Secret Ingredients

I am perhaps one of the few people on the planet who still has a recipe box. In fact, I have three: my mothers’, a metal multicolored 1950’s affair; a yellow, plastic one that I had to put together for 8th grade home economics, filled with recipes for sweets and white food, not a vegetable dish to be found; and my own recipe box, blond wood, vaguely Scandinavian in design, the only one I open with any regularity. I do have an online recipe organizer app, but I haven’t transferred any paper recipes there, meaning that my recipe box is essential rather obsolete. In fact, it is a treasure box, containing the gold of my mother’s Christmas cookie dough recipe.  

Truly, this cookie dough recipe is the best, not complicated in any way, though it has a few secret ingredients that my son says makes it “taste like Christmas.” He asks for it every year. We keep it wrapped in the fridge, sometimes with an eye to actually rolling it out and making cut-out cookies to decorate, but mostly we just slice off a piece and enjoy it raw, salmonella be damned. Unfortunately, the last two years were jampacked leading up to Christmas travel and I never got around to the dough. Not so this year, that’s for sure. My oldest son was coming to dinner this week, so I decided to surprise him with dough made and perfectly chilled for slicing. 

But where was the recipe? Once through the recipe box. No cookie dough. The second time I landed on the “drunken meatball” recipe, a staple at my parents’ Christmas parties, but still no cookie dough. With rising panic, I spread the box’s contents on the kitchen table. If it wasn’t there, it was gone. My mother died nearly four years ago, so there was no chance to call and ask for it again. Nor did I have any idea of the original source. On the third time through, I found it. Misfiled. With relief, I vowed to get those recipes in the cloud and busied myself laying out the ingredients for the delicious dough.

My mother used her cursive Smith-Corona typewriter to type up her recipes or wrote them out in an impeccable hand, always with detailed instructions. The cookie dough recipe was typed, with the ingredients listed along with guidelines and directions. It includes suggested cookie cutter shapes, decorations to add, and methods of storage. Wrap in wax paper, put in a plastic bag, and secure with a twist tie–Mom was big on directions. Each recipe was dated, attributed if it came from someone else, and signed like a letter. The cookie dough recipe ends with Love, Mom before a critical P.S. on baking times. It is dated December, 1988. That must have been the year I started throwing my own Christmas parties which prompted her to send this one along. Years later, when answering machines came into vogue, she ended her messages the same way: Love, Mom. I found her habits a little silly, but this year her closing message hit differently, and I was grateful to hear from her. 

My son was delighted when I told him to look in the refrigerator. My younger son, on a health kick at the moment, agonized for a few seconds, and then all three of us enjoyed a slice of dough as my husband looked on slightly aghast. Raw cookie dough is not his thing. Then my eldest asked, “Could you come to my apartment and help me? I have to wrap presents and I don’t know how.” 

A memory flashed through my head of my mother teaching me to wrap presents–the light in our house, the scissors, and the paper, a bag of bows and ribbons to choose from. I don’t remember what we talked about or who we were wrapping the presents for, only the feeling of being guided in a holiday task I do every year, sometimes just plowing through and checking “present wrapping” off the list, other times taking pleasure in getting the gift looking just right. 

I don’t remember many of the physical Christmas gifts my mother gave me over the years and I don’t know what gifts my own children will recall. For me, what remains is the cookie dough, the annual mother-daughter Christmas lunch at a long-gone San Antonio landmark called Scrivener’s, advice for throwing the holiday party, favorite carols, her opinions about ornament placement on the tree (the star goes on last). And maybe it’s laziness, but I’m not sure I want to exit my recipe boxes and the paper they contain to move into the 21st century cloud version. Though stained and easy to misplace, they are infused with memories and messages, maybe the true secret ingredients that make things “taste like Christmas.” 


  1. This is so lovely! I also have those cherished hand written recipes from my mother in law and her mother. Spoonflower ( in RTP) has a template to help you transfer those beloved recipes to tea towel fabric to share with your children.

  2. I love this, I too have containers of recipes, even a book that prompts one to write out their favorites. Its the hunting for that one recipe in piles of paper that makes the end result so special. Thank you for sharing this!

Leave a Reply