Cookies are Everywhere, Thank Goodness
By Frank Whitman
At this time of year cookies are everywhere – a sure sign of Christmas just as much as the jolly guy in the red suit.
Some holidays have signature foods: Easter with its eggs; Thanksgiving the turkey; and Passover the traditional menu. Christmas, on the other hand, claims a wider range of food traditions, mostly sweet. Cookies top the list followed by cakes, pies and candy canes. It’s got to be the favorite time of year for those of us with a sweet tooth – calories be damned!
Cookies are a seasonal win, win, win.
Holiday baking often includes family tradition as an ingredient. It wouldn’t be the season without the return of highly-anticipated favorites. Sometimes the production is a multi-generational affair where tips and techniques are passed along. At this time of year, Marsha often gets a call from our son in California for a refresher on his favorites.
The aroma sets the holiday mood, whets the appetite and conjures memories of Christmases past. The magic of butter and sugar caramelizing in a hot oven can’t be beat. I like to hang around when they’re coming out of the oven. You never know when a quality-control tester is urgently needed.
Finally there’s the eating. Cookies, in my opinion, should be small – one or two bites – allowing for the sampling of several flavors in one sitting. A big cookie is an indulgence but tends to dull the appetite and is unfair to the other flavors.
Marsha is the cookie baker in our house. Her repertoire is a mix of recipes from both our families.
Grandma Maritz’s sugar cookies are irresistible in any season. But for the holidays, the dough is easily colored and pressed into bite size Christmas trees to be finished with a scatter of sprinkles. A portion of the batch is rolled out and cut into graduated star shapes. On Christmas Eve the kids stack them into trees glued and drizzled with icing then bedizened with sparkles and white sugar pearls to become the dinner table centerpieces.
Marsha’s favorites are her mother’s Pecan Fingers – a mix of flour, sugar and vanilla laced with chopped nuts, pressed into shape and then slow baked. The recipe note says, “It takes a while.”
Oatmeal-raisin cookies are in the year-round repertoire but they have a special place in the holiday season. For years a box of the plump and chewy treats were a much-anticipated gift for her father. This year, she accidentally developed a variation with extra sugar for a crisp and sweeter version that is taking over in the family.
Chocolate crinkles come from my side. The dark chocolatey balls of dough are rolled in powdered sugar before baking. As they sag and spread in the oven the surface cracks leaving dark fissures in a snowy-white dome.
Fudge, while not a cookie, is also part of her Christmas baking routine. I help stir the bubbling mixture and lift the heavy pot to pour out the chocolate lava. For my reward, I get to enjoy the scrapings from the pot. Lucky for me, the spatula seems to leave a lot behind.
Besides cookies, we have a list of Christmas sweets from across cultures to enjoy every year. Marzipan-rich stollen, a German stalwart with a core of almond paste, is studded with fruit and dusted with powdered sugar. There’s a brisk mail-order business in stolen, but we get ours fresh-baked locally at the Sono Baking Company.
Italian Panettone is another favorite. At Sono, master baker John Barricelli’s version has a fresh orange
flavor and is shot through with chocolate chunks. Tim Topi at Wave Hill Breads offers two flavors: a traditional orange & raisin as well as chocolate. At either bakery it’s necessary to order in advance.
The Cafe Dolce in Norwalk is the source for fresh-baked Hungarian Bejgli made in-house by Zoltan Bona and served up by Norbet Dudas. The pinwheel rolls are filled with either ground walnuts, poppy seeds or orange and marzipan. A little slice in the afternoon is perfect with a cup of coffee.
The Scandinavian Butik has a large mail order business with northern European specialties, but, if you’re
lucky, it’s also the source for fragrant cardamom buns baked right there.
Thank goodness Christmas comes but once a year. The cookies and sweets are irresistible but even I can’t eat like that for too long.