I'll be honest with you. Several weeks ago I was planning to write a snarky post about how much I didn't like most people's Christmas cookies.
I mean, I really don't. Homemade cookies can suffer a lot of indignities in the form of being mixed too hard and cooked too long, to say nothing of the terrible concoctions used to decorate them. And at Christmas, everyone suddenly becomes a baker. Everyone and their children, who work the dough to a nearly petrified state forming it into charming shapes. Factor in old family recipes whose appeal is quite a mystery, untranslatable, lost altogether to outsiders, and you've got the perfect storm of bad cookies. And it lasts for weeks.
That's what I was going to write about. I was actually going to call it something like, Spare me the cookie exchange!, something Grinchy like that.
But then, we started receiving Christmas cookies.
In the weeks before Christmas my daughter underwent surgery to receive her second cochlear implant. Much of our pre-Christmas preparation sort of went by the wayside as we prepared instead for this. Did folks know we'd be skimping on the Christmas baking at our house? Did they think we'd need a little encouragement? Did they know my daughter wouldn't be able to get her prescription meds down without a three-butter-cookie chaser?
I don't know. I'll never know. What I do know is that we were the recipients of a whole bakery's worth of gorgeous, perfectly delicious Christmas cookies. They just kept coming. From neighbors, from church. They came in the mail from far away. When I spilled open the little box of artful snowflakes fresh from Florida--that even tasted good--it suddenly occurred to me that I was far off the mark in my assessment of Christmas cookies. Far off the mark. At least for this year, all those Christmas home bakers who gave us their best had kicked my considered judgments straight to the curb.
I have to back up a little. I cannot be entirely blamed for my harsh opinions. They were formed in part by those around me, or rather, the mad baking skills of those around me.
My aunt is the undisputed best Christmas cookie baker in the western United States, if not the entire nation. She begins probably in October, makes hundreds of dozens of at least ten varieties of cookies, each of which is more delicious than the one before. Everyone in the family knows that when I am home in Phoenix over Christmas, as soon as I stop by my Aunt Betty's house I will go straight for the cookie jar almost before saying hello. Okay, before saying hello. Aunt Betty's cookies are beautiful and tasty and no one's cookies, anywhere, come even close.
From this foundation of cookie superiority I then married into a family of continued cookie superiority. My mother-in-law is the best baker of Greek cookies that I know. Her versions of the classic Greek staples are better by far than anyone else's anywhere. She will pooh-pooh my adulation, saying, oh, the cookies you get in your family, these you will always think are the best. I however know better, because I didn't grow up with any Greek cookies and am an objective outsider. My mother-in-law's cookies really, truly rock.
Someday I'll get the two of them--my aunt and my mother-in-law--to collaborate on a cookie cook book which will then contain the very best cookie recipes attainable anywhere. Until then, you'll just have to take my word. I am a cookie snob because of these two women.
But this year I am humbled. This year I am overwhelmed by the generosity of our friends and neighbors. Page through and see the glories that came to our house this year. Oh, I have no recipes for any of them. I do offer you one recipe, below. It is not strictly speaking a Christmas cookie; we bake it for St. Nicholas' Day on December 6. It will serve you as a very reliable wintertime cookie, all dark spices and crispy, very good with tea or coffee, and excellent at being cut into shapes, or worked to death by little hands on a snowbound day.
St. Nicholas Cookies
This recipe comes from Gertrud Mueller Nelson's amazing book about family ritual, To Dance with God (Paulist Press, 1986), and is used here with the author's permission.
Mix in order:
1 c shortening
2 c white sugar
3/4 t salt
2 t baking powder
4 c flour
4 t cinnamon
2 t allspice
2 t nutmeg
2 t ginger
2 t cloves
Turn out onto a floured board. Knead in about one cup additional flour or as much as you need until the dough is no longer sticky and is easy to handle. Put the dough in a plastic bag and refrigerate until chilled. Roll out and cut the cookies. Bake at 350 until golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes for small thin cookies, or 12 to 15 for larger or thicker cookies.
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