Reinventing My Christmas Cookie Plate, 2 Years After Cancer

Something sweet, for when sugar is no longer an option.

December 12, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

Christmas has always been a big deal in my family: the family I was born into, and the family I’m now raising. It’s the intoxicating celebration of love, nostalgia, tradition, and food that reels me in year after year. I love the rotation of movies we watch while clutching mugs of hot cocoa. I love our basket of holiday-themed books that spill out in front of my kids, and remember reading ones just like them next to my brother with incredible anticipation as a little girl. In fact, we would stay up all night on Christmas—the one night I would have a sleepover on his trundle bed that creaked loudly in complaint of my yearly visit. We would pore over these sweet books about festive, personified mice; predictable redemption stories about a miserly grump finding, at long last, the elusive “holiday spirit”; or any other well-worn trope, made new again with the passing of only a year.

I see clearly now, after what I’ve been through, the most defining quality of Christmas that had me hooked as long as I can remember: hope. Christmas, I was taught while growing up, is about love and hope. The season is a period in which reality is suspended and a fantasy takes shape. Love is performed and communicated in the form of tradition. Kindness feels festive; so do pretty dresses, plates of cookies, and letters in a mailbox. I realize that the trappings of Christmas are old-fashioned and cheesy, but I relish in both. Especially now, after my diagnosis. It’s a form of rebellion.

It was hard, at first, to be terminally ill at Christmas. Since Christmas is a time of re-enactment, of living in the present as well as re-living all the Christmas pasts simultaneously, it was a time that shone a spotlight on the immense changes in my days. It illuminated the fragility of life and gratitude for health, as well as the relatively minor material changes, like my diet. This nesting of Christmas present within Christmases past only showed me how near to death I had been when compared to any other when I was presumably healthy. It felt like I was living Scrooge’s story in reverse somehow.

I managed to fumble through our traditions with a genuine attempt to adapt them in a meaningful way, but nothing compared to the perfection of Christmases past. I hadn’t had the time or energy to create an entirely new thoughtful cache of recipes after tossing the ones I’d grown up with. As we dismantled our Christmas tree, I felt relieved it was over, that I did my best, but it wasn’t one to remember. It was one marked by what was missing rather than what was there.

Never again, I thought. I can’t let cancer take Christmas from me, from my family. I hadn’t yielded in the face of it in any other way. Like the silly stories I read with my brother years ago, I knew I needed to find the Christmas spirit elsewhere. To make it in the form of cookies, to set it out on my table in the form of a feast, to celebrate my life as an avenue to truly being merry. In that moment the symbol of Christmas, as a vessel for nostalgia even when I was healthy, evolved into one of a resolute clinging onto the pillars of my former life through a lens of who I had become. My resolve to create recipes for the best Christmas ever was an act of rebellion, a mighty weapon in my battle against cancer.

I started with Christmas cookies a few months ago, remembering my promise to myself. They are synonymous, of course, with the season and a huge star in our family’s holiday preparation. The rolled sort are decorated in one sprawling evening (to contain the mess and attention spans) by anyone who wants to join; the very best ones, coupled with a few other types from the cookie jar, are decided by committee to be presented to Santa. The cookies have to be perfect. The rest is just food.

This Christmas, I wanted to make three types:

  1. The perfect rolled, cut-out sugar cookie using one of my preferred unrefined sugars—coconut.
  2. As a complement, I wanted to develop a festive drop cookie that’s simple to make after the sugar cookies drain every allotted ounce of baker’s mojo I have for the season. I came up with the idea of a dead-simple molasses cookie, played around with it, and ended up with a five-ingredient winner that I spiked with garam masala for a sassy take on warm spice cookies.
  3. I’m using these cookies, too: the very first I baked this year when I re-launched my blog, with a dash of peppermint oil in a Spritz gun for a tiny nibble of shortbread. They’re the exact kind I steal off the plate when I walk through the kitchen. And here, to the tune of what feels like a swelling chorus of familiar carols, I give you the contents of my Christmas cookie plate for Santa.

A Merry Christmas is ahead, indeed. And I wish you the same.

What’s on your cookie plate this year? Let us know in the comments below.

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Before her diagnosis, Caroline wrote a book on cakes called Cake Magic!. She started developing a birthday cake using her gluten-free mix found in that book. Check out other recipes she’s developing for her new life—and the stories behind them—on her blog, The Wright Recipes. Her next book, Soup Club, is a collection of recipes she made for her underground soup club of vegan and grain-free soups she delivers every week to friends throughout Seattle's rainy winter.

1 Comment

Jeff December 12, 2018
What a wonderful post! I’ve been wondering about making holiday treats for my loved ones who have diets narrowed for any number of reasons. These will be perfect for my AIP diet folks! Thanks for replacing the feeling of being denied by dietary restrictions with a feeling of opportunity, creativity, and love.