What started as a benign holiday tradition involving a few high school girl friends has now turned into more of a deranged personal obsession. For every one of the past 15 years, with the exception of the fall I lived in Spain, I’ve hosted a “Christmas” cookie making and decorating party—pretty much anything you (or a perverse college kid) can think of, I’ve seen it in cookie form. The tradition might have died peacefully in my freshman college dorm room that first December away from home, but I had already realized that in college, there are two simple means through which to make new friends: alcohol or food. Much to my grandmother’s confusion (“but what do you do at parties?”), I chose the latter.
And so it was one chilly Chicago day, that I found myself hurrying down a smoke-filled stairwell with a few hundred of my suddenly not-so-biggest fans. Whose idea was it anyway to put thick odor-blocking double doors between the kitchen where I was throwing cookies in the oven and the suite where people were decorating them? Later college cookie parties were more successful, which is to say, I don’t remember setting off any more fire alarms. After I graduated, it was only logical to bring the cookie-making to my new math teaching job at a boarding school, especially in my official capacity as faculty advisor to the new “cultural cuisine club” (college counseling took issue with “baking club” as an extracurricular activity). Now, five years of 30+ person, grad school cookie parties later, I knew that, even if my friends would just be humoring the crazy gringa, the tradition had to be brought to Sao Paulo.
This proved to be a little more difficult than I had anticipated. Thanks to a little help from
the internet, the challenge was not in the sugar or gingerbread dough itself; the only slightly unusual ingredients required were molasses and cloves, and I found molasses at Pão de Açucar and skipped the cloves because, well, I forgot to look for them. Powdered sugar is readily available, and it wasn’t difficult to find decorative sugars or sprinkles. Although sprinkles are sold at Pão de Açucar and bigger grocery stores, I bought them at a party store on Rua Augusta because it had lured me in with its muffin and bread pans. Sadly, I was rudely awakened from my double chocolate banana bread reverie by the realization that I would have exactly 3 days left in Sao Paulo to enjoy my new bread pans (next time, I’m bringing my own!) so I bought some pretty colored sugars as a consolation purchase.
No, there was something far more fundamental to a good cookie party that was posing a problem here. Somehow in my meticulous planning, I had never even thought to pack cookie cutters, and they proved to be harder to find than I might have supposed. The consensus among my friends and salespeople alike was that 25 de março is the only place to go for cookie cutters. Enlisting the aid of Maisa, we walked down the packed streets of shoppers, popping in and out of the many kitchen stores to no avail. Finally, after being directed to a specific shop, I instead ran into the “Rei dos cortadores” himself, the cookie cutter stand I had been half-heartedly hoping to find. Some papel manteiga (essentially parchment paper) and paper cups later and we were in business!
Probably thinking he was taking part of a time-honored tradition, one of my attendees asked if all Americans make cookies together on this particular date in December. I had to allow that, while other Americans certainly make Christmas cookies, most don’t guilt their friends into doing it with them yearly. Perhaps then, when Bruna decided to set up a competition between Tammy and me, to see who could answer the most questions about Brazil, it was a just reward for my bullying. My questions were, of course, significantly easier than Tammy’s so I’m doubly embarrassed to admit to Stela that I received a red granular icing “pie” (I see what the cookie blogger was saying about the união brand of powdered sugar’s texture) in the face for not knowing the number of states in Brazil. Tammy and I both decided we’d had enough of that game not long after.
Although it was stressful, in some ways having the cookie party on my last night in town was ideal. Running around offering people “sugar or gingerbread” was a good distraction from the fact that I was leaving Brazil the next day without a return ticket. It also took away any immediate opportunity for reflection that these people who I had met less than three months earlier were including me in their group, reminiscing with me, and now adding their own special touches to one of my personal traditions. Still, when I sat down for a moment between trips to the oven, I felt grateful to have somehow stumbled onto it all.