(The following is an article I wrote in the early 1990s for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange. It was published in the Oct/November 1996 CCE newsletter. I am reprinting it exactly as it was written).
“The holidays are fast approaching. I don’t have any batches of cookie dough stashed in the freezer and I don’t think I have more than a dozen potential presents hidden away in my Christmas closet. It seems like we were just celebrating last Christmas. Seems like just a week ago that we were taking down all o the ornaments (It might have been. I have been collecting ornaments for other thirty years and they now fill two trees to overflowing—it takes a full week to put everything up and another full week to take everything down). Around the Feast of the Three Kings (you may know this holiday as the Feast of the Epiphany) I am feeling much like Scrooge with a little bit of bah, humbug—enough already with the ornaments (and yes, every year I find myself buying more and more ornaments, paraphrasing the Duchess of Windsor…you can’t be too rich or too thin, or have too many ornaments.
“I’m not going to make a lot of cookies this year,” I told Keara, my precious granddaughter’s mother. She laughed. “You say that EVERY year” she responded.
“This time I mean it,” I said. “I don’t have the time—last year I had molasses cookie dough in the freezer up til March, just because I couldn’t get all the cookies baked.”
“Well,” Keara said logically, (she is such a logical person), “why don’t you just bake the special cookies for Christmas and not make the ones you make all year long anyway?”
Hmmmm….could I get away with that? Steve and Kelly like plain chocolate chip cookies (no ingredients, we call them). Kelly likes the peanut butter cookies with a Hershey kiss in the middle. Bob likes Springerle—but I notice he still has some of last year’s springerle in a cookie tin-you can overdo this hoarding business.
Chris likes almost any kind of cookie but is very partial to the M&M parry cookies we have been making for about 20 years. Keara loves snickerdoodles. Tina keeps reminding me of the lemon ice box cookies I made last year.
Personally, I am very partial to Mexican Wedding cakes, the kind you dust with powdered sugar which gets all over your face when you eat one. I also love Florentine cookies, those thin lacy crisp ones with half the cookie dipped in chocolate but they are a bear to make because you have really good weather conditions (as in no humidity). One year when we were living in Florida, I tried to make Florentines and they ended up a soggy mess. (We ate them anyway).
The good thing about making mistakes with cookies is that kids will eat up all your errors as long as they aren’t too terribly gross and not too badly burned (I’ve been known to burn the last batch).
You know what else I love? Thos crisp paper-thin spicy Moravian cookies…I can make them but can never get them quite as paper thin as the ones sold commercially.
A penpal of my friend Mandy sent us both a tin of those Moravian spice cookies one year and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I didn’t share.
From time to time people ask me where I get my Christmas cookie recipes. You know, you don’t have to go out and buy a stack of cookie cookbooks (though goodness knows, I have).
When I was first married, I started collecting the cookie recipes featured in the December issues of my favorite magazines. Now thirty-something years later, I have a huge collection of magazine cookie recipes that fill to overflowing three 3-ring binders and I have started my sister and daughter in law on collections of their own. If you can’t invest in a bunch of cookbooks, the December women’s magazines have a lot to offer. (and if you are on a tight budget, bear in mind that you can often find these issues in thrift stores a few months later…we often buy the December issues of our favorite magazines for as little as ten cents each).
Another good source is the food section of your daily newspaper. I have been clipping cookie recipes out of newspapers for as long as I can remember.
Also, years ago—I don’t remember exactly when –I discovered the holiday booklets manufactured by utility companies. Now this was a major find. I think I probably have about fifty of these, collected over the years. One of my first was a booklet of Christmas cookie recipes published by the Home Service Bureau of the Electric Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1938. Actually, the booklet contains fruitcake and stolen recipes as well…but if you didn’t have another cookbook to fall back on, here were recipes for Swedish Ginger cookies (similar, I think, to my Moravian Spice cookies) along with many traditional favorites such as Gingerbread Men and Cinnamon Stars, Pinwheels and Macaroons.
I think the people at the Electric Company in Wisconsin were pretty much into the holiday scene, as I have an assortment of their Christmas recipe booklets, spanning decades. Some of these booklets are undated but judging from the cute illustrations, someone put a lot of thought into putting them together.
Another utility company that seems to be gungho for the holidays is that of the Public Service Company in Colorado—I have an assortment of booklets from them as well, also spanning decades. Cookbook seller Carolyn George usually has a bunch of these to offer to sale—thought sometimes I’m not fast enough and the ones I want are already sold. I even have one from the Southern California Water & Power Company and another from our local gas company.
