The discovery that I bake at this time of year — and have been doing so for most of my life — inevitably produces some raised eyebrows. What kind of a Jewish girl makes Christmas cookies? The answer, of course, is “One whose mother did it … because her mother did.”
My mother grew up in Geneva, Ill., at the time, a small farm town. For her family then, and for me now, making cookies has little to do with the religious holiday and everything to do with creating homemade treats to share with family, neighbors and friends.
“The baking,” as my annual binge has come to be called, dates back to 1961, when I was first married and lived in a two-bedroom townhouse in Oak Park, Mich. I figured out early on that it would be wise to organize and started to make lists. Thus, I have a pretty complete record of the cookies I’ve made and who got to eat them. Both lists invariably include old favorites and new discoveries.
Some years, “the baking” produced as many as 10 different kinds of cookies, more typically six or seven.
The recipes come from a half-century’s collection of clippings and family treasures, cookbooks and food magazines, most frequently, the now defunct Gourmet. I always looked forward to that December issue, and, with all due respect to Martha Stuart and the magazine’s own “The Gourmet Cookie Book: The Single Best Recipe from Each Year 1941-2009,” nothing has replaced it.
Today, of course, you can find any recipe you can imagine on the Internet. There are entire iPad applications dedicated to cookies, and space-consuming hard-copy recipe collections like mine are well on their way to extinction.
Still, it is a nostalgia trip to revisit the baking benders of my past, chronicled on butter-and-sugar spattered sheets that add the aroma of old paper to the butter-sugar-spice smells that bless my kitchen this time of year.
This year, “the baking” includes two family heirlooms. “Grandma Belle’s Toffee Squares” came from my paternal grandmother, Belle Alexander. I am named after her mother, Molly Meissner; she owned a bakery in downtown Detroit in the late 19th century, so maybe I have a genetic propensity to bake. The recipe for “Pecan Balls” came from my own mother, Beatrice Alexander, who gave it to me twice with substantially different measurements and instructions. Both versions work fine.
There’s a clear trend in my holiday baking; the older I get, the simpler the cookies — bar cookies rule, and royal icing is a thing of the past. I have neither the stamina nor the patience for the “Holly Sprigs” from 1980 (the work/reward quotient got them labeled “do not repeat” even then) or the “Chocolate Cookie Pretzels” from 1981. One year when I was hurting, I wasn’t going to bake at all. But at the last minute, tradition prevailed over grief and I made a double or triple batch of those favorite “Pecan Balls.”
One day in the not too distant future, I will probably give up this ritualistic torture of my feet and lower back. At least I will have passed on the two family recipes included with this story. And I may be able to keep it up longer than I think. I recall my New Jersey neighbor’s grandmother Mollie Dworetzky rolling out dough when she was nearly 100 years old. Could it be that cookies are good for you after all?
“The baking” 2012
Lemon Gingersnaps (CDKitchen.com)
Pine Nut Tassies (Epicurious.com)
Chocolate Cracks (Maida Heatter, clipping circa 1991)
Viennese Vanilla Crescents (Gourmet.com)
Hawaiian Macadamia-Coconut Squares (The Joy of Cookies; Herbst, Sharon Tyler; Barron’s, 1987, Woodbury, NY)
Grandma Belle’s Toffee Bars (family)
Beatrice Alexander’s Pecan Balls (family)
Grandma Belle’s Toffee Squares
Yield: 48 large cookies
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar (dark or light)
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 ounces Baker’s German Sweet chocolate
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
• Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
• In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar and beat well.
• Add egg yolk and vanilla and beat to combine, then gradually add flour and salt and combine thoroughly.
• Spread evenly in a rimmed cookie sheet 11 inches by 13 inches and bake about 20 minutes.
• Melt chocolate and spread on the base while it is still slightly warm.
• Sprinkle with the chopped nuts.
• Cover tightly and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight until the chocolate is firmed up.
• Cut into sixths on the short dimension and eighths on the long dimension, or as desired.
• Cookies keep well covered and refrigerated or at cool room temperature. They also ship well.
Notes: The recipe calls for Baker’s German Sweet chocolate because that was the only semi-sweet available in my grandmother’s day. It tastes “right” to my family but there is no prohibition against using your favorite semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate.
Beatrice Alexander’s Pecan Balls
Yield: 50 good-sized cookies
1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups pecans, finely ground in food processor
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
10X confectioners’ sugar
Vanilla 10X confectioners’ sugar (see notes)
• Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
• In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar and beat until light and fluffy.
• Add pecans, flour and vanilla extract and beat at low speed until thoroughly combined, scraping down sides of bowl.
• Chill dough for easier handling — about an hour or overnight if you wish.
• Form dough into balls the size of a large marble and bake on ungreased cookie sheets for 25 to 30 minutes until firm and just beginning to brown.
• Let cool just enough to handle then roll the in confectioners’ sugar.
• Let cool completely then sift vanilla confectioners’ sugar over them.
• Store at room temperature; cookies are crisp when fresh and will soften when stored but still taste delicious.
Notes: To make vanilla sugar: Bury a vanilla bean broken in half in 3 to 4 cups of confectioners’ sugar and keep in an airtight container with your baking supplies. Replenish the sugar as you use it; vanilla bean will be good for at least a year.