The stockings were hung by the chimney with care. The guinea pigs had been working on their holiday craft projects for weeks. The children were nestled in bed with hot chocolate mustaches and sticky cinnamon fingers. Lights were twinkling in the trees and Santa was finishing the naughty and nice list.
But I was feeling distinctly un-Christmasy.
“All this damn work,” I harumphed to McNibs. “I”m exhausted. This just isn’t fun anymore,” I said wiping flour off my shirt and wrapping paper scraps from my hair. The kitchen was a disaster and there were three more batches of cookies to bake. Gifts to be finished for teachers, baskets to be delivered to friends, lines to be waited in for hours. “What’s the point?”
Sometimes in the thick of the holiday rush, it all feels to much. Too much stuff. Too much money. Too much crap. Too much caring. Too much doing. Because when you feel like punching an old lady because she’s pushing her shopping cart too slowly, it’s time to take a breath and regroup.
But sitting down with a glass of milk and a crunchy little butter cookie helps to put things into perspective. Especially when its a 200-year-old cookie.
Let me back up a little: A few weeks ago four generations of women gathered in my grandmother’s kitchen for our
annual cookie baking day. It’s a newish tradition, mostly because my daughter and I love to bake and my grandmother is (quite willingly) turning over the recipes to us for safekeeping.
Like many families, we have a rather extensive list of traditional favorites associated with particular family members. For my brother, it is “buckeyes” — little peanut butter balls covered with chocolate — and apricot balls. He used to eat them by the handful and then get a tummy ache. My mom loves butter cookies squeezed from a 30-year-old cookie press and lemon cookies.
Thing is,they’re a bear to make, requiring hours of hand-cutting nuts, pressing hard-boiled eggs through a sieve, carefully cutting each shape and pressing cinnamon and sugar into each cookie with a preciseness usually reserved for atomic scientists and neurosurgeons.
The recipe was old when my great-grandmother, Gisela Jurasek came to America from the Austrian-Hungarian border when she was just 18. Many of the details of the cookie have been lost over the years, giving them an almost mythical quality that’s interpreted differently by each branch of the family. But what can all agree on is that they are truly wonderful, European-style cookies.
Unlike simpler recipes, these cutouts take half a day to make. It’s time that has to be carefully set aside with the more senior members of the clan pinching the dough, giving instructions on how “grama” would do it and carefully watching each detail so that the cookies turn out just right. Straying from the recipe was not allowed and the heart, moon, spade, star, club and diamond cutters are among our family’s most prized heirlooms. Younger cookie bakers in our extended family have been known to fly across the country to get lessons from the grand dames.
It’s just that important in our family.
Which may seem a bit silly. But whether or not the cookies are worth all the work is quite beside the point. This is our family tradition — one that has been passed down from woman to woman through the generations. It has been carefully taught to each of us.
I still haven’t quite mastered them. But that’s for Christmases to come as my mother and her mother continue to pass along their knowledge.
Savoring a little heart cookie so painstakingly made, it reminds me what exactly the point of the holidays really is. It’s about remembering who we are and where we come from. It’s about gathering the clan (even when they drive us nuts) and looking into the faces of people who share more than just DNA.
It’s about taking a little extra time to make something special, meaningful and passing on the traditions that make
us who we are. That’s the point.
These aren’t simple to make, but they’re a family tradition. The best gift you can give is passing along one of your own family traditions.
Grandma Wood’s Cutout Butter Cookies
(Some measurements like flour and sugar are weighed, according to tradition)
1 pound granulated cane sugar
2 pounds unbleached flour (sifted)
1 pound, 4oz. unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp. salt
3 large eggs, hard-boiled, cold and pressed through a sieve
1 grated lemon rind
Juice of one lemon
5 raw egg yolks beaten slightly with a fork
1 raw whole egg beaten slightly with a fork
2 pounds finely sliced (not chopped) walnuts. My great-grandmother would sit for hours in front of the radio finely slicing walnuts. My grama prefers pecans but still won’t hear of them being done in the Cuisinart.
In a very large stainless steel mixing bowl (should hold about 12-13 quarts) place sugar, flour and salt and mix with your hands. Add softened butter and crumb by rubbing mixture between your hands. Work fast, but thoroughly so the butter does not melt from the heat of your hands. The mixture should be like a very fine pie dough.
Add mashed hard-boiled eggs and lemon rind and stir again with your hands to distribute evenly.
Add egg yolks and whole egg to lemon juice. Add the egg and lemon mixture
to flour mixture. Distribute evenly as you pour it on and mix only
enough to incorporate dry and liquid ingredients.
Sprinkle about 1/2 cup flour on work surface and place dough on the surface. Scrape
dough from hands and work flour in by kneading only lightly. Handle
dough lightly as it is a very “short” dough. Add more flour as
necessary by “dusting” on a little a time, but don’t add too much as
this will toughen the dough — just enough to make workable.
the dough aside on a tray. Scraping work surface clean, dust surface
again with flour. Take about 1 pound of dough, form a round and roll to
about 1/4 inch thickness, again, rolling lightly. Using cookie cutters,
cut and place on buttered cookie sheets. Rework scraps into your next
Using a pastry brush, brush with cookies with beaten raw
egg mixture. Then press in walnuts that have been sliced by hand. Be
sure to cover the entire top with nuts.
Sprinkle tops with a mixture of 2 cups granulated can sugar and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon.
Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 10-12 minutes or until light beige and
glossy. Cool and remove from trays. Can be stored in the refrigerator.
Makes about 4 dozen cookies.