A few years ago, I shared a list of Christmas cookie recipes with my sister-in-law, whose commitment to homemade treats for all occasions is a bit of a legend among her family and friends. Although I had at that time been observing and collecting Irish and British Christmas traditions for a few years already, it was sharing that list that made me notice how integral Christmas cookies have been to my memories of this holiday.
Growing up, Christmas season was defined by the making and ubiquitous presence of Christmas cookies, filling every tin in the house. Lists like this still catch my eye, and a new one seems to join the ranks each year.
I’ve been asked many times since moving here, ‘What makes a cookie a Christmas cookie?’ It’s a perfectly reasonable question from those for whom mince pies and brandy cream characterize the season, but it’s a hard one to answer. It must be one of the food traditions that sits closest to my heart, because all I can really come up with is – you know one when you see one.
But that isn’t much of an answer, and it doesn’t account for how different and varied people’s definitions seem to be. At a push, I would have said Christmas cookies are: baked to be shared with friends, family or neighbors; generally more complicated or decorative than cookies you’d make at any other time of year; best when accompanied by multiple types or festive shapes – there’s something about an eclectic variety makes all the difference.
December visits to others’ houses offered an opportunity to peek into the world of their family favorites, which I loved, but the real show was the Christmas cookie swap at the annual Christmas craft fair. My strongest memories of this event are from the height of an eight-year-old, spending endless moments making the important decisions of how to fill my tin that year. The red and green tablecloth provided a festive backdrop to the eye-level collection of plates, piled high with our community’s Christmas favorites. I’d always reach for the very-minty brownies (with candy cane crushed on top?), some peppermint bark, one or two candy cane sugar cookies and maybe a few poppy seed or apricot filled kolacky from the colorful tray of beautiful pastries. In addition to the sheer excitement of getting to choose any cookie I wanted, the joy of the cookie swap was, of course, that with our certain favorites at home, we could enjoy a sampling of other families’ Christmas-defining-musts.
In these past few weeks and months, when we’ve been inundated by so much fear and othering, I’ve been struck by how readily the varied, layered and complex history of immigration to the U.S. has been dismissed and omitted from the discussion. In a way it seems trivial to be writing about cookies with all that has been happening around us, but holidays remind us of our own traditions, and a closer look at our food cultures helps to add texture to the current conversations that weigh heavily this year.
As we enter this final week before Christmas, I have been thinking a lot about the many cultures that have influenced this most ‘American’ of traditions. I am from a very small, rural town in Maine, easily mistaken for one that lacks diversity. But when the traditional favorites from each family filled the cookie swap table, there appeared an annual reminder of the histories that came before – eastern European Kolaczki sat alongside Dutch oliebollen, right next to the contemporary takes on traditional German gingerbread and reindeer shaped, green and red covered, sugar cookies. Waves of newcomers from all parts of Europe brought with them the traditions we now replicate each December – cookie cutters and decorative molds from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and England, cookies in the shape of Christmas trees from a German tradition of hanging communion wafers on the tree, and the use of warm spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, brought out for Christmas feasts in Europe during the Middle Ages when spices were too expensive to use the rest of the year.
In our family (for me, anyway), Christmas must-haves are pecan puffs (otherwise known as Russian tea cakes, or Swedish tea cakes, or Mexican wedding cookies…) and peanut blossoms. But until we’re all together next week, it doesn’t seem right to make either of those. So in the meantime, we’ve stuck with a few favorite stand-ins: thumbprint cookies and chocolate gingerbread.
We used some of the mixed summer berries jam we’d made at the end of the season for these thumbprint cookies. The jam was a little more set than we prefer, so it was a perfect way to use up the end of that jar.
As for the gingerbread, I had to look up the origins of the chocolate gingerbread recipe that my mother passed on to me years ago. It’s a Martha Stewart recipe, which I should have guessed, and a total crowd-pleaser.
Adapted barely from Martha Stewart’s Chocolate Ginger Leaves and Acorns
This recipe makes a lot of cookies, so it’s a good one for holiday sharing (the original says 40, but this clearly depends on the size of cutter you use and the thickness you prefer). As with all roll-out cookies, it’s best to make sure each tray has similar sized cookies to ensure they’re baking evenly.
2 1/2 cups flour, plus more for surface while rolling out
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg (or your patience-level amount of freshly grated)
1/4 tsp ground cloves (we crushed about 8 cloves)
1/2 tsp coarse salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup packed dark-brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup unsulfured molasses (we used honey, but could be black treacle)
1 tablespoon peeled, grated fresh ginger
Sugar for sprinkling (large crystals, such as demerara, would be nice)
Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, spices, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in medium bowl.
Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy, in a stand mixer if you have one. Add the egg, molasses (honey/treacle) and grated ginger, and mix until combined. Reduce the speed to low. Add the flour mixture and stir/mix until just combined.
Divide the dough in half, shape into two disks and wrap each disk in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until cold, about 1 hour or longer (dough can sit in the fridge for up to 2 days).
When you’re ready to roll out the cookies, preheat oven to 325° F / 160° C and line two baking sheets with parchment/greaseproof paper.
Working with one disk at a time, roll out dough on a lightly floured surface to a 1/4 inch thick. (If dough becomes too soft at any time, freeze until firm or swap with the other dough in the refrigerator.) Cut out shapes with cookie cutters or the rim of a glass/mug and place on prepared baking sheets (the cookies will not expand much during baking, but leave about 1/2 inch between them on the first sheet to be sure).
Sprinkle with decorative sugar or leave without. Bake for approximately 10-12 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through, until firm. Cool on sheets on wire racks and then cool cookies completely on racks before storing.
Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature and enjoy!