This week’s post is a Christmas cookie story. But more than that, it’s a story about families, and it’s the story of traditions. Hang with me, and there will be some recipes in it for you.
Christmas means, among other things, Christmas cookies. For our family, there are two kinds of Christmas cookies: gingerbread and sugar cookies. These are two old-fashioned cookies whose goodness, for me, never goes out of style.
I usually make crisp gingerbread cookies to hang on the tree. They smell good, taste great dipped in coffee like biscotti, and because there is no butter or egg in them, they keep until well after the tree comes down, if there are any left. After the cookies are rolled, cut, and on the cookie sheet, I poke a hole in the top of each cookie with a straw, so it can be threaded with a ribbon and hung on the tree. These cookies will perfume the room with spice and give an old-fashioned look to our tree. For the tree, I don’t decorate them, because I don’t want bits of icing or sprinkles falling on the floor, and besides, I like the way they look, plain, among the brightly-colored ornaments.
If I want to give them away or put them in the cookie jar, I’ll let the kids ice them or sprinkle them with colored sugars or candy sprinkles. It turns out that my son-in-law, Solomon, loves spicy gingerbread, so the grandkids and I made them especially for him this Christmas.
Gingerbread Cookie Ornaments
(makes about 4-5 dozen medium-sized cookies)
¾ cup dark molasses
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup cold water
5 tablespoons shortening
3 ½ cups flour (all-purpose or whole wheat pastry flour can be used)
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Beat molasses, sugar, water, and shortening. Mix in remaining ingredients. Dough will be relatively stiff. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours to firm dough.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Roll dough ¼ in. thick on floured board (do not use whole wheat flour for rolling). Brush off excess flour and cut with floured cookie cutters into desired shapes. Place about 2 inches apart on lightly greased cookie sheet. For tree ornaments, use a plastic straw to cut out little holes in tops of cookies. If you are decorating with colored sugar or sprinkles, shake these over the cookies and press lightly into dough.
Bake until firm, when no indentation remains when touched, about 10-12 minutes. Cool on rack before frosting, if desired. (I don’t recommend frosting before hanging on the tree, for reasons mentioned above, but that’s up to you.)
I am not a professional baker, nor a photographer, just a pretty good cook. So I don’t claim these are the prettiest cookies you’ll ever see. But they sure taste good! (My daughter-in-law, Tori, says that I make things taste good, and she makes them look good, and that’s the truth of it.)
The other cookie we always make is a sugar cookie. This recipe comes from a neighbor and good friend of my mother’s, Marge Darby. My brother and sister and I played with and went to school with the Darby kids, so their family is always there in my memory whenever I think about my childhood. My mother loved these cookies, and one day, she sent me over to the Darby house to copy down the recipe. I must have been 8 or 10 years old, as my awkward printing in the original copy attests.
Since I wrote this recipe down nearly 50 years ago, it’s the one always used in our family. I have tried others, but they just don’t stack up to this one. Both Marge and Mama have since passed away, but I think of them each time I bake these cookies.
About a year or so ago, the oldest Darby boy, Tom, contacted me via Facebook. We’ve been sharing memories and stories ever since, so when I got the sugar cookie recipe out in preparation for this holiday season, I thought I’d take a picture of it to show to Tommy. I was sure he’d get a kick out of it, but I had no idea it would mean as much to him as it did. (For his reaction, see Tom Darby’s blog.) Just this past week, he baked the cookies he remembered from childhood. And he gave us a little more of the recipe’s history. Tommy says, “As far as I can recall they came from my Grandma on my Dad’s side. They were in a cookbook put together by the Women of the Fort Dodge (Iowa) Lutheran Church which was published sometime between the end of the Great Depression and World War II.” That’s a recipe with a lot of history and tradition behind it, and they are the best sugar cookies I’ve ever tasted.
4 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 cup finely chopped pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening, or butter, or *oleo (see note below)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon hot water
Sift flour and sugar and salt together into bowl. Cut in fat, add nuts and mix well. In center of flour mixture add 3 beaten eggs and vanilla. Add soda dissolved in hot water. Mix thoroughly. Roll thin, cut and shape. To roll out cookies, use half powdered sugar, half flour. Place two inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 8-10 minutes at 400 degrees.
Notes: For those who don’t know, oleo refers to oleomargarine. It became popular or widely-used during the food rationing of WWII. A friend of mine remembers mixing the yellow coloring into the margarine to make it look like butter. I grew up using margarine for everything, but of course I don’t use it any more. However, for this recipe, I usually use half shortening and half softened butter. I like the flavor butter gives, but all butter makes the cookies spread awkwardly and lose their shapes.
I always chill the dough for an hour before rolling—this makes them easier to roll, and it also helps them keep their shape while baking. Keep the dough in the fridge and cut off smaller pieces to work with until it is all rolled and cut. Thin means about 1/8th inch, and this thinness helps keep them crisp, but you have to watch them because they will burn quickly.
Also, using half powdered sugar and half flour to roll out the cookies is key. Plain flour (as I learned through bitter experience) just doesn’t taste as good. I often use whole wheat pastry flour in the cookie dough, but it should be noted that to roll out the cookies, you need to use white, all-purpose flour mixed with the powdered sugar.
This recipe makes a lot of cookies, about 6 dozen, depending on what size you make them. I often cut the recipe in half.
I used to decorate these cookies with a standard powdered sugar icing, but then I discovered edible paint, and that was what my children liked to do, and now my grandchildren enjoy painting the cookies as well. (Some years, they get really creative. This year, we baked between 10 and 15 dozen cookies, so they kept it basic!) I keep a set of cheap paintbrushes in the kitchen for this purpose and just run them through the dishwasher when we are done.
Separate two eggs. Beat the yolks with a fork, then add 1 teaspoon of water and mix well. Divide into several cups or dishes. Add different food colorings to each cup, mix well. After the cookies are rolled out, cut, and on the cookie sheets, use clean paintbrushes (run them through the dishwasher if they’ve been previously used on watercolor paints) and egg yolk paint to color the tops of the cookies. As they bake, the paint will harden into a glaze. They are really pretty, still taste great, but don’t deliver the sugar shock like icing does. You can still taste the cookie, and believe me, these cookies are worth tasting. As for how they look, they remind me of stained glass windows. This seems somehow appropriate for both Christmas and Easter cookies, which is when I usually bake them.
One of the best things about the holidays, for me, is the traditions we have made and keep alive through the years. These are individual, to some extent, to each family, and I’d love to hear about your Christmas traditions, especially if you have a recipe to share. Happy holidays, everyone.