09 December 2012

Christmas Cookies

I finally got around to baking Christmas cookies yesterday. There were any number of other things that were also on my "must do" list, but the cookies catapulted to the top. One must have one's priorities. What's the big deal about cookies, you ask? Oh, simply that, without them, it wouldn't be Christmas.

Well, okay - of course it would be Christmas, but it wouldn't feel right. Cookies are among the half a dozen or so Christmas essentials (the others being a Christmas tree of some kind, music, candles, and presents of sorts - homemade or no-cost are just as good as money-spending ones). Christmas celebrations are all about traditions, connecting with the past. So my cookies, they have history. Well, not the individual ones, of course, but the kinds of cookies I make. They're the kind my mother made, and my grandmother, and her mother, and her mother... I have some special carved cookie moulds that are over a hundred years old; they used to belong to my great-grandfather's sister-in-law. Among my cookie cutters are ones that have been in a family since at least my mother; I remember using them as a child. One of the favourites was always the little choo-choo train with coal tender and cars; we used to argue about who got to use it first. And then I added to the collection, myself - there's a little donkey cookie cutter I bought at the Christmas market in Stuttgart five years ago, and one that's a car, sort of like a new beetle, which tells you right there it's not an antique.

The thing about these recipes is that they're very specifically Christmas cookies; never, at any other time of the year, would you make these cookies. The recipes were developed to use the most special, rare ingredients - literally 'rich' recipes, because you couldn't afford them any other time. They're loaded with butter, sugar, white flour (as opposed to the coarse whole-grain flour you'd bake your bread from year-round), eggs, almonds - all foodstuffs that were carefully rationed, in the days when there was some connection between the difficulty of producing a food and its cost. (Take butter, for example: it takes about a quart of cream to make less than a pound of butter; and a lot of milk to get a quart of cream. So a recipe that calls for half a pound of butter - well, that takes huge amounts of milk to get there.) And the spices that go into Christmas cookies are almost all exotics, as far as Europeans are concerned. Vanilla, lemon and orange peel, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, star anise -   from India, China, the Spice Islands, rare and costly.

Today, all these foods are commonplace, and cheap. I eat butter every day, and white flour and sugar are so ubiquitous in our diet that it takes an effort to avoid them. As for the "exotic" spices, they tend to be cheaper and easier to get a hold of than anything that might be grown locally. But the cookies are still special, even today. Because what is rare and in short supply today is time - the sheer amount of time and effort that goes into making these things. Cutting cookies from a sheet of rolled dough takes much longer than dishing out the dough by the spoonful onto a cookie sheet, and normally, during the course of the year, I would never stand at the counter carefully brushing icing onto five dozen cinnamon stars - it takes far too long. But for Christmas, it's worth it. And the labour of making the cookies becomes part of the tradition. I have very fond memories of cookie making as a child, and my own kids now carry on in the same vein. And that's what it's all about, isn't it?

Life, the Universe, and Christmas Cookies. Come on over for a visit, we're happy to share!


  1. Those cookies look lovely! I am trying to be more purposeful with the cookies (and other treats) I bake at this time of year - make sure they have meaning, and I share that meaning with the kids. Christmas goodies are (or should be) so much more than just a chance for sugar overload.

  2. Nice post! Love the cookies! I really need to bake some...soon....before Christmas arrives....soon... :-)