Mom’s Famous Christmas Cookies
Some of my fondest Christmas memories are usually food-related, no surprise there. Four of the neighbor moms would exchange their favorite home-made Christmas treats – so we’d have Italian cannoli with chocolate chunks nestled in the cream filling, Syrian stuffed grape leaves and meat pies chock full of pine nuts, a delicious three-layer chocolate buttercream-frosted cake, and my mother’s famous cookies. Those ladies were fabulous bakers and cooks.
My mom started after Thanksgiving on her cookie recipes. She would make a variety – one huge batch for several days – of jam-filled Thumbprints, Almond Shortbread, Russian Teacakes (also known as Snowballs), powdered-sugar-covered Brownies, Toffee Nut Squares, and the infamous sugar-sprinkled Spritz cookies using a cookie press in tree, candy cane and poinsettia shapes. Green sugar coated the trees and red sugar coated the others.
When my older sisters grew up, they helped Mom at Christmas time. Then it was my turn, being the middle child, and Mom’s crippling arthritis meant I had to learn the tricky cookie press. Argh! It took a while but I managed. I added colored nonpareils on top of the green sugared trees to resemble “lights,” after Mom approved. We’d box up plenty for the neighbors and then stored the rest in tall airtight tins with waxed paper between the layers. But my favorite way to help was filling the cookie tray for holiday visits with “Company.”
The pewter tray (I’d always thought it was silver, until I received silver items for my own wedding -- Mom never had to polish her tray!) was a large rectangle with wavy sides, two handles in the shapes of leaves, and an etched pattern in the bottom. I can’t recall if it was a scene or grapes now. One of my older sisters chose it after Mom passed away – and rightly so, because she makes the hand-pressed cookies with far more success than I ever had. My daughter likes making press cookies, but she prefers gingerbread. We never made frosted sugar cookies, though. And our tray, while adorable with a Santa on it, can’t hold a candle to that pewter tray.
I would cover it with plastic wrap, line up Mom’s cookies in rows from top to bottom like little delicious soldiers marching their way to grateful stomachs. Thumbprints were the prettiest, with their nutty shells and raspberry jam filling, flanked by two rows of white snowballs. On either side, I’d line up trees, poinsettias and candy canes. The nut squares, brownies and shortbread filled up the spaces left. The tray had to be at least 10 by 14 inches, not including the sides!
And “Company” always looked forward to eating Mom’s cookies. You can’t beat that home-made flavor and the obvious love she put into those hours and hours of baking. Dad’s favorite were the Russian Teacakes. Mine too, with that melt-in-your mouth taste of buttery cookie, tiny chopped bits of pecans and almond flavoring and that powder sugar that ends up showering your clothes. They had to be rolled in powdered sugar hot out of the oven, and then again when cool.
Granted, who has time to make hundreds of cookies nowadays? But in the 60s and 70s, those stay-at-home moms sure beat any store-bought cookie. I believe they’d probably beat any Food Network cookie today too. My mom added a secret ingredient – love of family – to her cookies, and that pewter tray is still in the family. Traditions are important.
After all, isn’t family a big part of what Christmas is about?