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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Christmas Cookies I Have Known

One of the fabulous pages from Betty Crocker's 1963
"Cooky Book" showing Candy Cane, Thumbprint
and Merry Maker Cookies.
When the holidays come, there are few things that I enjoy more than being in the kitchen.  In fact, just between you and me, I think I like being in the kitchen even more than I like being at the party itself!  The kitchen is my bailiwick.  I am in almost complete control and love listening to the merry voices of my family chattering in the next room.

Don’t get me wrong, I am hardly anti-social and I love spending time with my large brood, but I also find special pleasure in hearing them laughing and joking and talking among themselves.  As a parent, knowing that they get along and enjoy each others company quite apart from my wife and I seems like an achievement, and one that I take great satisfaction in.  But let’s get back to what I started with…  The kitchen!  Even better, the kitchen in the midst of holiday baking!

“Holiday time” has a rather loose definition in our house.  For most of you this probably describes the period just before Thanksgiving and running to the New Year.  I’m apt to start it all a little earlier – October being a reasonable time to kick off the festive season in my mind.  It’s true, Perry Como and Bing Crosby start to fill the air in my car and in my house sometime just before Halloween.  Not exclusively, of course, but enough to give that faint whiff of the excitement to come.

This is also the time I start to think about holiday food.  Thanksgiving, being Thanksgiving, doesn’t give one the widest latitude when it comes to culinary experimentation, and I like it that way.  A wise woman once said, “Don’t mess with Thanksgiving!”.  Christmas, however, is another matter entirely.  Will we have a Christmas party?  Will we host Christmas Day dinner?  What will we do for New Year’s? 

We’ve had every kind of Christmas menu.  We’ve been terribly traditional with Roast Beef and all of the expected accompaniments.  We’ve considered Chinese a la the Christmas dinner scene in the much-loved “A Christmas Story”.  We’ve pretended that it was Easter with ham and scalloped potatoes.  And we’ve had a Mexican feast complete with enchiladas and tamales.  This year, it looks like a Scandinavian extravaganza is planned.  Can you say frikadeller?  Don’t worry, I can’t either.

While we pretend that New Year’s Eve might mean something new and exciting from the kitchen, in truth, we would be lost without a giant takeout feast from our favorite Chinese restaurant and, thought we can stay up until all hours any other night of the year, sleep by 11:30!

The real planning comes when the holiday baking is considered.  That, to me, is the essence of the season.  The desserts for Thanksgiving and Christmas; the cookies; the candy.  THIS is where my true passion lies. 

I am amazed that, even with a large collection of cookbooks and holiday magazine special editions, there are still more and different things to try each and every year.  With cookies alone one would think that the ideas would run out, at least the good ones.  But it seems safe to say that as long as there are holidays, there will be clever cooks finding new ways to combine butter, sugar and flour.  The challenge is that one can only make so many kinds of cookies…  Right?  Wrong.

In our family there are some “sacred” cookies.  If these are not made, we might as well just cancel Christmas.  In many cases, they’ll be made several times as the supply dwindles.

