Baking memories

Christmas can be a tough time of year, especially the first year or two after you’ve lost someone close to you. After my father died, it took me some time before any of us could face producing the sorts of cookies he always baked for the season. Eventually, my mother started making the individual fruitcakes he used to make, and occasionally one or two others, and the iced butter cookies that were her realm.

Then Mom died 18 months ago, and last year I didn’t make cookies. But this year I found myself digging through the recipe box I made for her back in high school and coming up with the clump of ancient, butter-stained Christmas recipes both parents had used for so many years.

Dad specialized in the German style of cookie that is made and stored weeks in advance. These are not cookies for immediate gratification, and as kids we were generally more interested in Mom’s sugary icing anyway. But yesterday, following a 20 hour power outage, I piled up my baking ware and got to work—which I should have done 3 weeks ago, but I was working on a copyedit and better late than never.

So now I have multiple loaves of cranberry bread (the best recipe I know of is on the package of cranberries, gorgeous for toasting,) small ones for gifts and two large ones in the freezer for Christmas morning. I have a large batch of orange candied pecans for giving and nibbling. I have “Great Grandma’s Christmas Pudding” (more accurately, Great-Great Grandma) which is a typical English steamed dessert, dark and heavy and made of an unlikely mix of carrots, potatoes, brown sugar, and raisins, the chief glory of which is the flamed brandy one pours over it after Christmas dinner. And no, sticking a silver coin in it to be found is not part of our family tradition, I think someone broke a tooth on it one year…

And Springerle. This is a typical Dad affair, requiring a lot of fussy steps and endless waiting, and truth to tell, he was not a man for the details of technique, so his generally turned out rocklike and only edible when dipped in a hot drink. Egg whites are whipped with sugar to make a meringue. Egg yolks are similarly made thick and sticky. Flour, lemon peel, and the elusive anise oil (hunting all over Santa Cruz county for anise oil, I found a source only to have it dry up when my daughter dutifully showed up to fetch it. I ended up using anise extract, but next year I shall start earlier and find a source, probably online.) Fold all the sticky bits together with the flour, and then wrap it up and store it in the fridge over night. The next day (today, in fact) roll it out and then press it with a Springerle mold, which is either a flat piece of wood with shapes carved into it, or a rolling pin with those same shapes—I have the pin. The cookies are then cut along the lines of the mold, laid onto a cookie sheet over anise seed, and stored again for hours and hours, to set the shape. Eventually, they are cooked (slowly) and then—yes, stored again, with a hunk of apple, to soften and age.

So, what are your family recipes?

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  1. ladonna on December 16, 2008 at 11:43 am

    My mother died 2 1/2 years ago and I finally went through her recipes this summer — so you are a year ahead of me in the process, Laurie!! Hard wasn’t it? She had a recipe for “Starlight Sugar Crisps” that are wonderful (they are a yeast cookie) that I am going to make this coming weekend. She made Springerle too but the rolling pin is at the farm and, hmm, I should have thought of that earlier (didn’t even think about the anise problem). My grandmother (Dad’s mom) always made peanut brittle and her recipe was in with Mom’s recipes so I promised my dad I would make him some of that — without the peanuts since he can’t have peanuts any more. I’ve promised my brother a batch of our great-grandmother’s sugar cookies — dry enough that you can soak up a gallon of milk with a single cookie and still come away with a dry chin. My husband will make a jello cake (remember the white cake with red jello in one layer and green in the other?) for Jesus’ birthday cake. And my in-laws will be here for Christmas so I’ll have to make her “sugar plums” (sweet yeast dough rolled in brown sugar with candied fruit and nuts, baked in a bundt pan) for Christmas morning brunch. How many days until Christmas?

  2. LaideeMarjorie on December 16, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Scroll down to order your Anise Oil for $5.99 a bottle.

    (Penzey’s and Watkins, my first choices did not carry the oil!)

    When do my orange candied pecans arrive, Laurie???? Yum.


