Sugar and spice and everything nice for Christmas

Some of my friends take part in cookie exchanges, or parties where you bring an oversupply of your own best Christmas cookies and swap them for cookies that others have baked. Everyone walks away with a mound of cookies of types they might not make on their own.

I got invited to a cookie swap once but I had to refuse. I’m not much of a baker. I remember making Elevator Lady Spice Cookies one time from the “I Hate to Cook Book,” but generally speaking I leave the production of Christmas cookies to those who are better at it than I am.

When I was a kid, my aunt and grandmother used to make platters of Italian Christmas cookies for the family table, dense little morsels topped with confectioner’s sugar frosting and a sprinkle of nonpareils. At home, my mom made classic sugar cookies, using cookie cutters to shape the dough into bells, candy canes and trees. We always left some out for Santa.

But my eyes weren’t truly opened to the grandeur of Christmas cookies until I was in my 30s and had bought my little cabin in Dingmans Ferry. Living next door was an older woman named Isabelle who became something of a second-mother figure to me. German by birth, Isabelle had an amazing capability for baking and was so serious in its pursuit that I came to feel that baking was her life’s work—her art.

If memory serves, Isabelle would start baking her Christmas cookies sometime in October, beginning with the crisp varieties that hold well in a tin and moving progressively forward, cookie by cookie, into December. She turned her cottage into a cookie-baking assembly line, setting up folding tables in the living room to augment the dining table in her tiny kitchen. At night I would peek out my bedroom window and see the lights blazing next door as Isabelle baked into the wee hours.

She must have produced hundreds upon hundreds of cookies—perhaps thousands—each and every year. She gave them away as Christmas gifts to lucky friends and family members, keeping just a few tins to have on hand when people stopped by for tea. Isabelle herself did not eat Christmas cookies. She told me she had lost her appetite for sweets when her husband, Bill, died.

I never knew there were so many kinds of Christmas cookies. Besides the standard sugar cookies, butter cookies, chocolate chips and gingerbreads, Isabelle made biscotti, macaroons, pfeffernusse, meringues, almond cookies, lebkuchen, pizzelle and a dozen other varieties I couldn’t name. Many of the recipes had come down in the family and were 100 years old.

Isabelle had the knack—she had the touch. Somehow her cookies were crisper, nuttier, thinner, more buttery and just plain prettier than anyone else’s. Oh, and absolutely scrumptious.

Isabelle is gone, but her daughter, my friend Barbara, maintains the cookie-making tradition, so I still get spoiled every year with a huge plate of Isabelle’s cookies. Christmas just wouldn’t be as sweet without them.

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