  • Candy Cane Cookies – Why they are flavored with almond extract and not peppermint, I don’t know.  But they’ve been my favorite since childhood.  My favorite to eat that is.  I could never understand why my mom grew tired of carefully intertwining the strips of red and white dough and bending the resulting “stick” into the perfect cane.  I understand now.  And, of course, my kids love them as much as I do.  And I hate making them as much as my mom did.  Oh, the sacrifices we make for our children!
  • Mary’s Mother’s Snowballs – These came from a Susan Branch Christmas book years ago and they are an absolute must.  While I think of them as a Christmas cookie, they end up in the oven in mid-October.  The first of many, many batches.  They are the simplest cookie ever – a dough of butter, sugar and flour wrapped around a Hershey’s milk chocolate kiss.  The biggest drawback?  The uncooked dough is SO good.
  • Chocolate Waffle Cookies – These are most assuredly a year-round cookie but, at Christmastime, they can REALLY shine!  There are tricks to making this cookie just right, though.  Too long on the waffle iron and they can be dry.  Not enough time on the waffle iron…  Actually, I’ve never had that problem.  These yummy morsels are best when they are slightly underdone and frosted with red or green peppermint icing.  One really can’t make enough of these.  And, like Mary’s Mother’s Snowballs, the dough is, perhaps, even better than the finished product!
  • Thumbprint Cookies - There are countless recipes for the ubiquitous thumbprint.  My favorite comes from the 1963 Betty Crocker Cookie Book (a.k.a., the BEST cookie book EVER).  It’s made with butter, brown sugar, egg yolks and rolled in either walnuts or pecans.  Growing up, these were always filled with homemade raspberry or blackberry jam.  I still use raspberry or blackberry jam, but rarely have the forethought to make my own at the end of the summer.
  • Russian Tea Cakes/Mexican Wedding Cakes – Do Russians really eat these with tea?  Do Mexicans really use these as wedding cakes?  Regardless of the answers, these buttery cookies just TASTE like Christmas.  Rich and dense and rolled in powdered sugar, they are two-bite cookies and can be made with nuts (Russian Tea Cakes) or without (Mexican Wedding Cakes)…  Or is it the other way around?  Oh well, this is another recipe from Betty’s superlative book.
  • Ethel’s, or Mary’s, Sugar Cookies – I don’t know who Ethel was.  I don’t even know who Mary was.  But, whoever they were, they each made a fine sugar cookie!  Betty Crocker liked these dames enough to include both of their recipes in her magnum opus “Cooky Book”.  One is made with granulated sugar, the other with powdered.  And, rolled, cut and frosted, they are classics.  They are perfect at any holiday – pumpkins for Halloween, turkeys or Pilgrim’s hats for Thanksgiving, poles for Festivus – and Christmas is no exception.  This is another one of those dough-as-good-as-the-cookie recipes and, as a child, I can remember many a post-cookie baking stomach ache as a result of enjoying too many of the scraps when my mother turned her back!
  • Mocha Nut Butter Balls – Growing up, I always thought that these were very elegant cookies.  Perhaps it was the addition of coffee powder and finely chopped almonds to the chocolaty dough.  I always remember that these were carefully stacked between layers of waxed paper in an ancient English biscuit tin.  I loved putting them out, with the jam-filled thumbprints and the red and green tinted Spritz cookies, on the three-tiered cut glass cookie stand that had to be screwed together.  It felt like a terribly important job, always done on Christmas morning in preparation for “company”.
  • Toffee Squares – This is a perfect cookie to make after all of those “the dough is so good raw” cookies.  The dough for these is just meh…  But once they are baked and topped with chocolate and almonds?  Oh my!  Word to the wise and diet conscious:  tuck these safely away for the night.  If you happen to be the littlest bit lazy and leave a pan of them out on the counter, you will find that you need to get up for some reason or other throughout the night and will find yourself, butter knife in hand, cutting tiny squares of this delicious candy-like cookie.  They are also great fun to make.  After spreading the buttery, brown-sugary dough in a pan and baking, you get to top the hot cookie with big squares of Hershey’s chocolate bars.  After a few minutes, the perfect rectangles will have melted sufficiently enough to smooth over the entire surface, which will then be sprinkled with toasted, chopped almonds.
  • Spritz Cookies – You might as well save the best for last and Spritz cookies really are the best.  I have two circa 1940’s cookie presses and I love them as much for their charming packaging as for their reliability.  Today’s cookie presses – all hard plastic – have nothing at all on the aluminum wonders of days gone by.  They come with several perforated disks that fit into the top of the press, each one creating a different shape.  There are four-petaled flowers, six-petaled flowers, trees, wreaths, clovers, zig-zags…  The disks themselves are such fun to look at!  The best shapes, in my estimation, are the trees and the wreaths.  If one wants to do things perfectly properly, the buttery Spritz dough should be flavored with both vanilla AND almond extracts.  Additionally, the trees should be a pleasing green shade and the wreaths a rather shocking pink.  Why, you ask?  Because that’s how my mom and my Aunt Laurie make them and therefore, that is how they are made.  I should come clean.  I don’t make Spritz cookies.  I leave that to the aforementioned mother and aunt.  And each year, if I am really good, I am rewarded with a large back of these cookies that I hoard like nobody’s business!  There’s a proper way to each Spritz, too.  The wreaths are eaten one segment at a time, the trees, one layer of “branches” at a time.  Done properly, not only can you savor each cookie and make them last…  until around Valentine’s Day.

You might ask HOW after making ALL of these cookies, one could possibly see the need in making more.  Of course, that would be a silly and impertinent question and you would never ask it.  After all, “need” is in the eye of the baker and the lucky recipient of tins and baskets of Christmas cookies.  And, we haven’t even covered Linzer Cookies or Shortbread or Cashew Butter Sandwich Cookies or Salted Peanut Crisps or Cream Wafers or Merrymake Cookies or…  Well, surely you get the picture!

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