  3. Laraine on December 16, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    Hi, Laurie,
    Glad you’re baking again. My mom (left us in ’05–may she be enjoying the best fruitcakes in heaven in good company!) was the only one in the family who could make lemon meringue pie. I have her recipe, but haven’t ventured to test my weight on that still sad limb just yet.
    I was going to refer you and readers to the Book Tarts at The Lipstick Chronicles for their great discussion a couple of weeks ago of cooking/baking/finding oils such as Anise oil, etc., because I couldn’t remember the sources they were using. But I think Marjorie has hit it with her mention of Fantes and Penzey’s and Watkins. Never heard of these before the Tarts mentioned ’em, but sounds like great things ahead now we know.
    Happy holidays, Laurie (and all), full of PEACE.

  4. Strawberry Curls on December 16, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Springerle cookies!! Laurie, you have revived a childhood memory that has warmed my heart this cool morning. When I was growing up a friend of my parents (of German decent) made and gifted Springerle cookies every year. I couldn’t wait to taste those wonderful chewy treats (these were never rock hard). The taste of anise, and even the smell, always brings me back to my childhood and that much anticipated Christmas treat.

    My mother (89 and still with us, but no longer baking) used to make a dark fruitcake that was cooked in a pressure cooker. It was the absolute best ever!! I know fruitcake takes a bad rap, but hers was delicious. I never had the knack for baking it, even with her recipe, but remember it fondly and hold fruitcake in high esteem, but I don’t eat it now that Mom has stopped making her heavenly version.

    Happy Holiday, Laurie and to everyone who reads this blog. May 2009 be kinder to all of us.


  5. Mazarin on December 16, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    I’ve managed to become the keeper of my 90-year-old grandmother’s fudge recipe. It’s kind of an odd one, very old-fashioned, with no condensed milk or anything other than sugar, salt, cocoa, water, vanilla, cream of tartar, and some smooth peanut butter added at the end. It’s very, very dense, and very rich. I love it, and for whatever reason, I’m the only one in the family who’s managed to make it properly. You have to boil the ingredients until the soft-ball stage (which grandma tested by dripping the boiling mixture into a cup of cold water, fishing out what was there, and rolling the little chocolate gob between her fingers), then whip it off of the stove, throw in the peanut buter, beat like hell and pour it into a plate before it “goes to sugar”. No one else can get it to set; I’ve always managed it just fine. I think years of standing at her side and bugging her to teach me probably helped.

    Now that grandma is older, she’s decided she doesn’t really feel like going through the trouble. So it’s my job now. I’ve not tried for a couple of years, mostly since my son was born, but I think I’m ready to take up the spoon once again.

  6. Phil the Badger on December 16, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    It was traditional to make Christmas pudding a full year ahead; i.e. you make it in December, but store it and eat last year’s. A custom that, in these hasty times, has fallen into desuetde. So make another one *now* and store it till next year.

  7. CindyD on December 16, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    You can also get anise extract from King Arthur website.
    My mother also died a couple of years ago and there is one cookie recipe for date filled cookies that she made and I haven’t attempted since then. But we have a friend who mentioned he really loves date cookies so I have promised to make them for him.

  8. vicki on December 16, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    I’ve never even heard of springerle cookies before, which surprises me, given how many Germans there were in my hometown, including a lovely couple two doors down, whose grandchildren we played with every summer and holiday. I missed out. Waaah!

    I’m afraid my family cookie recipe is to cut open the package, break apart the perforated dough-globs and bake according to the pacakging instructions. Sometimes we get fancy and poke M&Ms into the dough before baking. *Blushes, covers face with hands*

  9. KarenB on December 16, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    My grandmother used to make a white fruit cake, something like a pound cake with dried fruit, which was delicious. Unfortunately her recipe never made it to my files. In more recent years our family has instituted a Buche d’ Noel (sp?) to great acclaim from all except one nephew of mine who doesn’t like chocolate. (I know he looks like us, but how could he be related?) In years past, we have had orgies of cut-out cookies with frosting and sprinkles of great originality. My favorite is Mom’s snowballs, a shortbread/pecan cookie shaped in a ball and rolled in confectioner’s sugar while warm.

