CRESTVIEW — Christmas cookie baking at the Hughes residence was a family affair.
Mom marshaled her kitchen assistants — my brother and me. “Assistance” included eating any slightly singed or misshapen cookies. Dad stayed out of the way, a task he handled skillfully and willingly in front of the living room TV.
I’d get the early shift, as I had inherited Poppa Hughes’ Anglo blood and generally shut down around 11:30 p.m. My brother Evan got Poppa Major’s Austro-Hungarian blood and took the late shift, which often stretched into the wee hours.
With a stack of Christmas albums on the record player, it was great mother-sons bonding time.
I inherited Mom’s 1949 “Christmas Cookie Book” by Virginia Pasley. Mom’s list of our family’s favorite cookies and her handwritten notations are conveniently tucked inside the front cover so I can prepare them almost as she did.
Though 17 Christmases have passed since she left us, Mom still helps at Christmas cookie time. Those bonds formed decades ago in a warm, tiny kitchen on a snow-clad New Jersey mountaintop are as strong as ever.
I’ve since added some of my own favorites. Family traditions evolve, you know. Foremost is my gingerbread, which friends like because these are rich, spicy and soft cookies, not the hard, crunchy kind.
With lots of German influence from both sets of grandparents, spice cookies, especially Lebkuchen — my favorite — always figure highly on my list.
This year, I want to try Pfeffernüsse, little “pepper nut” balls. They look festive and Christmassy dusted with powdered sugar.
Put on some Bing Crosby, add a little Julie Andrews and Nat King Cole, stir in some Mannheim Steamroller, and — if I may suggest a selection you may not know — Nancy LaMott’s heartfelt “Just in Time for Christmas,” and meet me in the kitchen.
These gingerbread cookies, whatever shape you choose to make them in, are spicy and chewy. The dough must refrigerate overnight, so plan ahead.
1 jar (12 ounces) dark, unsulphured molasses
1½ cups (3 sticks) butter
2 large eggs
8 cups plain all-purpose flour
1½ cups dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
5 teaspoons ground ginger
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon powdered cloves
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
DIRECTIONS: Microwave the molasses in its jar about a half-minute to make it easier to pour. Pour it into a saucepan, add the butter and heat on medium-low to melt the butter. Let it cool and then beat in the eggs.
In a large mixing bowl — the bigger the better — measure all the dry ingredients and mix well. Make a “well” in the center, pour in the molasses mixture and mix together using a sturdy large spoon. You may have to use your hands as it gets stiffer. The dough will be soft and sticky.
Scrape the dough from the bowl onto a large sheet of plastic wrap. Wrap it well in several thicknesses of plastic wrap and refrigerate it overnight or up to four days.
Go write your Christmas cards and start wrapping presents.
The next day, preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Let the dough reach room temperature. It will be soft and feel slightly greasy. Break off a chunk about the size of a softball and roll it out to about ¼ inch thick on a cookie sheet sprayed with cooking spray. If the dough gets too sticky, chill it again.
Use cookie cutters to cut it into shapes. You can also use a sharp knife to cut custom shapes like letters of the alphabet. (Spell a friend’s name and pack the cookies, in order, in a flat box as a great gift.)
Peel away the unwanted dough from the cut shapes and bake until the edges begin to brown — about eight to 10 minutes, depending on cookie size. Knead it together with more of the dough and repeat on another sprayed cookie sheet.
Cool the cookies completely, and then ice with royal icing.
2 egg whites
Pinch of salt
5 drops white vinegar
1 pound box confectioners’ sugar, sifted smooth
Food color as desired
DIRECTIONS: Beat the egg whites with vinegar and salt in a medium or large mixing bowl until they form stiff peaks. Add the sugar about a quarter-cup at a time, beating continuously at high speed until the icing forms peaks that don’t droop when you pull the beaters out.
Tint the icing with food color as desired, dividing the icing into smaller batches if you use multiple colors.
If you lack an icing bag with artsy tips, pipe icing onto the cookies using a freezer-weight re-sealable bag with a very small hole snipped in one corner.
FROSTED ANISE WREATHS
Ah… anise seed and lemon! What’s not to like about these white wreath-shaped cookies?
3 cups all-purpose flour
2½ teaspoons double-acting baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup butter, softened
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons anise seed
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind (“zest”)
1½ tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon anise extract (optional)
3 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
1/3 cup hot (not boiling) milk
½ teaspoon lemon juice (if desired)
DIRECTIONS: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together.
Use a hand mixer to cream the butter and sugar well in a mixing bowl. Beat in eggs until well blended. Stir in anise seed, lemon rind, lemon juice and anise extract (if you’re using it).
Using low speed, gradually mix in 2 cups of the dry ingredients. Use a heavy spoon to mix in the remaining dry ingredients.
Either knead the dough on a floured surface until it’s smooth and well-blended, or refrigerate overnight.
Flour your hands and work surface. The dough is sticky.
Divide the dough into eight equal parts and roll each part into a strip a half-inch thick and 18 inches long. Cut each strip into five equal parts.
Cut slits along one side of each strip a half-inch apart and form the pieces into a circle, slit-side out. Place on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray.
Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for eight to 10 minutes. The cookies will not brown so pay close attention to them. Cool them thoroughly.
Mix the glaze. Dip each cookie’s top into the glaze, allowing the glaze to drip down the sides. You also can sprinkle with candy decorations.
We used to get these German “pepper nut” cookies from local bakeries, but Mom made her own at Christmas.
I don’t recall these having much “pepper” taste, but the recipe calls for a wee bit. Don’t let the long list of ingredients, the longer directions, or the overnight wait before baking throw you.
These aren’t really that tricky — and are well worth the effort.
1 cup brown sugar
Grated zest from a half-lemon
1½ tablespoon black coffee
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper (or less, to taste)
¼ teaspoon mace
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/16 teaspoon crushed cardamom
½ cup chopped almonds
¼ cup chopped citron
1/8 teaspoon anise extract
Apricot brandy (the alcohol bakes out)
DIRECTIONS: Sift the flour and spices together. Beat the eggs until thick and add sugar a little at a time, beating continuously. Add the lemon zest, then coffee, alternating it with the flour mixture. Add the ground almonds and citron. Chill the dough for two hours.
Roll it into logs an inch in diameter, slice off half-inch pieces and set on a cookie sheet sprayed with cooking spray. Allow to stand overnight in a cool, dry place to dry out.
The next morning, preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
While the oven warms, turn each cookie over and put a drop of apricot brandy in each moist spot. (This is cool: when the cookies bake, the brandy causes them to “pop” and become rounded.)
Bake the cookies about 20 minutes, watching them after about 15 minutes.
Let them cool and put them in an airtight tin or plastic container to soften. Adding an apple slice may help the process.
Roll the cookies in powdered sugar. You can also frost the cookies; don’t put an apple slice in the container if you do this.
If you want to frost the cookies, make frosting from confectioners’ sugar, egg white and a bit of water. Brush the glaze over the cookie, let it dry partially, and then roll the cookie in confectioners’ sugar.
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.