mouth, Grandmother shared the Pfefferneuse recipe with Anna and indulged her need to record every bit of life that happened to her. Step-by-step they built the recipe, and step-by-step Anna scribbled directions. Ingredients went together like a chemistry experiment, ending with the painstaking and muscle wracking effort of kneading eight or more cups of flour into a scant amount of batter, until the dough was stiff and felt like silk. Grandmother demonstrated how to roll marble-sized dollops of it into hundreds of balls that lined the cookie trays. After baking and cooling, they stored the tiny cookies in a pillowcase in a closet. The cookies cured for two months before they were ready. One did not eat them without soaking them in a hot liquid, because only then did the spicy cookie melt in the mouth delighting the palate. Otherwise, they were as hard as rocks.
“Let’s do it tonight,” said Jean. She poured each of them another glass of Obsession.
Anna and Jean faithfully followed the recipe for the batter. Ignoring the fact that Jean had a machine for kneading, they worked the dough by hand, just as Grandmother had, and sipped Obsession, laughing about the silliness of their lives and bragging about their kids.
“So what do you make of this direction?” said Jean. The facsimile of Anna’s wildly scrawled and dough stained recipe card was hard to read, especially with the amount of wine both women had consumed.
“Let me see,” said Anna, peering at her scrawl. “Bake at thirty degrees for…for three-hundred minutes.”
“That doesn’t sound like a thing.”
“A thing?” said Anna.
“I thought you’d made this with Grandmother.”
“I did,” said Anna, but that was a long time ago, before she had kids who were now college age and older.
“Three-hundred minutes,” said Jean. She fiddled with her fingers, counting. “That’s like…five hours!”
“Well, they are supposed to feel like little rocks when they are done,” said Anna, casually forgetting that they were supposed to dry the Pfefferneuse in a warm closet for two months after baking.
Jean frowned and turned on the oven to pre-heat it. “The directions say to hold your hand inside the oven for a slow count of three. I can’t believe you wrote this.”
“I wrote down everything Grandmother said.”
“Did you hold your hand in the oven?”
Anna shrugged. “I might have. I don’t remember. Probably.”
Jean huffed. “I guess it’s one count for every ten degrees?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Anna shrugged again.
“There’s nothing on this dial remotely close to thirty degrees,” said Jean.
“Oh, yeah,” said Anna, sort of remembering how an oven dial looked. “Well, this is an old recipe. We probably turned it to warm.”
“Do we do a fast count or a slow count?”
Anna quit rolling balls and looked at her sister. “I don’t know. A slow count, I guess. It has to be thirty degrees.”
“Geez,” said Jean, but she turned on the oven. “Five hours seems like a long time to bake cookies,” she said, when she came back to the table. She held out her empty wine glass for a refill, which Anna graciously provided.
“I don’t think so. An oven on warm would take at least five hours for them to dry out,” said Anna, wishing she could remember everything she and Grandmother did that day. “Besides, you bake a pot roast on low for hours. Dad used to bake a turkey from dawn to noon.”
“Yeah, that makes sense, I guess,” said Jean.
They rolled out more marble-sized balls of cookie dough as they waited for the oven to warm.
“The oven should be ready any second,” said Jean.
“Go stick your hand into it and count to three.”
“I’m not sticking my hand in there.”
“Grandmother lived a long time, and her hands looked just fine,” said Anna.
“But she cooked with wood,” said Jean.
“So, it’s a different kind of heat or something.”
“Pfft,” said Anna.
Jean’s son walked into the kitchen, and looked over his mother’s shoulder at the card. “Whatcha doin’?”
Jean said, “Making Pfefferneuse.”
“I’ve always wanted to try those. Can I help?”
“You can check the temperature of the oven. It should be thirty degrees. Just hold your hand in there for a slow count of three.”
He cocked his head, but wandered over to the oven.
Then, he turned back and said to his mother, “You want your beautiful son to stick his hand in the oven?”
“For a slow count of three.”
“It has to be thirty degrees, so we can bake them for three-hundred minutes.”
He walked back to the table and grabbed the card. “Mom. Are you sure it isn’t thirty minutes at three-hundred degrees?”
Jean looked at Anna.
Anna stared back.
There was nothing to say. They burst out laughing, and then clinked together their wine glasses.
“Good thing he walked by,” said Anna. “Five hours is a long time. We would have had to go out for more Obsession.”
“Yeah, he’s a good boy,” said Jean.
Jean’s son muttered as he walked away. “I can’t believe you asked me to put my hand in the oven.”
Jean and Anna laughed again.
It took longer than thirty minutes to cook multiple trays, but hundreds of little balls of Pfefferneuse were poured into a pillowcase to cure until Christmas Day when the family would come together to enjoy a beloved childhood tradition. Jean and Anna held their empty glasses high and saluted each other before passing out on the couch.