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.
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.
The 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.
At 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.
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.
The 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.”
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.
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.”
I’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.