December marks my favorite part of the year because it’s when my mother breaks out her “bible.” This is one of the most coveted books in the house, not for its religious content, but for its nostalgic collection of cookie recipes.
The recipe collection has expanded from her and her mother’s tradition of making cookies together during December. They spent hours in the winter painstakingly perfecting and decorating their confections, and they passed the tradition on to the third generation. When my twin sister and I were two years old, we too, were indoctrinated into the holiday baking frenzy. My grandmother lifted us on the kitchen island so that we could watch her as she worked. She kept a close eye on us in our younger years because, too often, she discovered us with our fingers in the mixing bowl.
The cookies we created together were packaged in tins and handed over to family and friends, a growing list as each of us developed new friendships through our community, school, and work. The total cookie tally grew to almost twenty varieties one year, but we average around sixteen. What might seem excessive to some is symbolic to us of keeping alive both the tradition and the memory of our grandmother, who passed away almost a decade ago. For the women in our family, and some friends who joined us along the way, cookie baking is a time of sharing memories, laughing, and giving back.
Even though the lineup may change from year to year, my mom keeps the classics around. The most provocative is her fudge, with the star ingredient of Velveeta cheese. Certainly a talking point, the cheese adds an unparalleled creaminess to the rich, chocolatey flavor.
The one cookie not included in the tins, however, is the classic cut-out. We save these until three or four days before Christmas because they do not save or travel as well due to their ingredients and their flavor. At college now, my sister and I have limited time at home, and we miss most of the cookie-making season, but our mom still saves the cut-out cookies for us to do together. We select the shapes from a gallon sized plastic bag of cut-outs gifted to us over the years, and then we get to work on making the dough. The dough itself has changed, as I developed an intolerance to gluten. What is most important is that the dough creates strong cookies that retain their shape so that they can serve as the vehicle for the frosting and decoration.
My mom is particular about the frosting part, combining powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla in a specific ratio to achieve the desired consistency. For us, that means that it is spreadable but not so runny that it slides off the edges. My sister and I always insist on trying the frosting make sure it tastes good enough before moving on to the final stage, where we clear our kitchen table of any miscellaneous items and get started on our masterpieces.
Since we make these cookies just for ourselves, they are not held to the same aesthetic standards as the rest of the batches, which means that my sister and I can get creative with our color combinations and sprinkle motifs. We divide the cookies up evenly, so each of us works on every shape, from snowmen to trees to presents, and usually by the end, we have one cookie that receives the amalgamation of the leftover colored frosting. The cookie with that unappetizing brown color is usually gobbled up first, and we save our star designs for Christmas Day.
These cookies are certainly a labor of love, and I look forward to the memories this season brings.
Yield: 18 cookies
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 6-8 minutes
Total: 38 minutes
½ cup unsalted butter
½ cup granulated white sugar
½ teaspoon Vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon Almond extract
½ egg (this will likely not come out evenly, and that is okay!)
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour (or substitute 1-to-1 gluten free flour)
1 teaspoon baking powder
For the frosting:
2 pounds powdered sugar
½ cup skim milk
2 teaspoons softened butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Cream butter and sugar in the bowl of a mixer until it has lightened to a pale yellow, around 3 minutes. Beat in egg and both extracts. (If you do not have either extracts, they are not necessary, but they add great flavor!)
In a medium bowl, mix flour and baking powder. Add this mixture to the wet ingredients in parts, stirring in between. If the dough gets too stiff for the mixer, turn the dough out onto a countertop. Wet your hands with water and finish off kneading the dough by hand.
Divide the dough into workable batches without chilling. Roll out onto a floured surface. You want the cookies to be slightly thick, just under ¼ inch, so that they are firm enough to hold the frosting. Cut with your favorite cookie cutters.
Place cookies on a greased, nonstick baking pan. Spread them apart, leaving at least one or two inches in case the cookies expand. Bake at 350 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes. Let cool on the cookie sheet until firm enough to transfer to a cooling rack.
While the cookies are cooling, make the frosting. Mix powdered sugar and milk in a large bowl. You want the frosting to be thick enough to spread and not run off the cookie. If too runny, add more powdered sugar. If too thick, add milk sparingly. Mix in butter and vanilla.
Spoon into different bowls. Drop food coloring into each bowl for preferred colors. Spread onto cookies once fully cooled with a butter knife. Don’t forget sprinkles and all the fun decorations!
Rylyn Monahan is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a senior art history major at Carleton College. She likes the star cut-out shape the best to maximize the frosting’s surface area.