I will never forget the Christmas Eve that I arrived home from college at about 7:30 pm. After hugging me, Mom said “You can start baking the cookies while the rest of us trim the tree!” Now I know that some folks actually do put up the tree the night before, but even for my “let’s do everything at the last minute” family this was a little extreme. Anyway, I put my stuff down, pulled out the bowls and pans, and got to work. I think my head hit the pillow just before Santa arrived but I got those cookies baked and another family holiday tradition was preserved.
I started doing the holiday baking when I was still in high school and it was always a happy task for me. My family’s taste (or maybe just mine!) veered more towards the buttery end of the goodie spectrum than the sugary, and the cookies I baked were invariably rich. Dad’s favorite was a shortbread-like toasted pecan bedecked bar known as Jan Hagel. I also baked a cookie that we called Jingle Bells—a complicated affair that involved making a rich, buttery dough, setting aside about a third of it, dividing the rest in half, and using food coloring to dye one half green and the other half red. I would then form each dough half into a log and then shape the log into a form approximating that of a bell. I’d then divide the uncolored dough in half, roll out each piece into a rectangle, and wrap the rectangles around the bell-logs. After chilling, I would take the dough, slice it, and bake the bells. Right now, you might be thinking that no cookie could possibly taste good enough to be worth that much effort, and you might be right. Still, Jingle Bells were one of those “wouldn’t be Christmas without it” items for my family and, for me, time more than well spent. As if Jingle Bells weren’t enough, I also always made my own favorite, Christmas Spritz. These little labors of love involved filling a cookie press with a…you guessed it…buttery dough and carefully pressing out tiny Christmas wreaths which I would then painstakingly decorate with sprinkles and nonpareils.
I still do holiday baking, although these days my choices involve cookies of the “drop ’em and bake ’em” variety. I have for several years now baked the same two cookies—one a chocolate and chocolate chip flavored with peppermint and the other an orange flavored drop stuffed with dried cranberries and orange zest. I usually spend the better part of a day baking dozens and dozens to give to friends, co-workers, and family. Every year, as I consider baking a different variety, someone will tell me how much they loved the orange-cranberry last year or drop some not-so-subtle hint about looking forward to the chocolate-chocolate mint, and so my own holiday tradition remains preserved.
You’ll find a stunning collection of cookie possibilities in The Gourmet Cookie Book: the single best recipe from each year 1941 -2009. As the title promises, the editors of Gourmet magazine (which ceased publication in 2009) have selected a “best” recipe from each year. The selections range from the homey (Aunt Sis’s Strawberry Tart Cookies) to the exotic (Grand Marnier Glazed Pain D’Epice Cookies). You’re sure to find a tradition-worthy recipe or two here.
Say what you will about Martha Stewart, she’s still a woman who knows her way around a kitchen. The DVD Martha’s Favorite Cookies from the folks at Martha Stewart Living Television will provide you with one-on-one instructions for baking 33 different cookies including Fig Bars and Coconut Pinwheels. Yum!
Of course, holiday baking is about more than cookies. Holiday Baking: new and traditional recipes for wintertime holidays by Sara Perry includes not just recipes for cookies, but also pastries, savory tarts, oven baked omelets, and other delicious sounding treats. As the title promises, the recipes run the gamut of holidays that we celebrate this time of year and include Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Boxing Day.
And of course the winter holidays are never just about Christmas. If your family celebrates Kwanzaa, be sure to check out Eric V. Copage’s Fruits of the Harvest: recipes to celebrate Kwanzaa and other holidays. This book offers a global wealth of recipes from people of African descent. I don’t know about you, but Jerked Pork Chops and Fresh Papaya Chutney with a side of Garlic-Cheddar Grits Souffle sounds pretty good to me. For Hanukkah celebrations, you couldn’t do better than Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook. This impressive volume offers history, lore, and 400 fabulous recipes from the woman who is considered by many to be the reigning expert on global Jewish cuisine.
Here’s hoping that your holidays are filled with happiness! Do you have a holiday cooking tradition?