  10. overtech on December 17, 2008 at 1:34 am

    I found the trick with not breaking your teeth on rock hard Springerle is to microwave them for a few seconds.

  11. Sara on December 17, 2008 at 7:17 am

    My family immigrated from Sweden several generations ago. The Swedish side opened up a bakery in Jamestown, NY, and made a Swedish Rye Bread daily. It is hard, manual labor, kneading all 6 loaves by hand, but it creates a sweet reward. The hardest part is waiting for it to cool so we can taste it!!!! It is rye flour and molasses, with other things too, but those are the key ingredients. (They also made a butter cookie with almond extract. These are very good when dipped in chocolate. Although most things are better when dipped in chocolate……) 🙂

    We make the bread every year for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mom still does it, but she’s happy to leave the labor-intensive kneading work to her 26-year-old daughter. 🙂

  12. RJ_Anderson on December 17, 2008 at 8:41 am

    We also make a carrot and potato-based steamed pudding for our Christmas dessert! In fact I made it yesterday. It has both currants and raisins, and I serve it with hard sauce rather than brandy, but otherwise it sounds very much the same as yours.

    My husband’s family is German so we get lots of lovely German cookies made well in advance, too. My favorites are the cut-out wreaths with raspberry jam in the center, like a glazed ruby-colored window. My MIL covers them with a crisp white glaze of icing and they are… mmm.

    The other advantage to having German relatives is that we do not experience Turkey Dinner Overload, since the traditional Christmas Eve fare over there tends to be schnitzel and rouladen (rolled roast beef with pickle in the middle).

  13. 2maple on December 17, 2008 at 10:02 am

    We always made these German cookies we called pepper nuts…though not the same as other cookies called pfeffernusse I have seen elsewhere. We always spent Christmas Eve making them as a family. The cookie cutter makes cookies about the size of a nickel. You let them sit over night, and turn them over in the morning. Since the bottom is dry, the now sft center pops out the top. We would bake them Christmas morning while we ate breakfast and since they were spiced with cloves and cinnamin, the whole house smelled like heaven all morning while we opened gifts and munched on cookies 🙂

  14. tangential1 on December 17, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    The two big holiday recipes in my house are butter balls (essentially the same pecan shortbread balls that KarenB mentioned; aka “Pecan Puffs” from the Joy of Cooking book) and lemon bars (we’re from southern California and citrus is technically a winter fruit!). In recent years, we’ve been making peanut butter fudge for my dad because I was able to get my grandmother’s recipe from his sister. It’s an old-school recipe like Mazarin’s: no condensed milk and a lot of thermometer watching.

    Last year, my grandmother (my mom’s mom) honored me with her date nut bread recipe, which is apparently from her mom’s recipe box. She’s made that bread every year that I can remember and has not once shared it with any of her seven children. Needless to say, I was a bit flabbergasted that she decided to show me how to make it. My mom was rather nonplussed.

  15. fenebabe on December 17, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Every year I make stollen to give away as gifts. I try to make it right after Thanksgiving since it should mellow about three weeks, but this year I got sick. I’m making twenty loaves this week. Hopefully no one will notice! I also always make Anise Snaps, a buttery cookie reminiscent of springerle, but infinitely easier on the teeth. I think my grandmother would approve of my modern version.

  16. Laraine on December 17, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Ohhhh, recipes, please!! If you feel like sharing . . . (and the family won’t disown you, that is!). It all sounds so good. Since I don’t eat wheat/glutens, the boiled fudge sounds heavenly!!
    Whether you share your recipe or not, thanks for sharing the memories, the flavors and mood of the season. Thanks, Laurie.

