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Crumbling Christmas Cookies

December 26, 2012

Author’s Note: This is a short story I wrote last year for a Christmas contest. Since I don’t really have anywhere else to send it, I thought I would post the rewritten version here for you to enjoy. I did actually create a recipe to go with this story, and I will post it next week if I can manage to take pictures of the process.

“Time to get up, Alexa.” Kelly opened the door to her ten-year-old daughter’s room. Alexa lay on her stomach, with her knees tucked up under her. Her face was pulled back in a grimace. The blankets hung half off the bed, brushing the floor. “Are you ok?” Kelly’s heart tightened, knowing what the answer would be.

“No,” Alexa groaned. “I must have eaten some gluten at Olivia’s last night.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. What did you have?” Kelly sat on the bed and pulled strands of Alexa’s brown hair from her face.

Alexa turned her head slightly so her face wasn’t pressed into her pillow so much. “Swedish meatballs and rice, so I don’t know where it came from. Her mom said she didn’t use flour in the sauce.” She spoke slowly, her voice heavy with sadness.

“Did she tell you what was in the meatballs? What did she use to replace the breadcrumbs?” Had she ever warned Alexa that she needed to be careful about meatballs? She couldn’t remember, and now Alexa was paying for it. Her heart stung with guilt.

“There’s breadcrumbs in meatballs?” She sighed. “I should have known to ask about those too. I hate being a celiac. I wish I didn’t have to worry about every little thing that I eat.”

“I know, sweetie, I know.” Kelly kissed Alexa’s cheek. She worried as much as Alexa, and probably more, that the food she cooked didn’t get contaminated with any grains containing gluten. Both of them wished she could share food easily with her friends. “I’d make it go away if I could. Unfortunately, we just have to deal with it.”

Alexa sighed again and closed her eyes.

“What if I made you something special while you stay home from school? What would you like?” There had to be something to take her mind off the pain.

After a few moments, Alexa asked, “Can you make sugar cookies?”

“Sugar cookies? Are you sure you don’t want something chocolate?” Usually when Alexa got sick from gluten, she asked for brownies or fudge – the more chocolate the better. Or if she was particularly ill, she’d ask for just some soup and crackers to help soothe her stomach.

“Rachel is having friends over tonight to decorate sugar cookies for Christmas. I’m definitely not going now, but I thought it would be nice to host my own party where I can actually eat the cookies.” The words came out in a rush.

“That sounds like fun. Though I’ve not made gluten-free sugar cookies before. I’ll have to see if I can find a recipe.” Kelly turned away so Alexa wouldn’t see any doubt playing across her face. She had no idea if she had a recipe for sugar cookies. Even if she did, she didn’t even like sugar cookies made from regular flour. Taking the gluten out was bound to make things even worse. “Do you want anything to eat now?”

Alexa shook her head.

“All right. Just let me know when you’re hungry.”

After Kelly made lunch for her husband Robert, and pushed her son Tristen out the door so he wouldn’t miss the bus, she sat down with her gluten-free cookbooks. While they had recipes for other cookies, there weren’t any for plain sugar cookies. Kelly then mentally crossed her fingers as she looked through the recipe indexes of her favorite blogs. She let out a relieved sigh when she found one. She printed it out and headed to the kitchen.

She turned on some Christmas carols to blast away any negative thoughts as she gathered the ingredients. She always got nervous when trying to make a new gluten-free recipe, worried it would flop like so many she had attempted before. But this one had been tested by a fellow gluten-free baker, so it should be good, right? The recipe called for a generic gluten-free flour mix, so she pulled down her rice flour, tapioca starch, and potato starch and measured out her usual ratios.

When it was time to roll out the dough, it was sticky even after chilling for two hours. Even with several tablespoons of flour scattered on the counter, the dough stuck, stretched, and fell apart as she transferred the Christmas trees, bells, and other shapes to the cookie sheet. She managed to piece them back together so they didn’t look too mangled. As she stuck them in the oven, she tried to think of happy thoughts to take her mind off the misshapen cookies. Robert would be floored that she made sugar cookies. She had always made him eat store-bought sugar cookies whenever he got the craving. And Tristen would be excited to finally leave cookies for Santa instead of fudge. He was afraid Santa didn’t like their house as much because of it.

