When I was growing up, my mom made thousands of Christmas cookies. I’m not exaggerating; my parents entertained quite a bit over the holidays, and she kept careful records of the kind she baked and how many each batch netted in the back of her Joy of Cooking. There were speculatius and pfeffernusse, wasp’s nests (a delicious chocolate-almond meringue) and hickory puffs, springerle and lebchuchen and thumbprint cookies, which are rolled in chopped walnuts and have a tiny dot of jam in the center. I don’t remember a lot of sugar cookies, and now that I have kids I understand why she didn’t make these supposedly kid-friendly cookies: they’re too much work! All that rolling and cutting and then decorating…I’ve hardly made any since I had kids.
I don’t remember helping much with the baking, though I’m sure I must have (how else would I have learned how to bake cookies?); at some point, once my mom was working full-time and I was more independent in the kitchen, I took over a lot of the baking, and produced plates full of cookies for my dad to bring to his office staff, hospital patients, and others.
Now I keep my own list in the back of Joy of Cooking, though it’s pretty skimpy so far. Christmas ’98 (when I was still in graduate school) is the first year I record, and it was a great year for cookies: 11 batches (nothing like writing and grading papers to inspire a lot of baking). Then there’s a gap until Christmas 2001, which was pretty good, too, with 10 batches. But there’s no list for Christmas ’02, which was my first Christmas as a mom; we spent it in the hospital because Ben had pneumonia (more on that in next week’s Mama at the Movies column). Christmas 2003 has a pretty sad list: “pneumonia (again!), strep throat, bronchitis, and truffles.” What was I thinking, making truffles when we were all so sick?! They’re time-consuming and frankly, no less expensive nor more delicious than the ones you can buy at Trader Joe’s. Last year, we’d just moved back into our house after a 9-month renovation, so I only made gingerbread men (with many, many dried blueberry buttons, painstakingly–dare I say tediously?– applied by Ben) and lemon-polenta cookies.
So far this year I’ve baked (and mostly given away) four kinds of cookies: gingerbread men, speculatius, chocolate crinkle cookies, and my new favorite, pistachio-cranberry cookies. These are pretty, taste great, and take about 10 minutes; I made a second batch of dough and stuck it in the freezer for our New Year’s Day party. That’s all the baking I’ll do till New Year’s, though I have, at Ben’s request, made a batch of candied orange peel, mostly because I was so delighted that he remembered I made it two years ago. Somehow peeling and boiling and scraping and sugaring the peel is a pleasurable kind of labor. You can dip the ends in a bit of melted bittersweet chocolate and then, for very little money, you do have something you can’t buy in a store. And it tastes great.