  17. Real Icon on December 19, 2008 at 5:31 am

    Oh – where to start? I *am* both German and Austrian, and yes, we do our Christmas baking weeks in advance so we can enjoy the whole wonderful variety of “Plätzchen” throughout the weeks of Advent: Weiße Pfeffernüsse, Braune Pfeffernüsse, Kokosmakronen, Betmännchen, Elisenlebkuchen, Honiglebkuchen, Pumpernickel, Marzipanherzen, Anisstangerl, Spitzbuben, Nußküßchen, …

  18. 2maple on December 19, 2008 at 10:46 am

    “rouladen (rolled roast beef with pickle in the middle).”

    The rouladen we make is beef rolled with onion, bacon, and parseley in the middle with gravy…mmm… it’s one of those meals my daughter wants when she comes home from college soon.

  19. Jessara on December 20, 2008 at 11:29 am

    I am a little behindhand on my baking too. I made my parkin a good 24 hours before Guy Fawkes Day (should have done it a month or two earlier), and it is just now getting to the cohesive stage. At this rate I should bake fruitcakes about February. Well, at least I could store them for next year. I found the world’s easiest recipe for orange candied pecans here:,167,152172-235192,00.html
    I have made plain candied nuts in the microwave before, and it really is that easy.

  20. Kerry on December 20, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    My Mom didn’t have any crazily unique or complicated cookies for the holidays — the standards were Nestle’s chocolate chips, the walnut-crusted, jam-filled shortbread cookies we called “thumbprints”, frosted sugar cookies, and my grandmother’s chocolate sour cream cookies (a soft chocolate cookie with a walnut half pressed into the top, best consumed with cold milk). When she got really ambitious, she’d make butter cookies with one of those old-fashioned cookie presses. Yum.

    With Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the end of our college semester all hitting within a few weeks of one another, I haven’t done any baking, either. But I’m reminded of just how much I love my two bread recipes – one cranberry and one pumpkin. Maybe I’ll get to those next week . . .

    Happy holidays, everyone!

  21. LaideeMarjorie on December 20, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    Thanks, Jessara. That really is a very easy recipe for the pecans!

  22. S.E.I. Burns on December 21, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    My grandmother has always made a traditioinal Hungarian cookie every year at the family Christmas party. They’re called putkos, and like most Hungarian cookie, they have so much fat in them that if you eat as many of them as you want, you’ll may or may not be able to roll out the door. They have a flaky pie-crust sort of dough, and the dough is wrapped around a filling, such as cherry jam, or lemons in glaze. The dough is then rolled in sugar. I swear, these are the most delicious cookies I’ve ever eaten, and I despaired when I heard from my mother that good ol’ grandma’s sight was finally too bad to make the hundreds of cookies that she has made every year (as well as pies) for as long as I can remember. Then HALLELUJAH! my mother stepped in and worked for most of an entire day to make the fabulous little things. I would enclude a picture to explain what exactly they are, but google seems to have troube with it, and alas, no recipes or links.

  23. Mom of 6 on December 21, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    This is almost inspiring me to cook more! Actually, I cook quite a lot, but the desire to do so didn’t come down through our family traditions. The cooking I do now is with an eye to the future, trying to make things that the kids really enjoy, hoping that they’ll one day bring the recipes into their own families, and so on. Usually for Christmas I spend 24 hours in the kitchen baking up plates of assorted treats and goodies for neighbors and friends, but having a brand new little one right now, I opted for making poppy seed cakes with orange glaze. They’re so rich and so sweet, you pretty much need a glass of milk at the ready to prevent a myocardial infarction. On second thought, maybe the milk is speeding one up? Oh well, either way, it’s worth it….

  24. Strawberry Curls on December 22, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    Mom of 6, that is a great idea and it does work. When my son went off to university he asked for some of my recipes. I typed his favorites up and bound them and gave them to him as a farewell gift.