When she opened the oven, she paused to inhale the sweet buttery aroma. They looked like normal sugar cookies. So far, so good. She slipped a spatula under the first one, but it was stuck to the cookie sheet. She pressed harder, and the cookie fell apart. “Gah!” she cried out. A couple big pieces remained, but half of it had crumbled into powder.

“What happened?” Alexa popped her head above the couch where she was watching TV.

Kelly tried another cookie. It also crumbled before she could get it to the cooling rack. “I’m sorry, sweetie. These cookies are falling apart.”

“How do they taste?”

“Why don’t you come try one?”

Alexa turned off the TV and hopped up on a stool on the other side of the counter. She took one of the larger pieces from the tray and stuck it in her mouth. She chewed thoughtfully, without any hint of a smile. “They’re very dry.”

After Kelly had loosened all of the cookies (none of them had less than half dissolve into powder) she put one in her mouth. It had a light buttery taste, but the piece disintegrated into gritty granules in her mouth, sucking up all the moisture. She wondered if eating sugar coated sawdust would taste any better.

With the next batch of cookies, Kelly made sure to grease the sheets and didn’t bother with using cookie cutters. She just dropped balls which she flattened into circles. These mostly managed to make it onto the cooling rack, but they collapsed at the slightest pressure from a frosting knife.

“Stupid cookies,” Alexa muttered as her third cookie broke apart on her plate. She started stabbing it to dissolve the rest into crumbs.

“I know.” Kelly sighed as she hung her apron up. “Look I’ll try again tomorrow. Maybe I didn’t add enough eggs or xanthan gum or something.”

After cleaning the kitchen, Kelly went back to the blog to see what she may have done wrong, hitting the mouse buttons a little harder than was probably necessary. At least she wasn’t alone. A few of the commenters remarked that their cookies had failed when following the recipe. Then she saw that the gluten-free mix that they had used involved bean flour, and groaned. She generally avoided bean flour when making sweets, afraid that the beany flavor would come through. But it did help provide structure for when she made breads, and the flavor wasn’t really noticeable there. Maybe she was worrying for no reason – there were commenters that liked this recipe, and other recipes she’d tried from this site had worked. Well, she’d never know if the bean flour would work unless she tried.

The next day, when Alexa and Tristen got home from school, she had cookies cooling on the rack. Moving the dough from the counter to the cookie sheet had still been a challenge, but with the help of parchment paper, they had cooled and kept their shapes. They managed to hold up to frosting, mostly. Tristen took one bite and said “Yuck! I want some of my cookies.” He jumped down and walked to the pantry.

Kelly took a bite. The butter flavor was completely overpowered by the sour and bitter tang from the bean flour. And the texture in her mouth was still dry and crumbly.

Alexa put down her half-eaten cookie. “I can’t eat these.”

“Me either.” The cookie in Kelly’s stomach weighed as if it was made of lead. “These are going straight into the trash.”

Back on the internet, the only recipes that Kelly could find either called for a generic mix, which she had found might not give her the results she wanted, or called for flours like amaranth and mochi that she didn’t have in her pantry. She hated the idea of buying a bag just to use a cup. She slammed the lid of the laptop a bit harder than she had intended and went back to her pantry. As she stared at the ingredients, she committed to create her own recipe, however long that would take.

Rice flour left the cookies too gritty. Bean flour didn’t taste good. Sorghum flour, however, left a delightful sweet nutty taste, almost like cashews. So she kept trying with that ingredient, though she still couldn’t get around the crumbliness. Dinner was consisting of fast food more often than not, even though Alexa hated eating burgers without buns. The house was in desperate need of a good cleaning. Presents needed to be bought, and cards needed to be mailed. Grocery bills were mounting, though at least the failures were going into a bag of crumbs in the pantry to use in cookie crusts. But who knew how long it would take her to use them all up? She must have enough for three or four cheesecakes already. And these samples had to be doing a number to her waistline, even though Kelly refused to step on the scale to confirm it.

The last week of school, Kelly went to Alexa’s room to talk, her heart heavy. “Sweetie, I don’t think I can get some good cookies for you by the end of school. If you like, I’m sure I can get some for Valentine’s Day, and you could have your party then.”

