My family doesn’t have many Christmas traditions but I treasure the ones we have. Baking sweet treats during the holiday is one of my favorites. My Grandma Rose was the master baker in our family. She played bridge with ladies each week and they took turns bringing a dessert. Between her friends and Grandma’s eagle eye for yummy recipes in the newspaper, she acquired the best recipes imaginable.
When I was little, I’d sometimes stay overnight with my grandparents on Friday, and Saturday morning my Grandma and I would make cookies together. This was after she served her famous Swedish pancakes (crepes) for breakfast! She knew most of the recipes by heart so I’d bring recipe cards and write them down as we made them, to ensure that I’d have them for later. I’m so glad I did!
When she passed away, I collected as many of her tried-and-true recipes and published a small cookbook, which I gave to my aunt, cousins and others who knew Rose. I still make many of her Christmas cookies, as well as her fruitcake. Before you turn your nose up at the “f” word, I have to tell you that even those who don’t like fruitcake enjoy my Grandma’s version.
This Christmas I’ve especially enjoyed baking. Last year, I was recovering from knee replacement surgery so I didn’t bake and I really missed it. After thinking about it for a while, I realized that it wasn’t just the cookies that I missed. I missed all that baking Christmas cookies brought to mind – the memories attached to the tradition.
It’s incredible the way creaming brown sugar and butter together, and adding eggs, pure vanilla, flour and baking powder, conjures up warm and wonderful memories in my heart and head. Adding ingredients like maraschino cherries, dates, chocolate chips, coconut and pecans can turn a basic recipe into a dreamy, mouth-watering “mmmmmm”.
When I make Grandma Rose’s Rich Lemon Bars, I remember her telling me that they weren’t hard to make – she just had to buy a few lemons. She’d always ask me if I really thought we needed to make this type of cookie or that one. I’d say “Of course, Grandma! It wouldn’t be Christmas without your lemon bars or Madeline’s date bars or …” She’d smile, knowing full well what I’d say. I never met Madeline but I’m glad my grandma did. That’s how she would refer to recipes – by the person who gave them to her.
She had her favorites that she made every year. And, she’d try a few new recipes as well. She had three different fruitcake recipes but the one I prefer (and the one that she made the most), uses applesauce. If I could bottle the aroma in the house while it’s baking, I’d be a millionaire! Her favorite was a recipe that used lots of cherries and hazelnuts.
She used to crack her own nuts for use in recipes and my mom, brother and I always wondered who was going to bite down on a piece of shell as we enjoyed her treats. It didn’t happen often so we figured it was an extra blessing of sorts.
One of my favorite cookies is easy to make, uses dates and maple flavoring (the recipe says “Mapleine”). It’s a bar cookie and after cutting into squares, each gets rolled in powdered sugar. I find powdered sugar is used in quite a few recipes, whether it’s in the crust, sprinkled on top or used to make icing. Having powdered sugar on your shirt or upper lip was a sure sign that you’d been in the Christmas cookies – perhaps it was some type of security measure!
I’ve picked up a few new cookie recipes since my grandma passed away that would pass her taste test. When she tried a recipe and really liked it, she’d write “very good” by the name in her recipe files.
While we baked together, she’d share memories of when she and grandpa owned their furniture store in Steamboat Springs. She’d share how they always had visitors at the house and how much she loved feeding them. It seems people were wise to her excellent cooking and many would “drop by” around dinnertime. She always had plenty of food, and at least three or four desserts.
Memories must be secret ingredients within each recipe. They are not written on the recipe card but I can smell them, taste them, and remember. Remember my grandparent’s house on Raleigh Street in Denver with its freshly ironed sheets on the bed, and the kitchen TV where we’d watch Let’s Make a Deal while we cooked. When my grandpa retired, they moved to a senior mobile home community with a pool and area for a small garden, and somehow the memories moved with them like delicately packed china.
In the spirit of Christmas, in my next post, I’ll share two of my favorite Grandma cookie recipes. Stay tuned …