    I taught him to cook before he left home, but he found he really loved cooking when he got his own place. His girlfriend, then fiancé and now wife, never learned to cook and my son taught her. They cook together on the weekends and have a tradition of making soups on Sunday (during the fall and winter) and inviting friends over to watch the games and share the soup of the day. They both work and come home and cook their evening meal together so neither has the burden of being “the one” who has to cook after a long day at work.


  25. Mom of 6 on December 22, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Alice, that’s a great story and it gives me hope for my kids, who are still a ways out from the moving-out age.

  26. 2maple on December 23, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    That’s such a sweet story Alice. They are lucky.

    Today, both my girl’s are home …and in addtion to keep shoveling out from the big snow two days ago…I left them the challenge of making dinner so I don’t have to when I get home from work after grocery shopping tonight. At least it gives them something to do together esp since my older one just got home from college last night.

  27. Strawberry Curls on December 24, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    2maple, I’m a bit envious as my son and daughter-in-law are snowed in at Portland, OR and will not becoming for Christmas. It will be the first in 28 years that we haven’t shared with our son. To put a real cap on this holiday season my mother went into the hospital on Tuesday, her heart giving concern as they say. My days have been 12 hrs in the hospital with her and two hours at my office trying to tie up year-end accounting chores. Ho Ho Ho.

    In a way I’m glad as we couldn’t have a normal Christmas eve with the whole family anyway, mom (89) may be home tomorrow but they are not promising anything. So to all of you who have family around you, I say enjoy, it can turn on a dime. As I have said before, I wish 2009 to be a healthier, and happy year than this and that it is kind to one and all. Happy Holidays. –Alice

  28. vicki on December 25, 2008 at 10:44 am

    Arrghh, Alice! Sometimes it really does all turn on a dime. So sorry about the snow keeping your son and d-i-l away and about your mom having to go into the hospital. I hope they give her clearance to go home soon. It sounds like your son and d-i-l are off to a great start, sharing their cooking interest and incorporating it into their lives.

    Mo6–thtat’s cool that you’re making new family baking and recipie traditions. And your description of that poppy seed cake is making my mouth water! 2maple, enjoy the time with your girls–the sound like great helpers!

    Merry Christmas, everybody!

  29. 2maple on December 26, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Oh Alice – thats a rough way to spend the holidays. I totally do appreciate having family around, perhaps more than you know, as I have one of those tough Christmas’ in my past too. Back in 1990, my dad had a heart attack and very debilitating stroke and my mom had a hysterectemy just before Christmas…and me with a brand new baby I’d been hoping to “show-off”…needless to say, I was very busy that Christmas, but I was doing none of those traditional things we had been planning –

    However – the outcome has been some really different decisions about doing things together as a family NOW, rather than always putting things off til tomorrow after watching my parents retirement plans blow up in their faces.

    Best wishes and hopefully you managed to find a bit of fun in their somewhere 🙂

  30. KimmyRhymesWithTimmy on December 29, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Alice, I’m here in the Portland, OR metro, and I can tell you that it is best your son did not attempt to drive as much as even to the local grocery ~ I was shut in for 8 days total, 4 days at home and 4 days at a dear friend’s home. I hear it happens about every 20 years or so, and I’m hoping that is true. What a weather mess! I hope your Mom is improving and your family thrives through the holidays and the New Year. Oh, and I was a bit of an orphan ~ no recipes to share, but I am starting my own traditions with my children so I’m always happy to find new recipes. Best wishes Laurie and Everyone!

  31. ladonna on December 31, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    Reporting in — I made Mom’s and GreatGrandma’s cookies, Nana’s brittle, Mother-in-law’s sugar plums, and the birthday cake was made by the spouse. Plus I have a request from my dad for my mom’s mother’s “Angel Food Pie” (chiffon-y pineapple). Had to sit down and have a little weep and a cup of restoring tea at certain points but laughter too when my 13 year old said “Mom, I didn’t know you could cook so much!!” Whatever that means. The diet starts Friday. Happy Hogmany to you all and best wishes for 2009.

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