One of the things I love about the holidays, is the aroma of baking – cookies, fruitcake, tasty breads. Even plum puddings and hard sauce. Especially hard sauce. In my family, the baking began at the beginning of the month with rum balls and fruitcake to allow them to mellow (and of course have a little rum added every few days to make sure they don’t dry out.) Banana bread and cherry bread after that. Shortbread next. Fudge and sugar cookies last.
I don’t even remember when I learned to bake. I have a vivid picture of my mother, befloured and rolling pin at the ready, with Nat King Cole crooning “Oh Holy Night” in the background. My mother was not a domestic goddess – keeping house bored her silly, but the times had decreed that she leave her job as an accountant when she married. However, she loved Christmas and that meant she would give the cooking part her all.
I helped measure, I tasted, I rolled sugar cookies and I stirred the simmering fudge. We decorated with colored sugar crystals and little silver candies. And when the neighbors dropped by, we offered them plates of homemade goodies. We packaged more for the church Christmas bazaar. Everything in our home seemed to carry a faint taste of icing sugar.
The recipes we used came from battered cookbooks and sheets of faded paper with the handwriting of grandmothers who had left us. My mother-in-law made amazing shortbread. When I asked her to give me the recipe, she had to make it, measuring as she went. I remember her sifting out flour, staring a moment and saying, “That looks right.” So she measured it and wrote down the ingredients. I have the recipe still, faded and splotched in a binder of old treasures. She had learned the way of it from her grandmother when she was a little girl, probably a hundred and twenty years ago. And who knows how many years before that, mother to daughter.
Right now the world is in a terrible mess, and almost everyone I know is carrying fear, despair and anger. Holiday cookies will not fix the many things that are wrong. But remembering that the same rituals have been carried through generations of kitchens helps me. The cookies were made despite war, depression, riots, and political and economic turmoil. The people who were bent on ruining the world in each generation have mostly faded into history books. I don’t pretend that all is just fine, but history rolls on. We will roll on too.
I have called senators and congresswomen. I have posted on social media and written letters. I have donated to causes that move us forward. In short, like so very many others, I have done what I can to help the world get better.
And so this Christmas, I am going to take out the old recipes and teach my grandsons how to bake their favorite Christmas cookies. The house will be full of the aroma of baking, everything will taste faintly of sugar, and we will do what we can to ensure that the good things in life will be preserved through the generations.
Set oven at 350 degrees.
1 c. butter (room temperature)
¼ c. sugar
2 ½ c. sifted flour (actually sift it)
Cream sugar into butter gradually (by hand, using the back of a large spoon – not with a mixer).
Work in 1 c of flour the same way.
Turn onto a well-floured board.
Sprinkle with small amounts of remaining flour and knead until all flour is used and cracks appear in the batter.
Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and spread out by hand until batter is about ½ inch thick and even.
Cut with a sharp knife into squares or diamonds.
Prick each square with a fork.
Put in oven and reduce temperature to 275 degrees. Bake about 50 minutes or until very lightly browned.
Cut again when it comes hot from the oven.
Savor every bite!
Happy Holidays from my family to yours!
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