Every family has their own Christmas baking traditions - some that are handed down through the generations and others that are discovered along the way and are good enough to be incorporated into the portfolio. Part of the fun of Christmas baking, too, is not just what we make in our own homes, but being on the receiving end of treats that flow in from friends and neighbors, giving us a taste of their holiday baking traditions. Some of these have become as highly anticipated as any of our own goodies. My kids each have at least one cookie made by friends that they prefer to any of mine, although they're not allowed to say it to my face.
Christmas cooking for me is all about candied fruits, nuts, butter, and sugar - ingredients that were historically available in the harsh winter months. Fresh fruits, for instance, weren't available at Christmas way back when, so preserved versions were used in the form of jams and candied fruits. Candied fruits today are found almost exclusively in the oft ridiculed fruitcake. I actually do like true fruitcake, as opposed to the mass produced bricks that mysteriously get bought up during the season by God knows who. I also see the fruit in German stollen cakes, but I've never tried one. Graul's carries them this time of year, but I'm guessing they can't compete with the real deal.
I use candied fruit in my annual batch of fruitcake cookies. My family was introduced to these over 20 years ago by one of my Dad's patients. Isabelle was a phenomenal southern cook, and she showed up one day before Christmas with a 5-gallon tin full to the top with these gems. They were the best thing we had ever tasted - festive with red and green candied pineapple and cherries but not a hint of what you might associate with traditional fruitcake flavor - just moist, sweet, rich, buttery, nutty, goodness. Isabelle was generous with her recipe, and my mother and I have been making them ever since. It's a labor of love - cutting up the fruit is truly tedious and messy - but the payoff is grand. They are in my estimation the perfect Christmas cookie.
The second Christmas cookie that we always bake are Swedish spritz - another perfect cookie for the season. I picked up this tradition from my Mother-in-law, along with her antique cookie press. I battled the old copper and tin press for a few years before I broke down and bought a new pressed cookie gun (tradition only gets you so far). It was a revelation. My next big step will be to move up to the electric version - pressed cookie nirvana. We press these cookies in a variety of shapes including Xmas trees, snowmen, wreaths and stars. They are tender, buttery, crunchy, bite-sized cookies sprinkled with red and green sugar sprinkles. Always festive and pretty and perfect with a cup of coffee in the morning or with a cup of tea late at night. Santa LOVES them.
The final cookie that I like to make are what I grew up calling "sandies". In my husband's family, they are known as "pecan balls", and I've heard people of Russian descent call them "Russian tea cakes". They are round cookies made from fairly dry dough so they keep their round shape when they cook. The main ingredient is pecans, and when they're out of the oven, you roll them in powdered sugar. I think they look like snowballs, and I love the crunchy, nutty, buttery flavor. I like a little more powdered sugar on mine than the picture below.
That is my trifecta of Christmas cookies from the Roberts household. I guess the recurring theme is sugar, butter, nuts, red, green and snowy. One ingredient that I've never embraced as part of Christmas baking is chocolate. I like making chocolate candies (fudge, chocolate covered nuts, caramels, and fruits), but not cooking with it. I couldn't tell you why. Chocolate is a new world ingredient that was only known in beverage form until the mid 19th century. Evidence of cacao as a beverage has been found in Honduran ruins dating back to 1400 BC. The Spanish explorers brought it back to Europe from Central America in the age of exploration. The drink became wildly popular there through the 17th and 18th centuries, initially in royal courts and eventually with the masses in "chocolate houses" - old world versions of Starbucks.
In the mid 1800s, a Dutch chocolatier figured out how to process cacao to remove the bitterness and make it mild enough for cooking. This eventually led to the invention of what we know today as chocolate. At any rate, I'm not really sure why chocolate doesn't feel right for my own baking at Christmas. Maybe it doesn't feel as traditional somehow - a mere 150 years old - new kid on the block. I know it's popular in other households, though, and we are happy to chow down on all the yummy chocolate treats that come our way. We're actually contemplating making a "buche de noel" or traditional French yule log cake this year, and that will require letting go of my chocolate bias.
The other two items I've been known to make in the past are divinity and cheese wafers. Divinity is an old timey candy made with egg whites, corn syrup and nuts. It's kind of a cross between nougat and meringue - VERY sweet. My Father-in-law loved it, as do I, so I always made a point of making it for the two of us. I didn't have the heart to last year after losing him a few months earlier, but I think I'll make some this year and eat it all myself for the both of us. It's a tricky concoction, and I've been known to blow up two different hand mixers in the process of mixing it, but when it's just right, it earns its heavenly name. The little mounds of snow white candy look like the peak of the matterhorn.
The cheese wafers are little bite sized, buttery, cheddary, spicy, crispy rounds that are my Mother-in-law's favorites. They are perfect for parties and get togethers. My recipe for those comes from my Great Aunt Dorothy Jean who was the master at making them. I do a close approximation, but she was the queen at that and most everything else in her southern world.
The only thing that saves me from eating my body weight in butter, sugar, flour and nuts during this season is giving away the vast majority of our baked goods as gifts. I pack up and ship out as much as possible to friends, neighbors, family and teachers. It's the true joy in baking them - the chance to share the fruits of our labor with others. Most of us don't have too many opportunities to do that these days - to spend hours on end baking in the kitchen and then offer that piece of ourselves to the people who are special in our lives. It's just one more thing that makes this time of year like no other.
I'd love to hear your Christmas baking traditions. Feel free to share your stories and/or recipes. I'll let you know how the "buche" comes out. I'm not terribly optimistic, but if the cake doesn't roll well, we will bury it in mounds of chocolate frosting - thank you ancient Central Americans/Aztecs and Mayans, 16th century Spanish explorers, and 19th century Dutchmen for making this possible in my 21st century kitchen...