Christmas is, for our family as for so many others, all about the traditions. But the way we observe the traditions can change from year to year, and for me holiday baking is one of those endlessly altered traditions.
My mother baked Christmas cookies. Somehow that bald statement fails to capture the significance, though, or the effort, of her yearly endeavour. My mother baked thousands of Christmas cookies, filling up tins that were hidden in a dark closet to be unveiled at the proper time. She gave cookies away, she served them at holiday open houses, she left them on a plate for Santa. Her children ate them, and I assume she did, too, though probably not in quite the quantities we did.
My mother’s Christmas cookies were both unique to Christmas and, it seemed, unalterable. Every year there were pfeffernusse (a peppery cookie that I liked, and felt adult for liking), lebkuchen (which, because they contained candied fruit, I deemed inedible), speculatius (sour cream, brown sugar, cinnamon, and walnuts — yum!), wasps’ nests (a kind of chocolate-almond meringue cookie that I’ve never quite duplicated). They went on and on: thumbprint cookies, rum (or bourbon) balls, springerle and spritz cookies, yolk cookies cut out into various Christmassy shapes, and decorated—more or less expertly — by my siblings and me. None of them was ever made at any other time of the year; they were, it seemed, sacred to Christmas.
I bake, too, of course, but I’ve never been able to replicate my mother’s Christmas baking. Instead I clip and bookmark recipes throughout the year, and when December rolls around and the grading gets tough, I start baking. Moving back and forth between the oven and student papers may slow the grading down, but it also makes it bearable. And then of course the grading ends, and the baking goes on. Some years I do a lot of baking; other years, much less. This year is somewhere in the middle, with five kinds of cookies baked so far (and plans for three more, if I can get to them before the end of the day). And not all of my cookies are sacred to Christmas — I start making spice cookies around Thanksgiving and we tend to have them around a lot in the winter time, for example, and it would be a shame not to bake chocolate chip cookies for Christmas just because we bake them at other times of year. What distinguishes Christmas baking for me is the volume rather than the specific types: Christmas, more than any other holiday, is about abundance, and an abundance of cookies will never go to waste.
My mother doesn’t bake much any more; she leaves it to my dad and to her children and grandchildren now. My son has already contributed one batch of spice cookies to our family efforts, and I’m planning to enlist him for a few more before the holidays are over; my daughter and nephews will no doubt get involved when we all gather in a few days at my parents’ house. And as soon as I finish writing this blog post, I’ve got today’s next batch all lined up:
Chocolate Amaretti (adapted from Donna Hay’s Modern Classics)
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Combine in the food processor:
1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 10 oz. bag of blanched almonds (about two cups)
Process these two until the almonds are roughly chopped, then add:
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
3 egg whites
1-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Process until the mixture starts to clump up on the blade. Roll the mixture into small balls (about walnut-sized) and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Flatten the balls slightly. Bake for 13 minutes or until the cookies are starting to firm up and brown on the bottom.
The recipe should make about 3 dozen cookies, maybe a few more. There’s no reason, of course, to save these only for this time of year, but for some reason I’ve only made them for the holidays. Enjoy!
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