WHAT’S CHRISTMAS WITHOUT COOKIES? Asks the Cookie Lady
What’s Christmas without cookies ? Christmas cookies to share with family, friends, and coworkers—perhaps some cookies for the mailman (now we have a mail lady). I also give cookies to my manicurist. Each of my sons receives a tin of his very own cookies—chocolate chip, no “ingredients” (ingredients are nuts, raisins, coconut or any of those other yucky things that I love so much. When my sons were children, they took containers of cookies to their teachers.
A few years ago, I bought Disney-theme cookie jars and filled them with different kinds of cookies. Along with my sons and their families, one of the cookie jars went to my younger sister and her family, who also live in California. Other cookies are wrapped in baskets or tins—or whatever suitable containers I find (I search for cookie containers throughout the year. Some of our best bargains have been containers bought at Target, after the holidays, for 90% off).
When I got married in 1958, I had one Betty Crocker cookbook and a boxful of recipe pamphlets. That Christmas, General Mills published a small booklet called “Betty Crocker’s Holiday Almanac” – I kept it, and began saving the Christmas recipe sections in my December magazines; Woman’s Day always published a tear-out cookie/candy recipe section—the earliest I have was published in1962. These are in 3-ring binders that have somehow grown to 5 thick binders, just with cookie recipes.
What I had, in 1958, was a start – enough recipes to bake some cookies and a few batches of fudge. When we moved to California in 1961 we had little more than a car-trunk full of clothing and the baby’s bed—but I somehow managed to do some holiday baking.
In 1963 – after moving back to Ohio in March, returning to California in December-We didn’t even have furniture (much less a tree)…but I baked cookies; we invited friends over and everyone sat on the floor drinking coffee and eating Christmas cookies.
From these austere beginnings, my holiday cookie baking grew until it began to reach mammoth proportions. In the mid 60s, a girlfriend and I began making cookie dough in September, and freezing the batches. When we thought we had a goodly amount of cookie dough (I think about ten or twelve batches each) we’d embark on a cookie-baking-marathon. We did our baking late at night at her house, around the corner from me, because her husband worked nights and it was the only time I could get out of the house—when all four of my children were asleep. When we finished, we had filled all of our Tupperware containers and anything else we could find to use for storage. We’d divvy up the cookies, giving burnt ones to our husbands and children to eat and were ready to pack our own cookies into smaller containers for gift-giving.
We were purists, in those days—everything was made from scratch, with real butter and only the best of all ingredients—no imitation vanilla for us! I think there was one frightful year (1975?) when sugar was $5.00 for a 5-lb bag and we had to search for cookie recipes using honey or molasses.
In the 80s, along came cookie exchanges—frankly, these don’t always work out the way you’d like; someone always shows up with store-bought cookies (“I didn’t have time to bake”) or cookies with burned bottoms that no one wants. In theory or in the women’s magazines, cookie exchanges are always fantastic. Take it from me; it doesn’t always happen. You can tell people repeatedly that it’s a Christmas cookie exchange and you want them to make Christmas cookies and you can bet that over half of the contributions will be ordinary (non-Christmas) cookies. In my women’s magazines, cookie exchanges are always so extraordinary – maybe the secret would be to tell everyone that a magazine journalist and photographer will be at the exchange, in order to assure everyone bringing Christmas cookies.
In the 90s, along came grandchildren and my niece and two nephews, children of my younger sister who herself is young enough to be one of my children (I was 21 when she was born). The arrival of these children opened new vistas for cookie baking. We have baked cookies (children love to make cut-out cookies) which are wildly decorated with sprinkles (children believe that more is better). We also began a new family tradition of having a cookie-and-craft day sometime before Christmas, but also for Valentine’s Day and Easter. I make large (holiday appropriate) cookies for them to decorate and we do some kind of craft project that “goes with” the cookie—for instance, when they decorated big tree-shaped cookies, they also decorated small artificial Christmas trees to take home). This has turned into a big event not only for my grandchildren and my sister’s children, but also for my godson, and some of my friends’ children. (The big cookie idea actually has its roots back when my two younger sons were in first and second grades, and I would make enough large cookies—and plenty of frosting—for all the children in their classes to decorate a cookie to take home).
Nowadays, I admit—I’ve learned a lot of short-cuts, such as making cookies from cake mixes. There are entire cookbooks dedicated to teaching you how to bake wonderful tasty cookies from a cake mix! And in recent years (I am confessing this publicly) I have been stocking up on refrigerated sugar cookie dough and using it for our cut-out cookies.
