Readers share their most treasured holiday cookie memories — and recipes! – St. Paul Pioneer Press


For many of our readers, making cookies during the holiday season isn’t just another chore to check off the list: It’s a great way to make memories with friends and family.

For the fourth year in a row, we asked Eat readers to reminisce about holiday cookie-making, and we received some great stories, photos and recipes.

Keep your memories in mind and be sure to take lots of pictures while making cookies this year because this will remain a Pioneer Press holiday tradition.

Memories and recipes have been edited for length and clarity, in some cases.

FARMHOUSE FUN

My mother spent a couple of weeks baking Christmas cookies. She stored them in tins on top of the upright piano in the parlor or what we called the front room of the farmhouse in western Minnesota. The front room was only heated or used if company came over or when everyone came home for the holidays. My nieces and nephews would race to the front room to find their favorite Christmas goodies, especially the sandwich cookies. Grandma Edith had perfected browning the butter for the filling exactly right to give these cookies their tasty caramel flavor. The picture is of two of my nieces helping to make cookies in the farmhouse kitchen about 50 years ago. We treasure the memories of those magical Christmas gatherings at the farm. — Virginia Delaney, Somerset, Wis.

CARAMEL SANDWICH COOKIES

Makes about 2 dozen.

1 cup butter

3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 unbeaten egg yolk

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 1/4 cups flour, sifted

Filling:

2 tablespoons butter

1 1/4 cup powdered sugar

1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

4-5 teaspoons of cream

To make cookies: Cream the butter and brown sugar. Blend in the vanilla and egg yolk. Add the sifted flour. Chill the dough if necessary for easy handling. Shape balls of dough into about a marble size and flatten with a fork.

To bake: Bake in 325 degree oven until lightly brown, 10-12 minutes. Place on racks to cool. Place the flat sides of two cooled cookies together with the following filling.

To make filling: Brown the butter in a small heavy saucepan. Be careful not to burn the butter, but it should be lightly brown. Remove the pan from the burner and stir in the powdered sugar, vanilla and cream. Mix until the filling frosting is of easy spreading consistency.

To assemble and store: Place the flat sides of two cooled cookies together with the filling. Store in tight containers in a cool place, preferably on top of a piano in an unheated parlor of an old farmhouse!

SCANDINAVIAN DELIGHTS

Grandma Dorothy Johnson with a grandchild at the home of daughter-in-law Linda Johnson of St. Paul. (Courtesy of Linda Johnson)

Ribbon cookies were one of my dear mother-in-law Dorothy Johnson’s signature cookies on her three-tiered silver tray of Scandinavian delights every year. There were also Russian tea cakes, krumkake, sandbakkels and lefse, and an occasional newfound recipe. Her heritage as the daughter of Swedish immigrants was a source of pride for her and was reflected in her decorating and cooking. She loved all things Christmas and couldn’t pass up a Christmas store anywhere, any time of year. She was a hard-working and dearly loved pediatric nurse for many years, and though she was often bone tired, she always made time to make Christmas special for her family, co-workers and her kids’ teachers, who annually received gifts of her homemade peanut brittle. In her retirement years, her kids and grandkids were treated to cookie baking visits. The photo is proof of one of those visits to our house. — Linda Johnson, St. Paul

RIBBON COOKIES

Makes 6-7 dozen cookies.

2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 cup shortening

1 egg, unbeaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup snipped maraschino cherries

1 square unsweetened melted chocolate

Nuts to suit for light dough

Mix first 3 ingredients and set aside. Cream shortening and gradually add sugar. Stir in egg and vanilla. Blend in flour mixture. Divide dough in 3 parts. Add cherries to one part and tint dough red with food coloring. Add melted chocolate to second part and then nuts to the 3rd dough.

Line a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan with wax paper. Pack cherry mixture evenly in bottom of pan. On top of cherry layer, pack chocolate layer and pack 3rd layer on top of 2nd. Cover with wax paper and refrigerate 24 hours. Turn out onto cutting board and slice across into 1/4-inch slices. Cut these 1/4-inch slices in half and put on slightly greased baking sheet. Bake 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees, depending on oven. Cool on baking rack.

