Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Confessions of a Cookie-Baking Jew

For today's post, some thoughts on Christmas, and cookies (and coming soon: an original Red Ramekin Christmas cookie recipe!).

As one of the few non-Christian kids in my hometown, I always considered Christmas cookies to be the ultimate appeasement during the month of December, when my friends and classmates were all buzzing with anticipation for their favorite holiday.

I never really bought into the whole Santa Claus thing, and, although my incremental presents trickled in steadily during the hallowed week of Hannukah, I never got to experience the Christmas morning elation of waking up to a living room’s worth of new toys, games, and clothing. Although I never knew for sure, it seemed that Christmas was about as good as it could get. And what I did know firsthand was that Hannukah Night 4: The socks edition left something to be desired.

[espresso-chocolate and cranberry-pistachio shortbread]

Luckily for me, with vicarious Christmastime cheer also came the cookies. Lots of cookies, with lots of frosting, in lots of different varieties. Unlike caroling or spending time with family – seemingly both products of nostalgia rather than intrinsic gratification – cookies are a universally appreciated element of Christmas that touch everyone, Jewish kids included. Everyone loves a good royal-frosted sugar cookie, and the spiritual experience of eating gingerbread men, pecan sandies, and chocolate peppermint drops knows no religious bounds.

My primary cookie complaint was that I was never actually part of the December-time army of cookie-makers. While my friends were gorging themselves on dozens of fresh-from-the-oven odds and ends, my family was divvying up the small tin of treats that the occasional neighbor or two had left on our doorstep. But still – what joy resided in that little tin! The four of us, disenchanted by so many misdirected “Merry Christmases,” would spin the dreidel a few times for posterity’s sake, and then descend upon our edible, goyische gifts, each taking a bite here and there, ensuring that everyone had an opportunity to taste each sugary creation.


But making Christmas cookies need not be a Christians-only affair. From my outsider’s perspective, making and distributing cookies is one of the modern Christmas phenomena that I fully understand and appreciate. The act of baking has a magical way of joining friends and families, the act of giving builds character, and the art of personalizing recipes is a gift unto itself. All of this probably explains why I have come to adopt the tradition of making my own cookies during the holiday season. Over the years I have outgrown the December envy of my Christian friends, and have even been known to gloat in the relative stress-lessness of my post-Thanksgiving routine, but I’ll jump at any opportunity to make dozens of cookies. Baking has a way of putting me into some kind of good spirit, even if it’s not the explicitly “Christmas” kind.

One of the perks of being a dedicated Jewish Christmas cookie-baker is the freedom afforded by my lack of passed-down family cookie recipes. While most cookie connoisseurs have a few varieties that define their Christmas experience, I am unattached. I’ll admit that I find it difficult to resist the classic Christmas cookie, with hints of spice or lemon perfuming the dough and crackly shards of royal icing topping it all off, but the world of cookies is too vast for me to stick to the basics.

This has become both a good and a bad thing; come mid-December, I’ll often find myself absorbed in the annals of the vast online cookie-recipe repository, unthinkingly forming lists of to-makes that would make even the most church-going of housewives cringe. Worse still is when I set aside some dedicated cookie-baking time, and then spend most of it feeding my indecision, scouring hundreds of recipes in search of the one that is worthy of my Christmas cookie lineup.

My secret, of course, is that I actually enjoy spending my time this way, and Christmas provides the perfect excuse to do so. I love that I can bake maniacally for a solid weekend, no questions asked, even though I don’t care a wink about the other Christmas hubbub and, frankly, am under no obligation to make cookies or give gifts at all. It is for this, and this alone, that I find myself thanking Jesus.

So of course, I love giving away my Christmas cookies, but am also aware that for me, cookie-making is a slightly more self-serving process than it is for most. No matter though. Tonight I have plans to make another batch, whip up some frosting, and finally get around to buying some glassine bags with shiny ribbon. And so what if my “Christmas” cookies are more cookie than Christmas? They still taste good to me.

[the whole cookie tin]


Christina said...

Nice assortment of cookies! The espresso-chocolate shortbread sounds great.

Anonymous said...

Did you forget that almost every year I made pecan sandies? And didn't we ever make those little cookie cutter dreidels and candles? My goodness, your childhood seems so deprived! OK, I admit that sock night was never that thrilling, but wasn't it better than underwear night? I believe it is your nature to be disappointed with any gift you receive (at least from me). Even when you tell me what you want, I pick out the wrong color!

Olga said...

Great post! I am too Jewish and was just thinking that I want to make cookies! Maybe I'll make some this weekend :)

Should go buy some pistachios!

Anonymous said...

Great cookies! Great post! I found you through foodgawker!

Mia said...

Christina - thanks! the shortbread was a nice addition to the cookie basket - not too sweet, but rich, buttery, and bite-sized.

Mom - sock night was only marginally better than underwear night.

Olga - pistachios are my new favorite baking ingredient...

rightleftleftright said...

This post was a riot! Especially because my neighbors just brought over a plate filled with an assortment of Christmas cookies. I think I counted 18 different varieties. It ranged from the tradional pecan sandies, thumbprint cookies, sugar cookie cut-outs to some very unusual maybe mid-western varieties. Some were made with cornflakes in the shape of wreaths then colored green, some were chocolate dipped mini-ritz sandwich cookies with sprinkles, some frosted pretzels and some were made with crispy chow mein noodles. Anyway, we had fun trying them all. I always used to bake Christmas cookies and fudge and give it to friends and neighbors. They never seemed to mind that I was Jewish.