What you have to do, though, is let the cookie dough come to room temperature, mix in as much flour as possible (usually about half a cup or more to one package of refrigerated cookie dough) – mix in it until it’s blended, then shape into several balls and re-refrigerate the dough until its very firm. I usually work with 2-3 packages of refrigerated cookie dough at a time, Adding flour and sometimes something like a little nutmeg, then reshaping it into balls and putting it back into the refrigerator to firm up. Normally, those refrigerated cookie dough cookies spread too much and lose their shape–the added flour will prevent that from happening. Last year my grandson’s school was selling Masterpiece cookie dough for a fundraiser – my goodness! That sugar cookie dough of theirs was excellent.
There was a time I would have turned my nose up at pre-made cookie dough but if you work with it enough, you can still make really good cut out cookies.
And here’s a tip: You can take sugar cookie dough and turn out dozens of different cookies with it–all you need is some imagination and a lot of sprinkles, jimmies, chopped walnuts or pecans and melted chocolate.
I still search all year long for sales on tins and other containers, for sprinkles and jimmies when they are on sale after a holiday, or for cookie cutters on sale half price after Christmas.
And even though I have retired, former coworkers know they can expect to receive a tin of cookies from me. I also take large containers of cookies to the Claims Department, where I worked. My friend Tina says that whenever she takes some cookies home, her husband asks, “Are these from the cookie lady?” It’s a good title. I think I’ll keep it.
You can mix and freeze most batches of cookie dough so it’s never too early to get a head start, but before I begin mixing, I always have to go through my cookie files and decide what I’ll make this year. Some recipes are a given; two of my sons want only chocolate chip cookies, no nuts, no other “weird” ingredients (their description, not mine. “Weird” would be something like chocolate-covered raisins). Close friends put in their favorite requests, such as Crispy Little Lemon Wafers or Mexican Wedding Cakes. Bob likes Springerle; it reminds him of his childhood. A few years ago, I found a beautiful large Springerle board at store in Santa Barbara—and it was on sale! A lot of people don’t like Springerle, which has Anise seeds and extract in it. The finished product is a hard dry cookie, good for dunking. I, on the other hand, am very partial to those paper-thin Monrovian spice cookies that I can never get thin enough with my rolling pin.
I make a lot of sugar cut-out cookies and this is a good project to do with grandchildren. One year in the 1960s, I left butter cutout cookies, all freshly decorated, drying on every available surface in the kitchen and dining room. When we got up the next morning, we found our 5 year old son had eaten the icing off every single cookie. (He doesn’t like to be reminded of this).
I have to make a batch of diamond-shaped butter cookies encrusted with finely chopped walnuts and sugar; my paternal grandmother always made these and the cookie cutter I use to make them was hers.
We make lots of cookies throughout the year and you can generally find the cookie jar in the kitchen filled to the top, but Christmas is the time to make special cookies, the ones you don’t make any old time…like Spritz, and chocolate pinwheels, candy canes and gingerbread boys.
Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. In the 1940s and 50s, when I was growing up, there was very little money. We recycled gift wrap and ribbon, ironing out the wrinkles. We made our own gift tags with stickers that didn’t stick on anything else. Once a year, I took my two younger brothers shopping in downtown Cincinnati. We rode the bus there, and visited all the department store Santas to get free candy canes, then did all of our shopping at the 5&10 cent stores. Somehow we managed to buy presents for everyone in the family with our meager savings.
My mother didn’t shop for a tree until Christmas Eve day, when she could get it half-price. We never saw the tree until it was decorated, with presents piled all around. We were generally kept out of the house, visiting my grandmother, until my father came to pick us up. Somehow we always got there just after Santa Claus left – “Hurry, if you look out in the back you might catch a glimpse!”
Christmas was celebrated Christmas Eve and we have carried on the tradition. I tell the grandkids when they arrive, “You just missed Santa! If you look out the back door, maybe you can catch a glimpse of him!”
For those of you who want to start creating your own holiday traditions, cookies are a good way to start. You don’t have to buy a lot of cookbooks (although I do have a lot of cookie cookbooks) – nor do you have to go and buy all the November/December women’s magazines featuring cookie recipes (although these are inspiring and great to collect in a 3-ring binder) – you can find all the recipes anyone could possibly ever dream about right on the internet. One of my favorite websites is http://www.allrecipes.com but I promise you, there are many others.