(POPCORN) BALLS OF CHEER

Granny Mary and her grandson Sam. (Courtesy of Alisha Hines)

Being the oldest of 15 grandchildren, I have had the pleasure of helping my grandma make many favorite recipes as well as watching my younger sisters and cousins bake with her, too. Every one of the grandchildren cherishes the time spent in the kitchen with our Granny Mary! To this day, Granny is willing to let us help us out!

Each year at Christmas time, Grandma makes a variety of goodies such as cut-out sugar cookies decorated with frosting and sprinkles, ginger snaps, peanut butter blossoms, homemade peanut brittle and of course, everyone’s favorite — POPCORN BALLS! I have so many memories of Sunday afternoons spent making popcorn balls with my grandma, my sisters, cousins, and my aunts while we reminisced and enjoyed each other’s company. This has been a favorite tradition of ours for as long as I can remember and even before I was born. — Alisha M. Hines, Ellsworth, Wis.

POPCORN BALLS

10 quarts popped popcorn

2 cups sugar

2/3 cup light corn syrup

1/2 cup butter

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Place popcorn in a large baking pan.

In a heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, water and salt. Cook over medium heat until a candy thermometer reads 235 degrees (soft-ball stage). Remove from the heat. Add the butter and vanilla; stir until butter is melted. Immediately pour over popcorn and stir until evenly coated. When mixture is cool enough to handle, quickly shape into 3-inch balls, dipping hands in cold water to prevent sticking.

COOKIES BUILDING COMMUNITY

Eggnog thumbprint cookies from Mary Tuminelly. (Courtesy photo)

Cookies are the perfect symbol of holiday tradition. Some 20-plus years ago, my eldest daughter and I took on a project. The Christmas cookie bake offered by the school district was going to be canceled. I had been involved with the class in the past and saw its value for participants. So on a whim we took on running the community class and it was an instant hit. Over the years, the class grew, and our family tradition became a community tradition. People loved making and sharing the cookies from the class. We began to see the same faces year after year. The classes sold out. Like all traditions, memories grew. We still laugh over the woman who loved her cookies so much that she actually packed up a second set and insisted she hadn’t. Then there was the single man who thought cookie baking would be a great way to meet ladies. He found love only in the form of sugar, flour and frosting, but he had so much fun he came back the following year. The brother-and-sister team who came every year. Our tradition became their tradition. Over the years we baked more than 50,000 cookies. There were a few that stood out as class favorites, and the Eggnog Thumbprints are definitely one of those. We have embellished the recipe several times over the years altering the color, adding nuts, putting rum in the frosting, sprinkles and sugar — anything to make them more irresistible and more beautiful than the year before. We happily share the recipe we’ve loved over the years with you. The cookie bake and I retired two years ago, and as losing a tradition always is, it was sad to see it end. But the memories we will cherish for many years to come. — Mary Tuminelly

EGGNOG THUMBPRINTS

Makes 4 dozen.

For cookies:

3/4 cup butter, softened

1 cup flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs, separated

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

For filling:

1/4 cup butter

1 cup powdered sugar

1/4 cup rum extract

1-2 teaspoon milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar, until fluffy, then add egg yolks and vanilla. Beat well. Add flour, salt, and nutmeg, mix well. Refrigerate for 1 hour or until firm. Shape into 1-inch balls, dip in egg whites and then roll ball in walnuts.

Bake for 10-12 minutes until light golden brown.

For filling, combine butter, powdered sugar and extract, then add enough milk to achieve spreading consistency. Pipe 1/2 teaspoon filling onto each cookie.

BUTTER MAKES THE BATTER BETTER

Gertrude Vanda is pictured with her first heart-shaped cookie cutter and a sample plate of some holiday cookies made by her family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Courtesy photo)

Seventy years ago, Gertrude Vanda started making her mother’s holiday cut-out cookies recipe with a heart-shaped cookie cutter given to her by a neighbor. Her joy for making and decorating holiday cookies included hearts for Valentine’s Day; bunnies and chicks for Easter; pilgrims and turkeys for Thanksgiving Day; and Santas, trees, stars and wreaths for Christmas. She carefully mixed, rolled out and baked her cookies so each cookie would be soft and slightly golden on the edges. She always used butter for the cookie mix and the buttercream frosting. She enjoyed frosting cookies with lots of detail. Her Christmas Santa cookies featured white beards, red Santa suits with white trim, white tasseled red caps, and black boots. At 97 years old, she continues to enjoy her cookie tradition with her children and grandchildren. Family members treasure the opportunity to gather together to bake and frost holiday cookies while Gertrude supervises and encourages them to add a few more details. — Teresa Cameron, Hudson, Wis.