I guess I am a sucker for any kind of cookbook with the word CHRISTMAS blazoned across the cover. (From past experience, I know that I am not alone—over the years, I have heard from other CHRISTMAS cookbook people, as well as women, like myself, who celebrate Christmas all year long, preparing for it, making things, shopping, thinking about it. As a matter of fact, I have two penpals—one in Louisiana and the other in Ohio—with whom I have been corresponding for over 15 years—because of a mutual love of Christmas. ***
I don’t recall that my mother ever baked Christmas cookies. My Grandma Schmidt, whom I’ve mentioned a few times, made a butter cutout cookie—always diamond shaped, studded with sugar and finely chopped walnuts—I can see her cutting the cookies out with her diamond-shaped cookie cutter, which I now have and wouldn’t part with for all the tea in China…sometimes Grandma’s cookies got as hard as rocks but you dunked them in coffee or tea or hot milk, whatever you were old enough to drink and they were fine.
I’d like to tell you about some of my favorite cookies.
Well, #1 are Grandma’s diamond shaped butter cookies with the walnuts and sugar. Next, Mexican Wedding cakes (sometimes called Russian Tea cakes and if anyone can explain that, I’d be happy to hear from you), and after that the aforementioned Florentines which I’d rather buy than try to make.
I like to make Lebkuchen—it reminds me of my roots and besides, they taste so good! Lebkuchen is the kind of cookie that mellows as it ages and actually improves with age if you keep it in a tight fitting tin or a plastic container.
And I like to make Sprinferle, too, although this is a two day baking job. (You make them up and let them stand overnight on baking sheets, hoping the cats don’t get into them, before baking the next day). And the designs on my little Springerle rolling pin seem pretty uninspiring to me, compared with others I have seen. If money were no object I’d have one of those Springerle boards hanging on my kitchen walls (Oh Well! If money were no object, I’d go to GERMANY to buy them!)
I’ve discovered that my taste in cookies has changed over the years. When my boys were little we make zillions of butter cutout cookies, generally in shapes they liked—gingerbread boys, dogs, airplanes, boats, cars. They liked to decorate cookies themselves which was generally a big mess, with sprinkles and colored sugar and chocolate jimmies all over the floor, table, in THEIR hair in MY hair. When we undressed the little boys for their baths, colored sugar and sprinkles would fall out of their clothes and all over the bathroom floor. (But I can’t tell you how much I miss those days and how I look forward to Savannah being able to decorate cookies with Grammy).
In recent years, I find myself reaching back, farther back—to my roots, to centuries of traditions—and so began making cookies like Lebkuchen and Springerle, Pfeffernuesse, Gingerbread boys (and girls), Macaroons and Molasses drops. Bob, having had German parents, is enthralled with my efforts while my sons say “ew, ew, where are the plain chocolate chip cookies?”
“OK,” I told Keara, “This year I’m keeping it short and sweet. I’ll make the Springerle for Bobg and Lebkuchen for me, plain chocolate chip cookies for Steve and those Peanut blossoms for Kelly—“
“Snickerdoodles for me?” she asks hopefully.
“Ok, Snickerdoodles for you—“
“Oh, and how about those tiny meringue kisses for Savannah; you know how your granddaughter loves those kisses….”
“Ok, meringue kisses for Savannah and I guess M&M party cookies for Chris—“
“Those tiny gingerbread people for Ryan and Nikki?” she suggests.
“Well, yes, tiny gingerbread people for Ryan and Nikki – but that’s all —“
“Does this mean you wont be making fudgy wudgy brownies?” she asks mournfully. “I’ve heard that Misty loves your fudgy wudgy brownies….”
“OK!” I say, “fudgy wudgy brownies – short and sweet –“
“Mexican wedding cakes?”
“I nearly forgot the Mexican wedding cakes. OK, Mexican wedding cakes–”
“No candy cane cookies this year?” she inquires. “I’ve been meaning to tell you how much my sister Libby loves your candy cane cookies…”
Oh, well. I tell myself. NEXT year we’re definitely keeping it short and sweet. And didn’t the Duchess of Windsor once say that you couldn’t be too rich or too thin…or have too many cookies? **
(November, 2012 -A few final thoughts on this, some sixteen years later. I DO now have a Springerle board found at a Williams Sonoma store in Santa Barbara one year.
When Savannah was two years old, she had her first cookie baking experience with Grammy. As she grew older, both she and her brother Ethan grew experienced, with a lot of grammy-supervision, in making all sorts of cookies and confections, including rolled out butter cookies. Last year, Ethan made buckeye balls almost entirely on his own. Savannah is now 18 years old, Ethan 10. My nephew Ryan and niece Nikki are now both adults living on their own.
After I wrote this, my sister Becky informed me that Grandma Schmidt made many different kinds of cookies, which would be filled in a dress-size box from a department store. I don’t have any memory of that – just those diamond shaped walnut and sugar crusted cookies that I loved so much. I believe I read something of William Woys Weaver’s about the significance of the German diamond shaped cookies. Or maybe it was doughnuts. In any case, when I read it, I thought it explained why Grandma Schmidt always made the diamond shaped cookies.
The Cookbook Collectors Exchange folded in 2002. I was thrilled to write articles and cookbook reviews for it for over ten years.
And Bob, who loved Springerle, passed away in September, 2011).