Holiday Cookies Redux


Viola’s mom, my daughter in-law Sunny, shows her how the decorating is done on the butter cookies

Hi. Barb here. I got a bit caught up this weekend with Christmas traditions–cookies, decorating and a party my husband’s paternal cousins hold on the Sunday nearest December 8th that has been attended by at least five generations of his family, four of which were present yesterday.

So I’m rerunning one of my favorite posts about the holidays–making cookies from the recipes handed down from my maternal grandmother’s mother. This activity had a special significance this year, the first year without my mom, and the first with Viola, my grandchild. I hope you enjoy it.


Hi. Barb here.


My grandmother, whim I called, “Ma,” with my son, Rob, in 1984, the year she made the recipe book.

A few years before she died, my grandmother gave me a notebook filled with her recipes. That was twenty-seven years ago, and today that book is beat-up, yellowing and stuffed with random pieces of paper containing additional recipes that I’ve copied over the years. It  is among my most precious possessions.

Ma'scookbookThe notebook provides a set of plastic sleeves for index cards that have the recipes written on them. I feel a little ping each time I see my grandmother’s distinctive handwriting. The book is divided into the usual categories, Appetizers, Soups, Salads, Vegetables, Meats, etc., and contains a hilarious collection of 1950s and 60s recipes that include every kind of Campbell’s soup imaginable, often in combination with mayonnaise, sour cream, heavy cream and/or cheese. Bonus points if you find a recipe that uses all five.

But at its heart, it’s a book about German cooking and the recipes that came to my grandmother from her mother’s mother—Sauerbraten, finger noodles, spaetzels, yellow turnip, red cabbage and the potato salad and coleslaw recipes I follow several times each summer.

butter cookiesAt the center of the book, the tab for beverages is lined out, and over it is written “Cookies.” These are the holiday cookies my grandmother made every Christmas season, as did my mother, and as have I since I’ve been married–or since I’ve had kids. Actually, I can’t remember when I started, but I know I’ve made these cookies for a very long time.


Rob and I make cookies in 1986

The butter cookies are the most work since they are rolled, cut and decorated. Sometimes they get overlooked on a plate with fancy multi-ingredient cookies and I feel like I need to defend them. But in the years when I get the ingredients just right, get the dough rolled thin enough (but not too thin!), keep the helpers from over-decorating and don’t over- or under-bake them (in other words, once every five years or so), they are the best cookies in the world—a mouthful of buttery deliciousness with just a tiny hint of lemon. And with ¾ of a pound of butter and five egg yolks per batch, they should be.

hazelnutwreathsThe other stars of the show are the hazelnut wreaths. They are also rolled, cut and decorated, but for reasons long lost, they are only cut as round wreaths and only decorated with one small piece of red pineapple and two slightly larger pieces of green pineapple forming a bow. Fussing with the sticky pineapple is a thankless job that my father did for my mother once us kids were grown, and my husband can occasionally be cajoled into doing for me. In the decades that I’ve made these cookies, I’ve been through boom times when hazelnuts were trendy and everywhere, and bust times when we had to search specialty stores high and low for “filberts.”


My daughter Kate and her cousins 1999

The cookie plate is completed with pecan puffs (everyone makes some form of these nut puffs or Russian tea balls, but I have it on good authority that mine are the best in the world). Also, what my grandmother calls Jewel Brooch cookies, but others call gems or stoplights, and chocolate-covered toffee squares. Sometime in the 1960s my mother got sick of throwing out all the egg whites generated in the baking and Marangoons—egg whites, coconut, chocolate chips, cornflakes and confectioners sugar got added to the mix. We call them trash cookies because they use up the leftovers, but they have their very dedicated partisans.


My sister-in-law Heather. I’ve usually had lots of help–some kids, nieces and nephews, sisters-, mothers- and recently my daughter-in-law

The cookies get made early in the season and are stored, layered in wax paper, in big cookie tins. There’s so much butter in them, there’s no chance they’ll get stale. They are taken to parties, sent to distant family members through the mail, given as gifts to colleagues and friends and served as dessert after holiday meals, when everyone is groaning that they cannot eat.  One. More. Thing. But then they do.

At least once a year I’m at a party and the spouse of a friend says, “Gee, you didn’t make cookies this year. What a shame.” Behind them I see their partner waving frantically and mouthing, “I ate them all! I never took them out of my car! Please don’t tell.”

barbcookiesI’m not a very domestic person. I barely cook and never bake, except fruit pies in the summer, and Christmas cookies once a year. But it’s important to me to keep that tie, to the past, and to the future.

