SUGARPLUM VISIONS: Christmas Cookies

…visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.
~~Clement C. Moore~~
” ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”

Happy Holidays to all readers and visitors to Gherkins & Tomatoes / Cornichons et Tomates! I will “see” you again on January 2.

‘Tis soon the season to be jolly. And to bake cookies, the sugarplums of today. I’m about to head out to the kitchen to do just that right now.

For many Americans, especially those of Northern European descent, Christmas without special cookies is hard to imagine. In the old days, grandmas and mothers rose early, stoked the wood-burning stoves, and baked and baked. Smells of baking tickled children’s noses and small hands grabbed sugary cookies when Mother’s back was turned. Baking cookies symbolized the spirit of Christmas entering into the home.

First, though, some definitions are in order. Originating with the Dutch word koekje, or small cake. And cookies did begin as tiny “test” cakes, in other words, early bakers cooked a small amount of dough to check the heat of the oven. Most food authorities define cookie as thin, sweet, and small, texturally soft or crisp or in-between. Every culture uses its own special word to denote what “cookie” means. In England, the English call biscuits what we term cookies, nothing at all like the scone-like cakes called “biscuits” in the United States. To the Spanish, cookies are galletas and Italians call their cookies by many different names, including biscotti, meaning “twice baked.” In Germany, people ask for keks or Plätzchen, a special word for the cookies of Christmas. The word “biscuit” comes from Latin — bis coctum — meaning “twice baked.”

Nissu Nassu

Gingerbread Men (Photo credit: Gaetan Lee)

Cookies, as symbols of Christmas, probably began as sweetened doughs cut into animal shapes. Why animal shapes?  Anthropologists believe that many of today’s festive traditions have their roots in ancient history. Before converting to Christianity, many pagan societies practiced sacrifice, both human and animal. If there was nothing to sacrifice, animal-shaped breads were baked and offered to the gods instead. After their conversion to Christianity, and the end of these sacrifices, people kept the tradition of baking festive animal-shaped sweets. In Scandinavia today, at the beginning of Advent, pig-shaped gingerbreads called nissu-nassu appear in bakeries. Gingerbread men and other spiced cookies also abound. Incidentally, the spices associated with Christmas sweets play an important symbolic role as well:  these spices are thought to represent the gifts the Magi presented to the Christ Child.

The first American cookbook, by Amelia Simmons (1796), American Cookery, included two recipes for cookies (note that many the “s” letters in the following quote resemble “f”):

Cookies - One pound fugar boiled flowly in half pint of water, fcum well and cool, add 1 tea fpoon perlafh, diffolved in milk, then two and a half pounds of four, rub in 4 ounces of butter, and two large fpoons of finely powdered coriander feed, wet with above; make rolls half an inch thick and cut to the fhape of pleafe; bake fifteen or twenty minutes in a flack oven – good three weeks.

Chriftmas Cookery - To three pound of flour, fprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander feef, rub in one pound of butter, and one and half pound fugar, diffolve one tea fpoonful of pearlath in a tea cup of milk, kneed all together well, roll three quarter of an inch thick, and cut or ftamp into fhape and fize you pleafe, bake flowly fifteen or twenty minutes; tho’ hard and dry at firft, if put in an earthern pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, fofter and better when fix months old.

Gifts of cookies are popular now. Of course, other cookie shapes were invented through the years. And some prolific home bakers make as many as two dozen different kinds of cookies during the Christmas season. By baking one type of cookie per day, beginning on December 1, such a feat appears less awesome. And overwhelming. Most cookie doughs and baked cookies freeze well. Cookies rich in butter and nuts are best frozen if they are made far in advance. Store cookies in air-tight containers and separate them with sheets of waxed paper. Frost cookies after thawing, not before freezing. Re-crisp soggy cookies by heating them on cookie sheets in a 250 degree F oven for a few minutes.

If cookie-baking is a lost tradition in your family, this may be the year to start again. Your children will love you for it, though your waistline might not.

GINGERBREAD BOYS*
(Makes 3-4 dozen 4-inch high cookies)

This recipe yields very rich cookies, which can be made in many different shapes. Just draw a design on stiff cardboard and make whatever theme you want — Santa Clauses at Christmas, turkeys at Thanksgiving, or rabbits at Easter. That’s what my parents did and I loved every bite.

2 cups shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
5 1/4 cups flour
2 T. cinnamon
1 t. soda
1/4 t. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cream together shortening, sugars, and eggs.

Sift together dry ingredients and stir into the creamed mixture.

Roll dough on lightly floured board to 1/8-inch. Cut dough into desired shapes and place on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 10 minutes until lightly browned around edges. Cool on racks and frost as desired. (Frost after freezing.)

*There is no ginger in this recipe, but you can add it to taste if you wish to do so.

Sugar Cookies (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

AUNT LILLIE’S SUGAR COOKIES
(Makes 3-4 dozen)
A favorite Norwegian cookie for any time of the year. The recipe came from a favorite Norwegian aunt who passed on a long time ago, but the aroma of these cookies when they come out of the oven reminds the entire family of her.

2 cups flour
1/2 t. cream of tartar
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
12 T. butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 T. cream or milk
1 t. almond extractPreheat oven to 375 degrees F. Sift dry ingredients together and set aside. Cream butter and sugar; add egg, milk, and almond extract. Add flour to creamed mixture and mix well, until a soft dough forms.

Roll out dough on lightly floured board, cut into desired shapes and place on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 375 degrees for 7-8 minutes. Do not brown. Freeze and then frost after thawing if cookies are made in advance.

Books about Christmas Cookies:

Better Homes and Gardens Cookies for Christmas, by Better Homes and Gardens Books (1985, new edition appeared in 2011)

Joy of Cooking Christmas Cookies, by Irma S. Rombauer, Ethan Becker, and Marion Rombauer Becker (1996)

Rose’s Christmas Cookies, by Rose Levy Beranbaum (1998)

© 2008, 2011 C. Bertelsen

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