Traditions bring people together. Special foods often accompany these customs, from appetizers and main dishes, to desserts of countless varieties. Sometimes the routine of preparing the food becomes a tradition in and of itself. Christmas is certainly no exception. Indeed, it easily beats all other holidays and can feature delicacies of many cultures from around the world. Even though creating some of the goodies can be quite complicated, with Grandma being the only one who can get it just right, the good news is that something as old-fashioned as Christmas cookie cut-outs can fit the bill for relative ease and something fun for all ages.
A 3 year old in yellow-footie pajamas, slicked back hair from a recent bath, and wearing an over-sized floral apron is a clear image that easily comes to my mind without having to watch the old video from over 20 years ago when my daughter was young. Standing on a chair at the kitchen counter she joyfully exclaimed, "I'm a baker!" She was helping roll out some dough for a batch of Christmas cookie cut-outs. Ever since then, all four of my children have grown up with the tradition of making these every year. They remember helping to mix the dough, using their favorite cookie cut-out shapes, several of which came from their great grandmother, and setting out dozens of cookies on paper towels or wax paper to be frosted and decorated. Like Picassos, they mixed up colored frosting and created their own designs with various sprinkles. Simple and fun, they looked forward to this tradition every year.
A secret or loved recipe for the perfect cut-out cookie was not something that was passed down in our family. When the children were young, I spent time searching for one such recipe. Before the days of the Internet, searches were done through magazines at the check-out line and even copying some recipes from cookbooks in bookstores.
It was perplexing because although similar to each other, there were always slight differences different amounts of flour, some with butter or shortening, and interesting twists of flavors such as vanilla, almond, nutmeg, or ginger. Some doughs had to be chilled before rolling; others did not. We made the cookies each year using various recipes, although we settled on a favorite one using cream cheese from a 1986 edition of the Better Homes and Gardens magazine. One year the babysitter finished them off with the children and passed along the best trick of using equal amounts of powdered sugar with flour when rolling out the dough to prevent it from getting too tough.
The tradition of making our Christmas cut-out cookies continued when we moved to New York. Although we enjoyed our recipe, there was always the nagging suspicion that there might be another good one out there, so another search was in progress. It was at this time that I shared this quest with a person with whom I worked. It was Jen Sam of Fredonia, and she vowed that she had the absolute best recipe. She said I needed to look no more! We tried it and we liked it.
For two or three years, as Christmas approached, we forgot which recipe of the two that we liked best, Jen's that had sour cream or the one with cream cheese. For a time we made both, had taste tests, and voted. The fact is, they are both good, but we tend to make Jen's the most. We like soft cookies, so our trick is to remove them from the oven when other people might think they are not yet done; with only a hint, if any, of browning on the undersides.
Ready to try a new recipe? Both recipes call for butter and/or margarine, but we always use only butter because it is a more natural ingredient. An old Pillsbury cookie cookbook confirms this in a section called "basic steps in making cookies." It says you can't make first-rate cookies with second-rate materials. It claims, "Good cooks know that real butter makes the big difference in cookies. It is a difference you can taste, because real butter is churned from 100 percent cream; only real butter gives cookies that rich flavor and good eating quality. It is the difference that makes you a better cookie baker and when you use real butter, the folks who eat your cookies know it too!"
The 1986 "festive cookie" cream cheese recipe is somewhat sweeter than the second and is versatile because it can be slightly varied to make dipped crescents with chocolate chips and coconut, but the basic recipe is as follows:
Stir together 3 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour and 1 tsp. baking powder. In a large bowl, beat 1 cup softened butter or margarine and one 8-ounce package of softened cream cheese. Beat in 2 cups of sugar until fluffy. Add 1 egg, 1 tsp. vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract and coconut flavoring. Gradually add flour mixture to creamed mixture. Cover and chill. Roll out on a lightly floured surface, cut with a cookie cutter, and place on an ungreased cookie sheet or stone at 375 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes. Glaze, frost, and decorate as desired.
Jen's New York "cut-outs" sour cream recipe is not as sweet as the first, which is a good thing when you consider that they will also be frosted. It is easy and always a winner.
Cut 2 sticks of butter and 1/2 stick of margarine (we use 2 1/2 sticks of butter) into 5 cups of flour, 1 cup of sugar, 2 tablespoons of baking powder, and 1 teaspoon of baking soda; like making a pie crust. Add 3 eggs (5 if doubled) which have been beaten with 1/2 cup of sour cream and 2 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla. Mix, roll, and cut out. Bake at 350 degrees on ungreased cookie sheet or stone for 8 to 10 minutes. Frost and decorate as desired. Our simple frosting is just a mixture of powdered sugar, some vanilla, melted butter, and milk.
Good luck with your cookies if you choose to try them and if you trust that the recipes haven't been "altered" in any way. Some grandmothers used to do that to ensure that whatever it was, it was the best when she made it. In our family, the cousins and I have said from time to time that a certain cake or other favorite was just not the same as when Nana made it. Low and behold, when we compared the supposedly same recipe, each of us had an ever so slight difference in the ingredient list! Be forewarned that even though kids have fun with the cookies, it is the mother who is often left standing on her feet finishing up the project and cleaning up most of the mess. It is a fun tradition that continues as the "kids" are in their teens and older when they come home for the holidays. At least you don't have to fuss with the high altitude changes to baking as we did when we lived in Colorado.
Make it a good week and have fun with your traditions and food, both of which bring people together. Remember to put the extra special cookies on the "Cookies for Santa" plate.
Uh, oh. I just saw a recipe that uses buttermilk.
Mary Burns Deas writes weekly for the OBSERVER. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org