Recipes for those who request them in the comments column.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at
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26 Responses to Holiday Cookies Redux

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Barb…this brought back so many memories. Since we were farmers without much money, my mother’s holiday gift to relatives was tins of homemade cookies. We made a zillion kinds of cookies every year, then carefully packed them and sent them away. Those packages also contained little glass terrariums my father, who had a green thumb, had made, and sometimes handstitched balsam pillows I sewed up on the old Singer.

    In a kind of chaos I could never handle, she would let each of us bring a friend home from school, and we’d all make cookies. She even had different stations set up, and the dough and decorations all ready. It was marvelous.

    These days, I rarely make cookies at all, but I still have my cherished cookie press, and imagine a year when I’ll stamp out little green wreaths and Chrismas trees, little chocolate butter camels, and butter cookie stars decorated with little silver balls. And I miss shaking out those red and green colored sugars.

  2. Vicki Doudera says:

    So fun to read about your traditions! we make many versions of the cookies you mentioned… but the one that I do year after year are pizzelle, Italian waffle type cookies. I use my grandfather’s pizzelle maker, put on a cheesy Hallmark movie, and make stacks and stacks. Buon Natale tutti!

  3. Ramona says:

    Barb, I love those wreaths! Kudos for doing the pineapple decor. And those butter cookies….well, it’s butter. ‘Nuf said.

    This brings back memories. My grandmother used to make coconut pralines, boiling sugar and nuts and coconut in an iron pot. She’d line her kitchen counters with brown paper bags and drop the mixture by spoonfuls to cool. The smell was DI-VINE. She never recorded the recipe so it went the grave with her.

  4. Sandra says:

    I must admit that nowadays I don’t make cookies often; family is too far way (in too many directions) to try to carry or ship them, and if I made them for myself (or even the office) I’d eat far too many myself. But anything with hazelnuts is worth looking into!

  5. Oh, Barbara – these sound lovely! I want the recipes, please!

    I always make thin ginger cookies with lemon icing for Xmas and mandelbrot for Hanukah (they’re like a soft biscotti with nuts, chocolate chips, and maraschino cherries, twice toasted with cinnamon sugar).

  6. Barb Ross says:

    Oh you guys! Pizzelle, pralines, butter cookies through a press. Hallie those mandelroot cookies sound amazing.

    So many traditions, such a strong common thread.

  7. Brenda Buchanan says:

    When we lived on Peaks we made hundreds of holiday cookies every year. We probably delivered 20 full tins to various island neighbors. More tins crossed the bay with us for our workplace cookie swaps.

    Four years ago we moved to the mainland and while we have built cookie-worthy bonds with several of our new neighbors, we don’t deliver anywhere near as many tins in the days leading up to Christmas. On the office front, the swap rules have been modified — everyone puts two dozen on the table, not five fill tins.

    So we still make cookies, but fewer now. We always do cookie press cookies, and Russian tea cakes, but my favorite are chocolate chocolate chip with smashed up candycanes baked in. Festive and yummy!

    Lovely post, Barb. I’d love your recipes, too.


  8. I loved this post and the pictures, Barb.

    I’m also a big cookie maker. English Butter cookies rolled and decorated with red and green sugars. Spritz butter cookies made with my mother’s press. Mexican bridecakes. Gingerbread people. Red-and-green spiral logs that I slice into cookies. It wouldn’t be Christmas without all these. And I’m glad I still have two weekends left before Christmas!

    Last weekend I asked my two little under-six friends over (sans parents) to help decorate the house and make cookies. Oh, my, how could I have forgotten how tricky it is to manage rolling and pouring on sugars with a two year old and a five year old? But we had lots of fun. I can hardly believe that my 22 year-old son is staying in Puerto Rico for the holidays and my 25 year-old son isn’t coming home until the 25th. It’s going to be a solo baking season.

  9. Bailey Childers says:

    Do you have a favorite recipe you’d recommend to a baking novice? I have a cookie baking party to go to on Sunday and would love to try one of yours!


  10. Barb Ross says:

    Hi Bailey

    Try these. They’re really easy.

    Pecan puffs

    1/2 lb soft butter
    4 tablespoons sugar
    2 cups flour
    2 teaspoons vanilla
    2 cups broken pecans (I crush them in the Cuisinart, but my grandmother did with a rolling pin.)

    Dough is stiff. Put in refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours (or more if you’re fixing the dough before you go to the party).
    Roll into small balls (instructions say smaller than a walnut)
    Bake at 300 degrees for 30-40 minutes
    Take off pan and roll in confectioners sugar.