GRANDMOTHER’S ROLLED-OUT SUGAR COOKIES

Makes about 3 dozen.

1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 1/2- 3 cups flour

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cream thoroughly butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla. In a separate bowl, sift together dry ingredients and blend into creamed ingredients. Chill about one hour.

On lightly floured surface, roll to 1/8 inch thickness, cut in desired cookie-cutter shapes.

Bake approximately 7-8 minutes. Watch cookies closely as cookies are done baking when they have only a slightly browned edge.

A GERMAN HOLIDAY TRADITION

Pfeffernuesse cookies. (Courtesy of Kai Thoni)

My mother’s family came to the United States in the late 19th century. They were emigrants from the Black Sea area of southern Russia. They were descendants of the German peasants who had been invited by the czars of Russia to come and establish German farming colonies throughout that region. These industrious Germans turned the region into the breadbasket of Russia. Sadly, by the late 1800s the autonomy and religious freedoms promised to these colonists were taken away by the government. This caused a mass exodus to America where these Germans from Russia settled in the Dakotas, the Upper Midwestern states and Canadian prairie provinces. They brought with them the treasured recipes and foods that combined their ancestral German traditions with Russian influence.

The women in our family have baked Pfeffernuesse (literally, “pepper nuts”) for hundreds of years. To this day, these zesty cookies are a special treat prepared for Christmas in our family homes. Bringing this tradition from Germany, they originally baked them in brick outdoor beehive ovens in Russia, then in the iron cook stoves of North Dakota and today in my modern gas oven.

Nothing is better — after hours of mixing and baking — than to sit down and savor a plate of Pfeffernuesse with a cup of black coffee in my grandmother’s old china mug. These are not sweet Russian teas cakes, they are Pfeffernuesse! — Kai Thoni, St. Paul

PFEFFERNUESSE COOKIES

Makes about 7 dozen cookies.

1 cup butter or lard (lard makes softer cookies)

1 cup honey

1 cup sugar (brown or white)

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup boiling hot coffee

6 cups of flour

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

3 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoon anise seed (or more for stronger anise flavor)

1/2 teaspoon pure anise extract (drops of anise oil)

3 eggs (well beaten)

To prepare: Heat the lard or butter in a pan on low heat. Add honey and sugar and cook until creamy. Let cool. Add the rest of the ingredients, using enough flour to make a stiff dough. Chill. Roll into balls the size of walnuts, placed onto a cookie sheet.

To bake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake in a moderate oven for 11 minutes, one cookie sheet at a time. Roll cookies in powdered sugar while still warm. Store in an airtight container. The cookies also freeze well.

IT’S ALL IN THE NAME

Each year as I prepare for Christmas baking, I come across an old yellow card in my recipe box. This is my grandmother’s spritz cookie recipe. It is not titled the common name, but simply “S” cookie. As I hold it in my hand, I recall how Grandma held a cookie press in her hand years ago as she formed an “S” shape out of cookie dough. She never called it a spritz. It was a special cookie called an “S.” I believed it was made especially for me because my name is Susan. Now, years later, I will make the cookie for my young granddaughter whose name is Stella. This will be her special Christmas cookie. It is even more special because my mother’s name was Stella, also. I think of both Stellas lovingly as I press out the “S” cookie this year. While the cookies are not as perfect as my grandmother’s, the memories couldn’t be more perfect! — Susan Warner, St. Paul

SPRITZ (‘S’) COOKIES

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

1 cup powdered or granulated sugar

1 cup butter

2 eggs, beaten

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

A dash of salt

1 teaspoon almond extract

To prepare: Cream butter and sugar, then add beaten egg and extract. Stir in flour, baking powder and salt. Press through a cookie press into desired shapes and sprinkle with colored sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 10 mins or until lightly browned.

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