When I was growing up, my grandma would often stay with us during Christmas. She never learned to drive, so she took a three-hour bus to Minneapolis. She traveled with one suitcase—full of clothes and a plethora of scarves (she always had a scarf around her neck or head)—and a container of crispy pecan cookies. My mom hid these from the rest of us as soon as Grandma arrived, nibbling in secret all of Christmas Eve and Day. At the time, I had no interest, and let my mom enjoy them as she pleased.
When I was in sixth grade, Grandma came a few days after Christmas, with her usual suitcase, scarves, and crispy cookies. My siblings and I were impatient for another round of present opening and, in anticipation of the big event, were pleasantly helpful all day. After dinner, my little brother passed out the presents, and the three of us discovered, in dismay, that Grandma had brought just one small gift for each. Sensing my mother’s narrowed eyes, we tried to conceal our disappointment. Grandma was excited and encouraged us to open our gifts at the same time. We did, silently praying it was something amazing. A Game Boy? A really small tape recorder? Maybe a new Baby-Sitters Club book?
But when I removed the paper from my gift, I discovered a 5x7-inch framed photograph—of Grandma. She was in a bright pink sweater with a light pink scarf around her neck, half-smiling to the camera. “I took pictures of myself this year for Christmas!” she laughed. “I’ll always be watching you, even when I’m gone. You won’t ever be able to forget me!” My siblings and I glanced at each other, mortified, but, remembering again that we should be polite, thanked her. “You better put those up in your room!” she said sternly. The three of us set them on our dressers, completely bemused.
Regardless of that initial disappointment, Grandma sat on my shelf all through junior high, and high school. She came with me to college, perched on my dresser next to square, silver Pier One frames full of high school friends, her humble wooden frame standing out. She made the journey back to my parents’ house when I lived there for a year, then to my first apartment with my husband. She was always with me, even when she wasn’t.
Every time I glance at the photo, I see her in all pink, then think of her tall frame in the kitchen, baking pies, bread, cookies, and huge meals for us every time we visited. I see her nestled in her favorite chair—quilting and watching football, and muttering under her breath when her team was losing. I see so many other things I missed as a child, how she worked hard to keep food on the table after her husband died, her quirky sense of humor, and how she couldn’t always say what she wanted to. When I was 12, I didn’t appreciate the photograph but, 30 years later, I see it was such a gift. She is always watching.
I came up with these cookies in remembrance of Grandma’s pecan cookies. She died years ago, along with her recipe, which she never wrote down or shared. I make these for my mom because she still loves crispy cookies, and she prefers pistachios. They’re easy to make, very forgiving, a perfect addition to any holiday table. I think Grandma would approve of them (though she would think the glaze wasn’t necessary).
Reprinted from The Vanilla Bean Baking Book by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2016, Sarah Kieffer —sarah kieffer | the vanilla bean blog
Featured in: Food52's Holiday Cookie Chronicles —The Editors