    Good luck!

  11. When I found my mother’s old recipe file I was surprised at the number of recipes that she had stopped making over the years–she gave up cooking and I can hardly blame her, since I don’t cook very much anymore. But she was a wonderful cook and the holidays seem to be the time to pull out the old recipes–hers, my grandmother’s, and my mother-in-law’s–and just have fun with them. I try to keep December open enough to have time to do these things. Thanks for the post, Barb.

  12. Yum, yum. Just reading this post was enough to add several pounds!
    Seasons Greetings, indeed.

  13. Marilyn says:

    Beautiful piece. Made me a bit misty. You do make the best Christmas cookies in the world!! I covet each and every one.

  14. MCWriTers says:

    Here’s Hallie’s recipe for you all:

    Mandelbrot (Thanks to Bertha Mandel, my one-time Milton neighbor, for this lovely recipe)
    (Twice-baked Hanukah cookies, like biscotti made with oil instead of butter, and so easy to make)
    Hallie Ephron

    2 eggs
    3/4 c sugar
    1 heaping T marmalade
    1 c oil
    3 1/2 c flour
    3 oz chocolate chips
    1 tsp vanilla
    1 tsp baking powder
    1 tsp baking soda
    1 c raisins
    1 c nuts
    1 small bottle of drained maraschino cherries
    Greased cookie sheet

    Preheat oven to 350
    Grease a cookie sheet (or two)

    1. Beat the eggs
    2. Add oil, sugar, marmalade, vanilla and mix together
    3. Add raisins, nuts, chocolate chips, cherries and mix together
    4. Add the soda and baking powder to the flour
    5. Gradually mix the other already mixed (steps 1-3) ingredients into the flour
    6. Shape the dough into three mounded rows on a greased cookie sheet
    7 Bake at 350 for 25 minutes
    8. Cool and cut diagonally with a sharp knife.
    9. Put each piece on a cut side and sprinkle it with cinnamon-sugar
    10. Bake for another 10 minutes

    Cool. Save in a covered container.
    These are wonderful briefly warmed in the oven cinnamon side up before serving.

  15. Barb Ross says:

    Thanks everybody. I will definitely try the mandelbrot. I’ll send my recipes out via e-mail.

    Happy Holidays!

  16. Jill Vassilakos-Long says:

    These sound wonderful. We had a series of cookie exchanges last year so that we could all try new recipes and share them. Many of them were very good, but our family recipes are my favorites. This is my favorite:
    Yia-Yia’s Kourambiethes (Grandma’s Kourambiethes)

    2 c. unsalted butter, softened
    ¾ c. confectioner’s sugar
    1 lg. egg yolk
    2 Tbsp Metaxa Brandy
    ½ tsp. almond extract
    4 c. flour

    Confectioner’s sugar for the outside of the cookies.

    Beat together butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. Then beat in the egg yolk, brandy, almond extract, and 2 cups of the flour. Beat in the rest of the flour ½ cup at a time with a wooden spoon. Refrigerate the dough overnight.

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

    Form the dough into 1 in. balls and set them on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 18-20 minutes. Roll in powdered sugar while warm, then roll in powdered sugar again after they are cooled.

    Could you please send me yours?

  17. Pat Jones says:

    Thanks so much for the cookie receipes. I look forward to trying them. The only holiday cooking I do is to make fruitcakes. I got the receipe from my aunt, who got it from her aunt. I have loved the fact that this came on the diagonal, instead of straight down from mother to daughter to daughter.

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  19. Gram says:

    I’d love the recipes. Thanks

  20. Ruth Nixon says:

    I’m 79 so don’t bake much anymore but DIL does lots of baking. My sons were lucky, my mom was a pastry baker and cake maker and my mother in law from Scotland baked the best cookies but the worst pies and cakes so my sons had the best of two worlds.,

  21. Cynthia Blain says:

    I loved the trip down memory lane in your blog. And I would really enjoy some recipes if you can send some along. Thanks so much.

  22. Lil Gluckstern says:

    One of the joys for me at Christmas was indulging in the great cookies. My daughter’s mother-in-law made these great bourbon balls which were…Well, never mind. I love butter cookies, and all the iterations of pecan cookies. You reminded me of good times. I really can’t eat like that anymore, but I can revisit the taste in my head. Thank you for this.

  23. Barb Ross says:

    Thanks, everyone. Will send out the recipes soon!

  24. Thank you, Barb, for reprising this touching story of why Christmas cookies and traditions mean so much to us. I love you post and all the comments, too. What a treat to wake up on a snowy morning and find this in my in-box.

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