But if you can’t stand the thought of using refrigerated cookie dough, here is an old tried-and-true favorite cookie dough that I have been making for decades (before the refrigerated stuff came along):
WHITE CHRISTMAS COOKIES
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, well beaten
4 cups all purpose flour-sifted
1/8 tsp each nutmeg & cinnamon
Cream butter, gradually add sugar; beat with electric mixer until light and
Fluffy. Beat in eggs. Sift together dry ingredients and stir into creamed
Mixture. Store overnight in covered container. Roll dough very thin (I
Roll it out between 2 sheets of wax paper). Cut into shapes. Bake at 350
Degrees 1-13 minutes. Makes 16 dozen small cookies.
*I always use parchment paper on the cookie sheets; this eliminates ever
needing to butter the cookie sheets. Always cool cookies on wire racks.
When completely cool, they can be stacked in plastic storage containers.
EASY TOFFEE CRACKER BARS
Easy bars with graham crackers, pecans, and other ingredients. Technically speaking, I wouldn’t call this a cookie – it’s more of a confection. But these are wildly popular with everyone.
• 20 graham crackers (individual squares), regular or chocolate
• 1 1/2 sticks butter (6 ounces)
• 3/4 cup brown sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1/2 cup chopped pecans
Line a jelly roll pan (10×15-inch) with foil; arrange graham crackers in the pan in a single layer. Combine butter and sugar in a heavy medium saucepan; bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Boil for 2 minutes; stir in vanilla and chopped pecans. Pour the hot mixture over crackers and spread evenly. Bake 10 minutes at 350°. Remove at once from pan to flat surface to cool. When cool, break into smaller pieces.
CLUB CRACK BARS
1 box club crackers
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup cream or condensed milk
1 cup crushed graham crackers
1 cup coconut
1/2 cup nuts, chopped
1/4 tsp salt
Line a 13×9 inch pan with whole club crackers. Mix remaining ingredients together. Bring to a boil stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until thick. Pour over club crackers. Top with more whole crackers.
5 tbsp butter
1/2 cup milk or cream
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
Mix ingredients together. Beat well. Frost the crackers. Cut into squares.
ORANGE SLICE SQUARES
¼ cup milk
1 pound light brown sugar
2 cups flour
1 ½ cups candied orange slices, chopped
1 cup chopped pecans
Beat eggs, add milk and brown sugar and beat well. Sift flour and add to mixture reserving enough flour to mix with chopped orange slices and pecans. Fold into mixture. Pour batter onto a 15x10x1” well greased cookie sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool. Spread icing evening on top. Cut into squares.
1 tbsp butter, softened
3 tbsp evaporated milk
1 tbsp orange rind
2 cups powdered sugar
Combine all ingredients thoroughly.
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
3 TBSP water
2 TBSP canola oil
4 tsp lemon zest
½ tsp lemon extract
½ cup confectioners sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
yellow sugar (optional)
Preheat oven 375 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray. Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt in a bowl. With an electric mixer on high speed, beat the granulated sugar, egg, water, oil, lemon zest and lemon extract until blended. On low speed, add the flour mixture, beating just until combined.
Place dough in 2 (12”) logs, 3” apart on the sheet. Bake until golden, 20 minutes. Cool the logs on the sheet for 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board. Cut each log crosswise into ½” slices. Arrange slices in a single layer on the sheet and bake until lightly browned, 15-18 minutes. Cool on a rack.
For the icing, whisk confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice until smooth. Drizzle on the biscotti; sprinkle at once with yellow sugar (if using). Let stand until icing hardens, about 2 hours.
This last recipe is for the Christmas tree cookies I baked and Savannah decorated f or my sister’s cookie exchange last year:
Savannah’s Christmas Tree Cookies
4 1-lb packages of refrigerated sugar cookie dough
1 to 1 ½ cups of flour
Butter cream frosting
Let refrigerated cookie dough come to room temperature in a large bowl. When soft enough to handle, mix in flour to make a stiff dough. Shape into four balls of dough and re-refrigerate until firm. Roll out and cut with tree shaped cutters. Bake at 350 8 to 10 minutes (until just brown around the edges). Cool on racks. Spread with butter cream frosting that has been tinted green with food coloring. Decorate as desired. Makes about 6 dozen (more if you have a smaller tree cutter than what we were using).
One final suggestion about baking and decorating cookies–if you have children or grandchildren or even neighborhood children – to decorate cookies with, by all means do. These are precious memories they will always cherish.