Alexa’s face fell. “I already told my friends that I was going to have a party, probably on Friday as long as you were okay with it.”

“I’m sorry, sweetie. This recipe is just so hard.”

“My friends don’t have to eat the gluten-free cookies. Can’t we just have two batches? I can’t back out on my friends.”

“I know, but maybe you shouldn’t have promised them a party until we were ready.”

“But we were getting ready! We have something that will work, don’t we?”

“It still doesn’t sound like fun if you have to force yourself to eat the cookies.”

“I’ll be fine.” Alexa glared at Kelly. Oh, she was going to be a fun teenager.

Kelly sighed. The things kids did just to fit in. “All right. We can have the party on Friday.”

Kelly surfed the web for a regular sugar cookie recipe. Should she try baking these cookies herself and risk contamination? Or should she buy them at the store? Did stores even sell non-frosted sugar cookies? Maybe she could ask a neighbor to make these for her in exchange for fudge. Of course, she had been too busy making cookies to make any of her normal holiday goodies.

She paused her thoughts as she caught sight of a bolded important note on one recipe blog. Too much flour created dry, crumbly cookies. She sat back in her chair, thinking about all the extra flour she used whenever rolling out the cookies. That had to be the problem. Even when working with gluten-free flours, ratios between flour and liquid still held true.

But how could she form shapes with sticky dough? Kelly walked into the kitchen to try to get some inspiration. Cutting boards wouldn’t help. Maybe cooking spray would work, but would using so much affect the taste of the dough? And did she really want to put so much oil on her counters? Maybe if there was parchment paper underneath. Actually, if she used parchment paper, would she need the spray?

The next day, she rolled out the dough between two pieces of parchment paper without any extra flour. The dough was still sticky, but she found that it was easier to make the shapes than before, because she could transfer the entire paper with the shapes already on to the cookie sheet. Hence the snowmen no longer had misshapen hats, and the candy canes weren’t crooked.

The cookies didn’t disintegrate as she transferred them to the cooling rack. She took a bite, and it actually had good texture. A bit more crisp than she liked, but it did have a good chew.  A couple hours later, she tried another. It still tasted good, and it didn’t crumble when frosted! She looked up to heaven, saying silent prayers of thanks.

When Alexa got home, Kelly smiled triumphantly as she pushed forward a plate of frosted cookies. Alexa raised an eyebrow before selecting a candy cane cookie to sample. As she chewed, her eyes slowly grew round. “These are good. Did they all hold their shapes, or did you just give me the good ones?”

“They all held together.”

“Awesome. Do you think gluten eaters will like them too?”

“I think so, but let’s give some to Dad and Tristen and find out for sure.”

Tristen’s only comment after eating a cookie was “Not bad.” He then took a second cookie with him back to the sofa to watch TV.

Robert gave a thumbs up as he tried them. “Ok, I’ve got my dinner,” he said as he stacked several onto a plate for himself. “What are the rest of you having?”

“If that’s your dinner, then you need some broccoli frosting.”

“And ruin perfectly good cookies?”

“Then save them for dessert.”

On Friday, Kelly was mixing up different colors of frosting when Alexa arrived with her four friends. They eagerly helped open bags of candy and dug into the stacks of cookies that had cooled on the counter. Kelly kept sneaking glances at Alexa’s face as they talked about their holiday plans and what they wanted for Christmas. She had a big grin on her face, like there was something she was holding back.

Half an hour later, Alexa finished telling a dramatic story that left the girls giggling wildly. Alexa smiled and bit a stocking in half. Olivia looked up. “Wait, are you eating the same cookies as us?”

“Yeah,” Alexa said.

“Aren’t you going to get sick from the wheat?”

Alexa grinned and shook her head. “They’re all gluten-free.”

“Seriously?” Rachel said. “I didn’t think gluten-free cookies could taste this good.”

“I know,” Emma said. “You’ve been holding out on us, girl.”

Kelly smiled as the girls drifted on to other topics. She was glad that Alexa didn’t have to wait to have her party. She had good friends, and it was good to be able to partake in the same things they did for once. Kelly had felt no greater joy than when she had made something that Alexa enjoyed enough to share.

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