How one resourceful writer’s budget bake became a seasonal staple
On December 24th, 2013, my family returned from a city break in Budapest only to realise we’d been burgled. Our home had been meticulously combed for valuables, but the culprits had taken more than just jewellery: they’d well and truly stolen Christmas, too. The wine rack was empty; the contents of our kitchen – including eggs and flour – were gone, and under the tree were present-shaped holes in the fallen pine needles. Every time I looked at them, I was reminded of the chalk outline of a body at a crime scene. My bedroom had been left untouched (a running joke, six years later, is that the burglars took one look and assumed it had already been ransacked) but I’d still been robbed. Four jars of my home-made triple chocolate cookies were missing from the cupboard under the toaster – in other words, my entire supply of gifts that year.
It had started when I was a teenager: the trajectory of my life swung like a pendulum between working crappy service jobs (pub pot wash, office supplies saleswoman, waitress) and travelling (interrailing around Europe, backpacking through India, working in Greece). I lived with my parents, my income barely crept above minimum wage, yet I was increasingly aware of the expectation that I was old enough to do more than sign my name on a family Christmas card. My sister is one of those people who can always find the perfect, thoughtful present, so I admitted defeat, convinced myself that home-made Christmas presents were infinitely more meaningful (not to mention cheap), and embraced the DIY approach, turning to the queen of festive food for help. The cookies were a hit – even my mother, who has never had a sweet tooth, folded the corner of the page down in Nigella Express, saving the recipe for later. What’s more, I enjoyed their success. I took satisfaction in the alchemy of taking something ordinary and turning it into something beautiful – it’s the same process that draws me to writing and dressmaking – and it was uplifting to discover something I was good at even with limited resources.
I took full advantage of the cookies’ popularity, too, and have effectively repackaged the concept every year since. Each December without fail, my step-granny gives me a cookie jar to fill in anticipation of the 25th, and various members of my family get a cellophane bag, wrapped in newspaper and tied with ribbon. Two winters ago, I spent Christmas day with my best friend and 15 members of her family. How do you buy presents for that many people, some of whom you’ve only met once? Enter, cookies: I doubled the recipe and filled a five-litre biscuit tin. The year after, she put in a request – would I drop some off for her parents? Another time, I took a batch into the office for my colleagues, which didn’t last beyond 11am. Later that day, my editor slid cash across my desk, a shameless bribe. They’re addictive, and seem to have this effect on people.
The recipe, originally Nigella’s, has evolved a little over the years. She specifies 125g of dark chocolate – I prefer half dark, half milk – and if I have it, I chuck a teaspoon of cornstarch in to make them chewier. Creaming the butter and the sugars properly is essential (your butter must be as soft as possible before it tips into melting territory), and 15 minutes in the oven, not 18, will stop the edges overcooking. Alongside Lorraine Pascale’s chocolate mousse, they’re about the only crowd-pleaser I can whip up from memory. I don’t love cooking, which feels like a confession in an age of banana bread and sourdough, and my cookies come out a bit wonky (often) or a little burnt (occasionally). I’ve always resisted the idea that they’re decadent – I object to any language applied to food that serves to shame and limit us – but it’s a tough argument to win when the recipe includes three different types of chocolate and two types of sugar.
This year, I’ve gone full circle. I’m one of the 195,000 in the UK that lost my job because of Covid-19, and managed to pick up waitressing shifts in July in an attempt to maintain my last shred of sanity and future-proof my bank balance. It’s going to be a tough winter for everyone, whether lockdown 2.0 takes place or not, and while it would be inappropriate to suggest that a good cookie recipe can solve anyone’s problems, I for one will be seeking joy wherever I can: in the faces of those who appreciate a home-baked treat; in the process itself; and in the knowledge that I still make the best chocolate chip cookies in the world*.
*according to a completely unscientific poll of my friends and family
Want to make these cookies for yourself? Find the Nigella recipe here.
Has Anna's writing inspired you to DIY your own Christmas presents this year? We've put together a few Christmas gift recipes of our own! Find them here: