Start Your Own Holiday Cookie Tradition
Story by Christina Ward
Photography by Joe Laedtke
Put down that cookie! That rock-hard tasteless disc of grinning green snowman extruded from a tube o’ plastic. It’s that time of year when we all feel the pressure to perform, then slink into the grocery store and sneakily grab that slab of pre-made frozen cookie dough. Sure, the kindergarten class might be satisfied. But you know. It’s not the same. Those are not the cookies Grandma made.
You can look back onto the faded scrap of paper written in a precise, spidery handwriting… it’s a recipe but only just. No title, just a list of ingredients with arcane measurements of ‘pinch’ or ‘add flour until dough is sticky’. How are you supposed to make that?
The favorite holiday cookies handed down through generations are the simplest. Butter, flour, sugar, salt, vanilla. That’s the core of all the recipes shared here. It’s the slight variations in spices and technique that make them different. And it’s the love with which they’re made that makes them special.
I checked in with some of my favorite home bakers and asked them to reveal their secrets to successful holiday cookies. Everyone I spoke with talked about one aspect above all: tradition.
It was the tradition of families making choices to spend time together, to recognize that how they choose to show their love for family and friends creates the most joyous of occasions. When it comes to holiday baking, cookies equal love.
“Oh, no! Nothing was written down. You had to watch. We absorbed the recipe and technique from watching her.” – Petra Martinez Grabowski
Petra Martinez Grabowski and I go way back. Our dads grew up together on the multicultural, near-South Side of 1950’s Milwaukee. Petra’s maternal grandmother immigrated to Milwaukee from Chiusa Sclafani, Sicily in 1904. Rosie, like many others from the hills of Sicily, settled in the old Third Ward.
Petra laughed when I asked her about The Cookie, her grandmother’s famed biscotti regina. (Her grandmother would first say the name in Italian then explain in English, “You know, that means Queen’s Biscuits.”) You may see these traditional Sicilian cookies at an Italian bakery: delicate, finger-sized, covered in sesame seeds, slightly salty with just a hint of sweetness. Petra’s recipe differs slightly. No sesame seeds. Her family also makes a chocolate version, which adds variety to the cookie tray with only a slight change to the dough.
Most “traditional” recipes are flexible. There are many “right” ways to make them. Every village and every family has versions and variations. Another reason to jump in and start making cookies: you get to put your own stamp on these recipes! Petra and her sister learned the recipe as handed down from their grandmother.
“Oh, no! Nothing was written down,” she says. “You had to watch. We absorbed the recipe and technique from watching her.”Petra, who is the operations manager at Sanford Restaurant, was honored when founder Sandy D’Amato asked her to make the Biscotti Regina for a group of James Beard award-winning chefs who were dining at the restaurant. For Petra, a home baker, it was a touching recognition.
All the bakers I spoke with shared similar stories. Whether learned at grandmother’s elbow or through long hours of experimentation, they never felt discouraged. Baking can be a challenge, but the smiles of pure joy are worth any burnt batch.
Julie Ravely remembers the gentle admonition of her Oma, as she would what the “vanille kiffel” cookie. “I knew I was doing something wrong if I heard, ‘My dear girl…” As Julie got older she desperately tried to figure out the correct amounts used in the recipe. Again she was admonished, “My dear girl, if I am telling you what I am doing, then I am not doing it.” Julie’s grandmother Katie Lisheron came to Milwaukee from the Banat, the German-speaking area of Hungary and Romania. Donauschwaben (literally “Danube Swabian,” referring to the people of the region) recipes reflect the influences of culture, politics and geography. The “vanille kiffel” of Julie’s family is a cookie of many names, versions and nuances, all depending on where a family lived. Also known as the kipferl, the cookie is a staple of Donauschwaben baking. Julie says the construction can be labor-intensive.
“We only make them at Christmas,” she says. “Families were poor and couldn’t afford the luxuries of butter, sugar and vanilla that we take for granted (now). The effort we put into making these cookies reminds us that we are grateful to enjoy such luxuries.”
Baking traditions can start anytime. Amanda Haugen found her grandmother’s old cookbook at age 10; she then started cooking for her dad and brother. She taught herself how to cook and bake through trial and error. She laughs now at some of the early experiments. “But we ate everything!” Amanda has taken her passion for baking and created a micro-business.
Always a prolific holiday baker, Amanda found herself wanting to supplement her income while home with her young children. She began The Cookie Momster Milwaukee as a service to friends and family. Cookie Momster offers small batches of beautifully-decorated sugar cookies. She currently rents a small commercial kitchen space, but is looking forward to the passage and implementation of Wisconsin’s Cookie Law.
“There are many people in my position: great home bakers who would like to earn a little extra money for their families and share baked goods with their community,” Amanda says. The State Legislature is currently working on refining the rules. Supporters of the Bill are hoping to see a quick passage and implementation in early 2014.
Butter, sugar, flour, salt, vanilla. How are all these recipes so similar regardless of where they originated? How did vanilla and cinnamon get all over the world? I was pondering why with my neighbor and fellow home baker, Tahani Al-Busairi Lyman. “I wonder if it’s Vikings?” she asked. Tahani explained further: her mom is Minnesota Scandinavian and her dad is Kuwaiti. She was always surprised to find that Arab cookies and Swedish cookies had the same spice, cardamom. I did some research and sure enough, as the Vikings swept along coasts far and wide they brought back with them the delicacies of other lands. That’s how cardamom got from the Arabian peninsula to Oslo.
The larger story of migrating peoples and falling empires influenced all our cookie makers. The beloved vanilla bean and cocoa of the Aztecs became the main flavors of European baking. The Turks gave us the crescent shape of the kipferl, the regina biscotti became softer in America, and the deceptively simple sugar cookie is a synthesis of the myriad of holiday cookie baking traditions.
I did discover one ingredient that’s universal with bakers all over the world. The thing that holds all these cookies together. You’ve probably already guessed what it is. The one element unmeasured and tossed in with wild abandon: love.
Pro Tips From Our Cookie Masters
Use quality ingredients. “These are special treats made once a year; don’t skimp!” – Julie
Use either Double Strength or Mexican Vanilla. “I order mine from Mexico and hoard it throughout the year.” – Petra
“Penzy’s Double Strength Vanilla is the go-to for all my recipes.” – Julie
Slightly underbake cookies then let them rest on the pan. “A minute will make a difference between done and burnt.” – Amanda
Don’t overwork cookie doughs. “Cookies are delicate and require a light touch.” – Julie
Create new family cookie traditions. “My husband designs a recipe card featuring one of the cookies we made on the tray. It’s been over 10 years now. I’m secretly hoping that people are keeping all the recipe cards.” – Amanda
Don’t be discouraged. “It took me years to get the ‘feel’ right. It takes practice.” – Petra
Invest in an oven thermometer and timer. Even the newest of ovens can be off on temperature calibration. Use an oven thermometer to find the actual temperature. It may mean the difference between overcooked hockey pucks and perfectly baked gems.