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Cookie Capers

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Illustration by Terri Groat-Ellner

Those holiday baking traditions go beyond giving in some families

By Christina Waters

FROM YEARS SPENT in France and Germany, my mother had acquired a cherished collection of holiday cookie recipes. My mother loved to send holiday visitors home with baskets of beautifully decorated and charmingly shaped cookies. She gave these gorgeous edibles as gifts to all the neighbors. Christmastime required literally thousands of cookies, and the huge freezer we had in the laundry room was like a gigantic vault just waiting to be filled up with sweet baked treats.

The baking began in August. Lebkuchen filled with honey and almonds that had to be aged in round tins. Brown sugar brownies that crumbled and melted in the mouth. Snickerdoodles, oatmeal cookies packed with fresh walnuts and raisins, sugar cookies decorated with red hots, pink and white sprinkles and tiny silver sugar beads, rocky road fudge, peanut butter cookies sealed with the signature of my mother's thumb, tender Russian tea cakes, beautiful springerle, Danish shortbreads rolled into antique wooden molds--the holiday cookies were epic in scope, flavor and quantity.

Each variety would be carefully packed into shoe boxes lined with layers of waxed paper, then labeled and dated. The maw of the freezer would open to receive these celestial pastries.

More would be baked. The months would roll by and soon the freezer would be completely full, top to bottom, with boxes of cookies. The same gene that prevented my mother from successfully finessing a roast turkey--to this very day--had rendered her a genius at baking cookies.

My sister and I adored these cookies and exercised considerable ingenuity in our search for their pre-holiday hiding place. Adam and Eve had no greater fall from innocence than we did on the day when we opened the freezer and discovered that first shoe box labeled "Chocolate Chip." Might we not carefully unfold the waxed paper, liberate a single item from within and then refold the paper so that there would be no telltale evidence? Perhaps. At first we were scrupulous in rearranging the contents so that the minor theft was undetectable. Then as we realized the sheer vastness of this cookie Fort Knox, we grew reckless.

Eventually my mother found out. It took awhile, but when she checked in to see how the oatmeal cookies were doing, the truth was revealed. Ten cookies remained in a box that once housed scores of raisin-studded treasures.

My sister and I begged for mercy. We actually hadn't devastated the Christmas stash, just sort of tested the quality. Exercising my cunning, I pointed out that our plunder of her baking treasure-trove was nothing more, nothing less than a compliment to our mother's nurturing expertise, her personal flour power, her, well, you get the idea.

She would have none of this self-serving flattery and made us swear on the spot that we would refrain from tampering with the Christmas stash. Being as susceptible to flattery as the next woman, however, she did make a devil's pact with us. We were to leave the perfectly formed cookies for their gift-pack destination and only steal the shards that invariably occurred due to breakage.

"Only the broken ones," she admonished, "you're family." And so it was that by Christmas Eve no less than one-tenth of her output had fallen prey to mysterious accidents, the ruins of which were helpfully consumed by my sister and me.

Some traditions endure. I can feel at home anywhere during the holidays, as long as the turkey is dry and the cookies are frozen.

Marie Waters' Brown Sugar Brownies

  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/2 cup unsifted flour
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 cups walnuts

Stir together (do not beat) egg, brown sugar and vanilla. Quickly stir in flour, soda and salt. Blend in walnuts, coarsely chopped. Spread in a greased 8 x 8 x 2-inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for 18 to 20 minutes. Top will be lightly browned, but soft in center when taken from oven. Cool in pan, then cut. Makes 16 squares about 2 inches in size.

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From the December 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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