Christmas officially began right before or after Thanksgiving. I can’t remember exactly when it began. The “it” being my mother’s cookie making marathon which when it started, went right up to a few days before we celebrated Christmas.
It started when she would bring all the cookie tins down from the top shelf in the pantry. These would be washed and dried and then stacked on a lower shelf, but still high enough that we kids couldn’t get on hands on them (or so she thought, but more on that later). Then, wonderful aromas would fill the house. Oh my, it was like living in the most wonderful pastry shop imaginable. Heavenly!
Fruitcake was first on the list. Candied fruits and ingredients were mixed, baked then covered with cheesecloth. The cheesecloth was soaked again and again with brandy, which was a heady smell in our normally “dry” household. These filled tins were placed in the pantry for later (and more soakings). Then the serious baking began and the kitchen table became an extension of my mother’s cookie making.
Sheet after sheet of cookies were put out to cool on the kitchen table. We kids were allowed one cookie each when we came home from school, which seemed like the cruelest thing that could be done to a kid. She guarded her cookies with vigilance worthy of an army drill sergeant. It was as if she knew the exact count of each tray of cookies, and if I tried to sneak an extra (I was the “bad” one) cookie or two, she knew and I’d get stuck with drying dishes for another night.
After the cookies cooled, they were carefully stacked in the tins. Later, the tins would be re-packed with a mix of cookies in each one. The tins ranged in sizes from a small 6 inches to the larger ones of 12 inches (for family and close friends). This went on day after day as Christmas approached intermixed with her usual chores: washing & drying on Mondays, ironing on Tuesdays, cleaning the house on Wednesdays and Thursdays, shopping on Fridays and preparing Sunday dinner on Saturdays. How she organized all this is still a mystery to me? But she did it for as long as I was home.
Okay, back to the cookies. After the tins were mixed and the cookies inside covered with waxed paper (minus the one or two I had snatched, more dish duty) we kids were drafted into her cookie army. We began by delivering all the smaller tins to neighbors. Every neighbor up and down the street was gifted a tin of cookies, even the gruff old man who’d always yell at me for missing his steps when delivering his afternoon newspaper. With great fear and trembling I would knock on his door and in a small voice offer him the tin of cookies. He would mumble a “thank you” and then slam the door.
When the next wave of cookie tins were stacked on the table for delivery. A couple of those wonderful smelling fruitcakes were included in the mix. The sealed tin was no match for the heady smell of brandy teasing my nostrils. These were for special friends. So, like one of the Magi without a star for a guide, I would wonder here and there through the hundreds milling in the church social hall after services. As members and friends chatted over coffee and pastries, I searched for the lucky recipient where I could finally deposit my gift tin, great or small.
“Here, this is from my mother,” I would say, making the exchange with as much grace as possible, a smile on my scrubbed face and wearing my best suit with newly shined shoes. I would receive a thank you and then race off to find my mother and be handed the next tin. Since Advent and Christmas involved quite a number of church services for our denomination, including one in German, I probably covered miles and miles in that social hall looking for the designated person. At times, the thank you included a hug or worse, a pat on the head. I often wondered how many tins made it home without begin opened. I knew I couldn’t do it.
The cookies she made included ginger bread, fruit bars with icing, and many kinds of German cookies (she was German-American) including Pfeffenmüsse, Spitzbuden, Lebkuchen, Spitz cookies (many shapes including stars) made with a cookie press; and there were more I can’t remember. My favorites were Springerle cookies, made with anise. I looked forward to that moment when the first whiffs of that unique smell began to fill the house. The dough was spread out on the kitchen table and then a special rolling-pin that would impress an image on each cookie. Fresh out of the over, the cookies would have a slight crunch on the outside but were soft and chewy inside. (A month later, they would become harder, very hard, think of a tile. But, they were perfect for dipping in one’s afternoon coffee, or my case, milk, to soften them.)
The recipe was so simple: (My mother always tried to do these recipes from memory but had a 3×5 card index with everything written down as a backup.)
Start with 4-5 cups of all-purpose flour/1 teaspoon baking powder/shift together/set aside. Then gently whip together 4 eggs & 1 pound of confectioner’s sugar until thick/stir in anise flavoring & lemon zest/mix with flour/cover and allow to set for at least an hour (my mother always did this in the refrigerator). When ready, roll the dough out in a rectangle with a thickness of about a half an inch (you don’t need to be perfect here). Roll out the cookies with a special Springerle rolling-pin and cut the edges with a fluted cookie cutter. Carefully place the cut cookies on a baking sheet and bake for 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees (175 C). (She checked these frequently beginning about the 18th minute.) When checking, make sure the edges aren’t turning brown. Cool and hide from me.
Often as she was baking, I’d walk in the kitchen and see my mother’s face coated here and there with flour from when she had wiped the perspiration from her forehead. “Mom, you’ve got…” She never let me finish. “I know. Now, skedaddle and let me get back to work.” I would turn and start to exit the kitchen, but not before turning right and looking longingly in the pantry’s open door to see the stacks of cookie tins growing taller day by day. Writing this, the smells come back to me and will probably never leave. Something for which I will be forever grateful.
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin