Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

Any serious holiday baker included nut roll on her/his holiday baking list, so I thought it only appropriate to give nut roll its own space.  I think there are as many recipes for nut rolls as there are nuts!  When I was organizing recipes for my mother-in-law, I discovered 17 recipes for nut roll, each just a little different from the others. With the holidays approaching, I remember Mum discussing nut roll “this-and-that” in the lead-up to the actual baking…considering at one time to eliminate it from the list because it was so much work (gasp!).  Eventually, though, Mum succumbed to the inevitability of the nut roll’s appearance on a holiday cookie tray.  I mean, what self-respecting baker didn’t make nut roll? The alternating layers of pastry and nuts of a sliced nut roll is so hard to resist.  Eventually Mum stopped making the large rolls and made the mini-sized nut rolls—equally delicious, equally impressive on a cookie tray and the only recipe that I have to include here.

As a not-so-serious holiday baker these days, I think making either the large nut roll or the mini nut rolls is the only confection a person has to make.  Packaged in a cellophane bag tied with a beautiful ribbon and placed in a basket with a bag of good coffee beans; and you have a very nice, thoughtful gift to give a special friend.  Or have nut roll on hand to serve when unexpected Christmas visitors drop in.  You don’t need an entire tray of cookies when you have nut rolls.  When you look at the “Nut Filling” recipe that follows, notice that you can use either vanilla or maple flavoring.  My personal preference is vanilla because I find maple flavoring overpowering.  Also, using purchased apricot filling instead of nuts is an equally good choice.  If you’re really pressed for time but still want to make nut rolls, you could purchase just about any filling for the dough. Almost all grocery stores have various pastry fillings in addition to the nut variety. We have a wonderful Amish store near us that sells all sorts of delicious-looking fillings in clear plastic pastry-type bags that would be perfect for this recipe.  Of course, then they wouldn’t be “nut rolls”, but would a nut roll by any other filling be as sweet?  Absolutely!

Favorite Nut Rolls

Mix and set aside:
1 package dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
In a large bowl, mix:
6 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Cut in as for pie crust:
2 cups shortening
Mix then add to flour mixture:
4 eggs
1/4 cup evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
yeast mixture
Using a fork, mix together lightly and well.  Refrigerate overnight.  Roll out, 1/4 at a time on breadboard sprinkled with part flour and granulated sugar.  Cut into 3-inch squares; spread with nut filling.  Roll up; place on greased baking sheet.  Bake in 375 degree oven for 12 minutes.
Nut Filling
Combine in a saucepan:  1 pound ground walnuts, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 3/4 cup evaporated milk, 2 teaspoons vanilla or maple flavoring.  Heat until mixtures comes to a boil, stirring constantly.  Mixture will be thick; cool (or use purchased apricot filling).

The next recipe, Walnut Horn Cookies, is a variation of nut rolls that moves away from the traditional yeast dough in favor of a butter-cream cheese dough.  What could be better than that!  Again, if you’re pressed for time, you could make the dough but purchase the filling to make it easier and less time-consuming.

Walnut Horn Cookies
1 pound butter (no substitutes), softened
2 packages (one 8 oz., one 3 oz. [I think Mum means 4 oz. here]) cream cheese, softened
4 egg yolks
4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
4 cups ground walnuts (about 1 pound)
5 3/4 cups confectioners’ sugar, divided
4 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
In a mixing bowl combine butter, cream cheese, egg yolks, and flour; beat until smooth.  Shape into 1-inch balls; place in container with waxed paper separating each layer.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.  To make the filling combine ground walnuts, 3 3/4 cups confectioners’ sugar (the mixture will be dry).  In a small mixing bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form; fold into nut mixture.  Add extracts and a few drops of water if necessary until filling reaches a spreading consistency.  Place remaining sugar in a bowl; roll cream cheese balls in sugar until completely covered.  Place a few balls at a time between two sheets of waxed paper.  Roll balls into 2 1/2-inch circles.  Gently spread about 2 teaspoons filling over each.  Roll up; place seam-side down on ungreased baking sheets.  Curve the ends slightly.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until lightly browned.  Cool on wire racks.  Yield: about 8 dozen.

Your house should be filling with heavenly scents if you’re baking along!  –Linda


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Even without the advantage of the Internet or the Food channel, Mum found recipes everywhere—through family and friends; cookbooks; flour or sugar sacks; labels on the packaging of nuts, bakers chocolate, etc.; print newspapers and magazines.  For as long as I can remember, Mum had subscriptions to one magazine or another.  I would wait for McCalls magazine with as much anticipation as Mum did.  Mum poured over the entire magazine while I waited impatiently for her to extract all the cooking, needlework, household, and life wisdom for that particular issue and then hand it off to me.  I would then cut out Betsy McCall, a beautiful one-dimensional paper doll, complete with her new monthly wardrobe. I can still remember being so excited that I wiggled and sang and talked to myself while carefully guiding the scissors so I wouldn’t accidentally cut off one of the precious tabs that kept Betsy’s clothing attached to her body.  I’m pretty sure that was where my love of “women’s” magazines began.

Whatever sources she used, shortly after the Thanksgiving dust settled, Mum began drafting the list of cookies she would make that year.  Once the list was made, she’d gather in the supplies.  I have to admit that I really didn’t pay much attention to what was bought but only that the flour and sugar came in huge sacks.  I remember discussions about the twenty-five pounds of flour (venticinque).  Important discussions that involved numbers or money or our transgressions were always conducted in Italian, which was Greek to me. Buying extra food was not taken lightly in our household, especially on the heels of a food-centric holiday such as Thanksgiving.  And some of the ingredients could be expensive as well as exotic…like dates…to me something very exotic but oh so delicious.

While these date cookies are a little labor-intensive, they are well worth the effort:

Date Cream Cheese Roll-Ups

1 cup butter
1/2 pound cream cheese (8 ounces)
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pitted dates

Cream butter and cream cheese together.  Blend in flour and salt.  Chill for several hours until firm enough to roll.  Roll into 1/8-inch thickness on a board sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar.  Cut in 1 x 3-inch strips.  Put a date in each strip and roll up.  Put seam-side-down on cookie sheet.  Bake in 375 degree oven for 15 minutes.  Makes 8 dozen

As a sheltered kid growing up in the fifties and early sixties, nothing could be more exotic than alcohol as an ingredient in a cookie.  During cookie-baking season, I can remember the very distinctive bottle of Sicilian Gold being lifted from a nondescript brown paper bag as the choirs sang—“Gloriaaaaaaaaaaa….” (not to be confused with the a very popular Van Morrison hit of the sixties: G-L-O-R-I-A or perhaps, maybe)  The Wine Wreath cookies are delicious!  I loved the kick from the heat of the cinnamon candies used for decoration.  Mum included a note on this recipe that it was Rhonda’s favorite, but I’m afraid I’d have to arm-wrestle Rhonda for any last one of these on the tray.  I think I could take her!

 Wine Wreaths

Cream until light:
1 cup oleo (butter is better)

2/3 cup sugar

Add and beat well:
2 egg yolks

Sift and add:
3 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
Alternating with:
1/4 cup Sicilian Gold (or Galiano) [maybe a heaping fourth cup]

Force through star-shaped pastry tube to form into small rings; sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of a sugar/cinnamon mixture or brush with egg white after baking then sprinkle with cinnamon/sugar mixture.  Decorate with red cinnamon candies like a wreath.  Bake in 375 degree oven for 6 to 10 minutes on ungreased sheets.

If you bake only the cookies from yesterday’s and today’s blog, you would have an impressive and pretty plate of cookies to share with anyone stopping by for some Christmas cheer.  Linda

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With only twelve days left until Christmas, I thought I would share twelve cookie recipes from Mum’s vast repertoire of cookie confections.  No…I’m not going to post all twelve at one time, nor am I going to post cookie recipes for the next twelve days.  What I plan to do is to include however many recipes suit my fancy at the time I’m writing.  Already I can see your eyes rolling back into your heads.  Bear with me; maybe you’ll be inspired to go out to the kitchen and whip up a batch of deliciousness!  I know there are those of you who might have even more cookie recipes from Mum than I do, or maybe you’ve developed lists of you own from a combination of sources.  These recipes will be some of my favorite cookie  recipes and standards that I remember Mum baking.

One cookie I love for its short, buttery melt-in-your-mouth goodness is the “spritz” or cookie press cookie.  I could eat the almond-flavored dough right out of the bowl, it’s so good!  Spritz cookies not only taste and smell good, but their tiny size and shape add charm…flair, if you will…to any cookie tray.  Mum would use red and green food coloring at Christmastime to give her spritz cookies a festive touch. When she passed the dough through the press, she would use the discs that she felt represented Christmas flowers or designs.  She passed her cookie press along to me many years ago, still in the original packaging.  I can tell you that that press works better than any of the new and improved “cookie shooters” that are on the market today.  I’ve tried a couple and always go back to that original cookie press handed down to me.

You’ll notice that in this recipe, Butter-Rich Spritz, Mum used oleo. I use butter. The choice is yours, of course; but if it’s named “butter-rich” why not splurge on the fat and calories?  Frankly, I feel a Christmas cookie without butter is like Santa without the “Ho-Ho!” if you get what I mean. I think Mum may have used butter more often than not despite keeping “oleo” in her written recipes.

Butter-Rich Spritz


1 cup oleo (butter)

1 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar

Blend in:

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon vanilla

Add gradually:

2 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix well.  Press dough through cookie press onto ungreased cookie sheets using any shape.  Bake in 375‑degree oven for 6 to 8 minutes.  Do not brown.

Another cookie that adds a touch of panache to a cookie tray is the Coconut Pom-Poms.  I inherited Mum’s love of coconut.  Cakes, cookies, tea breads—all taste better with the simple addition of coconut in my opinion.  I’m aware not everyone shares this enthusiasm for coconut. Ken, for one, will grudgingly eat something with coconut only if there’s no other choice, but a coconut-laced or coconut-topped cookie would definitely rate number one with me.  Mum used coconut not only within her baked goodies; she used it to garnish any frosted treat.  She made a delicious frosted chocolate cookie topped with coconut!  I don’t ever remember her putting peanut butter in the center of these cookies; but since it appears in the recipe, she must have at some point. Candied cherries are a nice Christmas touch.

Coconut Pom-Poms


1 cup oleo (butter)

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla


2 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

Shape dough into 1-inch balls, shaping around candied cherries, dates, mints, or peanut butter.  Roll in coconut and place on ungreased sheets.  Bake in 375 degree oven for 15 minutes.

You’ll notice that Mum didn’t concern herself with how many cookies a recipe would yield.  I think that might be because she would make one batch of about twenty different kinds of cookies.  Each tray of cookies would have two to three cookies of each kind, more than enough cookies to savor with morning or afternoon cup of coffee or tea.  Check again soon for a couple more Christmas cookie recipes.  Linda

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A modern-day Christmas tree

I wrote the following in 1994 and it was published in one of our local newspaper’s magazine sections the week before Christmas. Each year I pull it out and read it again, more for the poem included than anything else. But I also love to be reminded of the long history and tradition of some of our most cherished symbols, the Christmas tree being one we all relate to. It connects us to many eras and many generations of our own families. It allows us to meditate on life, on how things change, and on what our contributions are to the long traditions we keep and pass on to our children and grandchildren. I’ve made a few changes to update the article but it retains its original flavor.

In 1916 Robert Frost wrote the delightful story-poem interspersed throughout this piece. In the poem the owner of the young fir balsams decides he’d rather give away his trees to friends than sell them to someone from the city who only sees Christmas trees as money in his pocket. Frost called the poem “Christmas Trees: A circular Christmas letter.” And it begins ….

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out,
A-buttoning coats, to ask him who he was.

Charles Dickens referred to the Christmas tree as “that pretty German toy,” while Clement Miles wrote, it “is a kind of sacrament linking mankind to the mysteries of the forest.” The Christmas tree has been part of human celebrations and rituals since the 14th or 15th century, but humans have venerated the evergreen since time immemorial. And it is an honor well-deserved.

The pines, spruces, balsams, firs, and hemlocks used in Christmas celebrations are descendents of the first seed-producing plants, which appeared on earth millions of years ago and represented a true revolution in the plant world. A seed is self-contained and maintained; it contains an embryo plant, fully equipped with root, trunk, leaves, and its own food supply for nourishment until conditions are favorable, allowing the plant to germinate and grow.

He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas trees.

Generat Grant in Kings Canyon National Park

The first ancient seed producers were soon replaced by cone-bearing trees, whose descendents include some of our tallest trees and oldest living plants which have survived centuries and geologic catastrophes because of their ability to adapt. Evergreens were already millions of years old when humans first appeared. When we looked around for a symbol of enduring life it’s easy to see how we chose the evergreen. Ancient cultures looked favorably on all evergreens believing that they contained magical powers. Spruce forests are capable of producing thousands of tons of wind-dispersed pollen each year sprinkling land and water with a gold-like powder. The cones, which contain many seeds, were often used as symbols of fertility. Evergreens figured prominently in many pagan rituals, especially those connected with winter solstice celebrations and vegetation deities—like Attis.

Attis, an Asiatic god of vegetation, was born of a virgin who conceived by putting a ripe almond in her bosom. Although stories of Attis’ death differ, they agree on two counts: it was a bloody death, and after his death under a pine tree, Attis changed into a pine tree, which figured prominently thereafter in vegetation rituals to the god.

I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.

Most ancient European and Asian civilizations had some form of tree worship according to Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough. The evergreen symbolized immortal life for the Druids of England who are credited with being the first to hang undecorated evergreens in their homes, more than two centuries before the birth of Christ. Fresh boughs dispelled the gloom of winter and lent their fresh fragrance to the stale winter air inside. They were a reminder that even in the dead of winter, life abounds.

The first Christmas tree, one legend states, was adopted from medieval morality plays in which the evergreen played a major role. Decorated with apples, it represented the tree of life in the story of Adam and Eve. When December 25 became universally accepted as the time to celebrate Christ’s birth, the evergreen tree took on a central role in Christian celebrations of the event. And to some it represented the life-giving tree of the cross. Early decorations included roses (symbol of Mary) and wafers (symbol of last supper).

Eventually all manner of household items were used to decorate the tree. From silver spoons and knives; to cuff links, earrings, bracelets and brightly-colored gloves; cookies, fruit, toys, egg and sea shells, and garlands of cranberries and popcorn.

Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees, except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth—
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine,
I said, “There aren’t enough to be worth while.”

The Germans are generally given credit for introducing the modern Christmas tree in the 17th century with their beautifully and imaginatively decorated table-top trees. The first candles were added by Martin Luther, goes one legend, when, after observing the clear, star-studded sky one Christmas Eve, he wanted to impress his children with the importance of the birth of the Light of the World, and he added candles to his family’s tree.

Folklore credits Hessian soldiers with introducing the Christmas tree to American colonists during the Revolutionary War. The earliest recorded use of Christmas trees in America was in 1742, in a German Moravian settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; however, widespread use of the Christmas tree in America did not come about until over a hundred years later, around 1850. Taller, ceiling-high trees replaced the European table-top models and became a tradition in American homes.

“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”
“You could look
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”

National Christmas tree, Washington D.C.

President Pierce put up the first White House Christmas tree in 1856 but it wasn’t until 1923, with President Coolidge that the White House tree became a lasting tradition. It was also Coolidge who declared the gigantic sequoia General Grant, in Kings Canyon National Park, California, the National Christmas Tree. Since 1926, an annual Yuletide service is held at the foot of the nearly 2000-year-old tree on the second Sunday of December. On March 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared the tree a “National Shrine”, a memorial to those who died in war. It is the only living object to be so declared.

Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
And paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
He climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
and came down on the north.

In 1882, the world’s first electrically lighted Christmas tree was installed in the New York home of Thomas Edison’s associate Edward Johnson, replacing the hazardous candle-lit trees.

By the early 1900s the Christmas tree in the United States was so popular that shortages began to occur, especially around the cities. In response, the first Christmas tree farm was planted around 1905, and many abandoned farms were brought back into service with crops of conifers as the multi-million dollar industry took root. More recently balled and burlaped trees are used by many for the holiday then planted in backyards to give back to the environment for many years to come.

He said, “A thousand.”
“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”
He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”

I happen to live in Indiana County PA, proudly proclaimed The Christmas Tree Capital of the World. Our local Christmas tree farms provide holiday trees for homes and businesses around the world. The National Christmas Tree Grower’s Association was founded here; and this year the NCTGA has provided a 19-foot balsam fir as the official White House Christmas tree. Indiana County tree growers are proud supporters of the Christmas Spirit Foundation. Since 2005 the CSF has provided 84,000 fresh-cut trees to military families and servicemen and women stationed around the world.

When our sons were young, we enjoyed going out to a local Christmas tree farm and tramping around to choose our tree, cut it down, and drag it back to the car. It never looked as good in the house as it had looked outside and we’d turn it and turn it trying to find the best side. Everyone had a different opinion. But we enjoyed decorating it with strings of popcorn and cranberries … and we each picked out a new ornament to hang each year from Lumley’s Christmas Shop. When we were finished we’d exclaimed this tree the most beautiful tree to date.

Finding a bird’s nest in the chosen tree has long been considered good luck for the new year. A Scandinavian tradition observed by farmers was to bundle a sheaf of wheat and attach it to a pole outside for the birds and animals on Christmas Eve as a show of good faith for a plentiful harvest the following year. Perhaps from these old traditions comes a more recent one of setting out the used Christmas tree and decorating it for the birds.

Many of our used trees served up a royal avian banquet with strings of popcorn and cranberries, slices of apple and peanut butter, suet balls dipped in birdseed, pinecones filled with peanut butter and birdseed, and pieces of stale donuts and bread. Then we would sit by the window and watch all the action. It extended our enjoyment of the rich tradition of the Christmas tree and giving.

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, Three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece)—
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.

Modern family traditions and festivities will continue to include a Christmas tree and greens decorated with bright lights and baubles for generations to come. It doesn’t matter whether we think of the tree as a delightful toy hung with the handiwork of our creativity, or consider its rich tradition and sacred symbolism of life eternal connecting us with those many generations who have gone before—and those yet to come. We are part of this  long tradition of bringing in the greens.

The Christmas tree will always be an object of priceless memories of Christmas past, a stirring delight of Christmas present, and joyful anticipation of Christmas future.

A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

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Since the holidays are soon upon us I thought maybe we could share some recipes that have been our family favorites over the years, especially in the cookie category. In years past, we made dozens and dozens of cookies for Christmas. We’d begin shortly after Thanksgiving and continue up until, and sometimes including the week of Christmas. We stored the cookies in the coolest part of the house, which for me was the garage. I’d clean off a shelf or two, line them with tablecloths, and begin loading them with cookies stored in their air-tight containers.

Plenty of flour flew, chocolate dripped, fruit caramelized, nuts were chopped, sugar was everywhere, and for weeks before Christmas the house smelled so good everyone was in a constant state of hunger. When the boys became teenagers, sometimes, rarely, a container would become lighter as Christmas approached. Nobody would “fess up” but it soon became apparent what everyone’s favorite cookie was and it was easy to guess who the culprit might be.

Now that I live alone, I make far fewer cookies than I once did. I focus on just the favorites while wistfully remembering the hustle and bustle of making all the others. Of course, the grandchildren have their favorites so we still end up with plenty of cookies for everyone, and have enough after the holidays to store a box in the freezer for a 4th of July treat.

With all this talk about cookies, I’ve decided to first share my recipe for Pecan Pie, a Thanksgiving favorite in our family. Of course we also have the traditional Pumpkin and Apple, but the Pecan Pie was the one that disappeared first. Today, with the price of pecans, it’s almost cheaper to go to Eat ‘N’ Park and buy one of their delicious pecan pies, but for those with the means here’s the famous Henry Pecan Pie recipe.

Pecan Pie

Pecan Pie
Preheat oven to 375°

Prepare your favorite pie crust. Mine is as follows. This recipe makes 2 crusts but you need only one for the Pecan Pie.

Mix together
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
Cut in
2/3 cup lard (or 2/3 + 2 tablespoons shortening)
Sprinkle with
¼ cup water and mix with fork
Roll out and place in 2 pie tins, fluting the edges.

For the Pecan filling (for one pie)
Beat together
3 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup melted butter
1 tablespoon of rum
1/3 cup honey
2/3 cup dark corn syrup
Mix in
1 ½ cup pecan halves.
Bake 40-50 minutes or until crust is nicely browned and center set.

1963 Betty Crocker Cooky Book

Now for the cookies … I always begin my Christmas cookie baking with the same recipe every year. In fact I follow the same sequence of recipes year-after-year, for some unknown, but probably obsessive compulsive reason.

Here’s one family favorite and the one that kicks off my baking season. This recipe is taken from Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, copyright 1963, and the book from which most of my cookie recipes come from. It is tattered and torn, splashed and spilled on, but it gets dragged out anytime I need a good cookie. A facsimile of this book is available from amazon.com for $15.96. I don’t know what I’d do without mine. I’ve included the recipe here exactly as it appears in the Cooky Book.

Russian Teacakes (Sometimes called Mexican Wedding Cakes)

Russian Teacakes

1 cup butter or margarine
½ cup sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ¼ cup Gold Medal Flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cups finely chopped nuts

Mix butter, sugar, and vanilla thoroughly. Measure flour by dipping method … or by sifting. Stir flour and salt together; blend in. Mix in nuts. Chill dough.
Heat oven to 400 degrees (mod.hot). Roll dough in 1″ balls. Place on ungreased baking sheet. (Cookies do not spread.) Bake 10 to 12 min., or until st but not brown. While still warm, roll in confectioners’ sugar. Cool. Roll in sugar again. Makes about 4 doz. 1″ cookies.
Note: Do not use Gold Medal Self-Rising Flour in this recipe.

I sometimes roll the cookies in confectioners’ sugar one more time, in other words 3 times all together. They just look so delicious and ready to be eaten that way.

I’ll leave it up to my sisters to keep the ball rolling and add their families’ favorite recipes to the list. Other family members … daughters, granddaughters, sons and husbands, etc. are welcome to join the fray. Happy Thanksgiving to all …. and happy baking.

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Skipping Christmas

John Grisham’s short book Skipping Christmas was a popular holiday book when published in 2003 and continues to sell today, attesting to just how many of us have entertained the thought of skipping Christmas and returning to a little sanity. Grisham, an accomplished writer, looks at how we spend (pun intended) and drive ourselves crazy over Christmas preparations, and one couple who decide to skip the whole thing the year their daughter goes off to the Peace Corps. The book was turned into a movie “Christmas with the Kranks” in 2004, starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis as the Kranks, Grisham’s reluctant celebrators.

While the first part of the book and the movie had me chuckling as the Kranks attempt to get out of town without taking part in all the holiday trappings, the last part left me disappointed as they caved in and ended up going over the top once again, just to please their daughter on her return from her South American assignment. I was hoping they would find some true Christmas spirit somewhere along the way on their venture to skip the whole thing. Well, maybe they did and it has just eluded me.

How many of us though have wished, just for once, that we could skip Christmas with all the glitter, glam, and exhaustion of modernity? Well, I’ve found that it is possible through reading and have amassed a collection of Christmas books that gives me pleasure year after year. Many of these books started out as magazine Christmas stories but because of their popularity are now slim hardcover books in their own right. Many have also been made into movies shown each year on television, but for me, the best way to relive the stories is by reading. When you begin to feel the pressure of holiday madness, come along and join me in this quiet, centering celebration of Christmas across the ages.

I find my very favorites are the old classics. Most Christmas stories are predictable: the good character, poor and/or in need of so much physically and/or mentally versus the Scrooge/Grinch, pinched-hearted character who is transformed by the end of the story into the person we all wish to be; the sentimentality of the season is present in all the stories; and they usually have that happy, rather than “real” ending. The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry (a pen name for William Sydney Porter), is an exception with it’s twist at the end as a young married couple try to figure out what to get each other for Christmas with very little money. Because of the ending it’s a joy to read each year.

Henry Van Dyke’s The Story of the Other Wise Man is another beautiful story. My book is a facsimile of the original published in 1895, which sold over a million copies, a huge number for the times. It is the story of a nobleman/priest who misses the Christ child in Bethlehem but persists in his search to find the Savior. With its beautiful illustrations, this story embodies the true Christmas spirit over the glitter and often superficiality of our modern Christmas. It is a great story to share with the entire family.

The first book I “collected” was, of course, Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas. Originally published in 1843, it has never been out of print since. It seems a universal favorite of everyone. Mine is a little hardcover, copyright 1920 by The Atlantic Monthly Press, a facsimile edition of the original including the illustrations of John Leech. It is a small book that just fits my hand and is a delight to read in its beautiful old font with its familiar characters of good and evil, dark and light, and all the sentimentality of the season you could hope for.

A more recent addition to my collection is a first edition of The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits,” by Les Standiford. The sub-title explains the book, a fascinating tale of an English Christmas almost lost to the ages but revived by Dickens’ novella. It is definitely worth the read if you are a fan of Dickens’ story.

Some of my favorite Christmas books are not about Christmas at all but about Winter. The Sled Book: Notes Concerning Winter’s Favorite Pastime by Brice J. Hoskin is a history of sledding by a man who enjoys the activity to the nth degree and it shows in his presentation. Hoskin gives us a history of the sled, building a better sled, sledding techniques, and even recipes for hot chocolate and hot toddies to enjoy after a day of sledding. I remember flying down Hockenberry’s hill so many years ago, ending up across the road in Wranish’s yard, my face frozen, nose running, then making the trek up that steep hill over and over just to experience the thrill. After hours of frozen fun we headed home, wet and cold, to some homemade hot cocoa, cradled like a babe in our cold hands. The format of this book gives it an old look and feel and adds to the presentation of facts and figures surrounding sledding. It is a delightful read by someone who turned his love of sledding into a career. Hoskin is a builder of sleds founding Mountain Boy Sledworks in Silverton, Colorado, in 2002.

The History of the Snowman by Bob Eckstein is another fun read. Eckstein takes us from the Dark Ages and the creation of the first snowman to today and the reign of the snowman as King of Kitsch. His quest includes ages and cultures from fifteenth-century Italian snowballs to eighteenth-century Russian ice sculptures to the regrettable “white-trash years (1975-2000).” Uh-huh, folks that’s our time he’s talking about. This book is funny and informative with depictions of the snowman over the ages in many, many great illustrations and snowman cartoons. It is a great read for a cold, blizzardy, snowy day.

And the Snowman brings us to Kenneth Libbrecht and Patricia Rasmussen’s snowflake books: The Snowflake: Winter’s Secret Beauty, The Little Book of Snowflakes, and Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes. I have these but there are even more as it seems they put out a new and different edition each year. The exquisite photographs of snowflakes are indescribable and Libbrecht’s text in part gives the life story of a snowflake from ten thousand feet above Earth, through clouds, taking hours to fall to earth where it can finally be photographed. Patricia Rasmussen, inspired by Wilson Bentley’s book Snow Crystals in 1997, began gathering the equipment to photograph snowflakes on eBay. She teamed up with Libbrecht and his specially built snow-camera apparatus, and they began photographing snowflakes, printing their first snowflake book in 2001-2002. If you have an eye for and a love of natural beauty, and who doesn’t, at least one of these books is a must.

But let’s get back to Christmas books. The Autobiography of Santa Clause takes us on a seventeen-century journey of Christmas magic. Twenty-four chapters, one read each night before Christmas, make this a Christmas meditation of the best sort. As the book cover says, “Every chapter tells a joyous story touching the child inside every one of us.” For the true meaning of Christmas, read the story of a boy named Nicholas, orphaned as a child, who learned the lessons of goodness and generosity early in life and was rewarded with the abilities to give his gifts to deserving children everywhere forever.

Let me inject here our ethnic background with two versions of the Italian Christmas witch, old Befana. Each year I read these stories to our grandchildren so they have a sense of where their ancestors came from and how their lives differed from ours. The first is The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie DePaola and the second is The Christmas Witch: An Italian Legend retold by Joanne Oppenheim. Both delightful tales of how children from another land, the land of our ancestors, celebrate Christmas waiting expectantly for a witch instead of Santa. These stories add a richness to our appreciation of the season.

A haunting story that takes place in one of the worst times in human history, World War I, is a true account that reads like fiction. Although the event seems unreal, it truly happened, and when it was over “men wondered at it, then went on with the grim business at hand.” The book is Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, by Stanley Weintraub. How this story has not become part of our Christmas narrative is beyond me for what happened in the muddy trenches of this devastating war is truly miraculous. It is the story of the “only time in history that peace spontaneously arose from the lower ranks in a major conflict, bubbling up to the officers and temporarily turning sworn enemies into friends.” I can honestly say that it is the most moving Christmas story I have ever read and I’ve read them all … or most of them. It is a mystery how this story could be lost to history except for this exceptional book by a man who cared enough to write it down. If you read one book this season … this is the one to read. Here’s a link to “Belleau Wood” by Garth Brooks singing his song memorializing the event.

I’d like to list all the other Christmas books I have read and enjoy from year-to-year but the list is too long. However I can’t close out without mentioning at least some them. Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was written the year I was born, 1939, by a Montgomery Ward advertising copywriter Robert L. May, who wanted a new idea for children at Christmas. He came up with the idea of a reindeer with a shiny nose that helps Santa deliver gifts and Rudolph was born. Gene Autry immortalized him in song ten years later (click here for a uTube link), and in 1964, Rudolph starred in his very own Christmas classic on television that is still a favorite of children of all ages. I have a facsimile of the original book given to Montogmery Ward customers and it is a delight to pull out each year to read to the grandchildren.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss is another favorite, now accompanied by the movie starring Jim Carey, which we also love. Originally published in 1957, the year I graduated from high school and got married, it is a must have. As you can see many of these books have special meaning for my life. Today, a stuffed Grinch sits on my mantle, as homage to all the Grinches, who have a heart maybe “two sizes too small.” We love the Grinches, too.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg and The Christmas Tapestry by Patricia Polacco are two great children’s stories, the latter brought to me by my granddaughter Emily because she enjoyed it so much. And of course, a poem read each Christmas Eve by my husband Bob to our children as they were growing up, and even after they were well passed the age of childhood, is A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Moore, known today as The Night Before Christmas. It is a joy to read aloud and, when heard year-after-year, it won’t be long until the children can recite it with you. It was one of our most beloved traditions. And these Christmases, even if there’s nobody here to read to, I have to pick it up and read and remember … all those Christmases so long ago.

I could go on and on … so many great books … but to all, I wish you a quiet, meaningful, spiritual Christmas and as I retreat out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Night!”

P.S. How could I have forgotten to mention Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas for a fun, irreverent look at our most important, celebrated holiday, and the first book written by this talented, imaginative, creative film maker? Enough said ….

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How many of you can remember when you learned that there might not, in fact, be a Santa Claus? Over fifty years has passed since I was “enlightened,” but I can still remember the sadness the revelation brought.

I was nine or ten years old and the thought of Christmas left me breathless. The excitement began with the arrival of the Christmas edition of the Montgomery Ward catalog. Never was there a more exquisite catalog published! It’s pages filled with unimaginable toys! The heft of it in my hands and then across my lap gave me a thrill. Page 1: ooooh! I did not skip a page! I looked at everything, including the “boys'” toys. But it was the section of dolls and dollhouses where I lingered, my breath caught in my throat. The dolls were all so beautiful! There were baby dolls with chubby cheeks and bonnets, dolls with frilly dresses and patent leather shoes, beautiful bride dolls (oh my!), walking dolls, cuddly dolls…so many. The dollhouses and tiny, perfect furniture thrilled me. Dare I think about a doll house? No. Too many pieces and parts; Mum wouldn’t like that.

I so enjoyed running my fingers over the pages, stopping when I came to something really, really nice. Pointing my finger at this new, shiny thing until the tip of my finger reddened and ached–this would be what I would whisper to Santa. I leaned back and sighed. My decision was made. I closed the catalog and passed it on to someone else–my eyes glassy; my heart beating in anticipation. My dreams now filled with this new thing. I envisioned myself playing with it. My hopes were set; my letter to Santa was taking shape in my head. When the teacher asked us to write our letters, I would be ready.

But I knew that Santa was busy and couldn’t always come through. There were so many kids with so many requests. It did seem, though, that Carol Ann Kashur was able to get most of what she requested. I often pondered how it seemed that some kids were more successful getting what they wanted. Maybe it was because they had fireplaces and we didn’t. When I asked if Santa would fall into the furnace and burn, Mum assured me that Santa would just come in through the door. Whew! Not to worry. As naive as I was, I believed it was something lacking in me and not Santa that kept me from getting a truly great gift. After all, trying to be good with two brothers close to my age was truly taxing! Chip (older) tormented me and I, in turn, tormented Duff (younger).

I had to get really serious about reparations, though, when the church Christmas party rolled around. That was when Santa made his annual appearance. Even though my letter had surely reached him by now, I had the constant worry of whether or not he really saw me being naughty. I tried so hard to be kind and sweet. The brothers seemed to be on their best behavior as well. Even if we did get into mischief, we kept it hushed. It helped that Mum was really too busy to notice what was going on with the three of us. Decorating the house and making tons of cookies left her with little time to focus on us. I could trip Duff as he walked across the floor virtually undetected…haHA! Oops! Did Santa see? (sigh)

The Sisters of Saint Joseph traveled to our church every Saturday morning to conduct religious education classes, instill fear in our hearts, and guilt into our very souls. At the Christmas party, though, the sisters would gather all the kids in the basement of the church in preparation for Santa’s arrival. Pretty much the Christmas party is a blurred memory for me. I was always so anxious to see Santa. To heck with the gaiety! Just give me my popcorn ball and hard tac and lead me to Santa…PLEASE! Had he gotten my letter, I wondered. Would he remember what I wanted? All these kids with all their requests. How would Santa remember what I wanted? After all, he hadn’t gotten it right yet.

The masters of control, the sisters, arranged us by grade level and made us form a line. Sheesh! This was going to take FOREVER! I hardly heard or saw anything going on around me. There were babies and parents somewhere on the fringes of the room, the priest made an entrance from the sacristy. “Good morning, Father!” we all chorused. Just keep the line moving, I thought to myself.

Move line, move line, move line was the mantra running through my head. At last! I was on Santa’s lap! Hmmm…he smelled a little like Dad after a cup of his “special” coffee. What was it I wanted? Ah-oh. Evidently Santa hadn’t received my letter. I leaned in close and whispered. And then Santa asked that horrible question: “Have you been a good little girl?” Oh man! “Yes, Santa,” I squeaked. He smiled and handed me a candy cane. Yippee! I skipped and ran all the way home, my brothers and sister following close behind. I was so hopeful that Santa would come through this year!

By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, I was exhausted from the effort to be good. It was all I could do to contain myself. After we were bathed and had on our pj’s, I decided a few brownie points wouldn’t hurt, so I convinced Duff to allow me to read a story to him from a Christmas golden book. Duff consented, which surprised me because he was a pretty darn good reader himself. We lay on the floor very close to the tree so we could use the lights while I read slowly to him, pausing to give him time to look at the pictures. I was being sooo good! Usually, I read to him as fast as I could and turned the pages before he had time for even a quick glance. I even answered all of his annoying questions without rolling my eyes.

When we were finished reading, it was time for bed. I scrambled up the stairs, knelt by the bed and said my prayers very fast–Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be. Done. Hit the sheets. Oh. Wait. Santa would want me to pray with feeling, I’ll bet. Back out onto the floor. This time I slowly crossed myself and put my hands together piously while I prayed with conviction. There! That should do it. I got back into bed, careful to give Kathy space just the way she liked and even said good night to her. Are you watching, Santa?

I tossed and turned and listened to Kathy’s breathing. I was so worried that Santa wouldn’t find the house. I was worried that, like God, Santa would be able to see my heart and know for sure if I’d been naughty or nice. Naw…according to the sisters, that’s just a God thing. Finally, I heard someone from the boys’ room tiptoe down the hall and stop at the top of the stairs. I decided to investigate.

There was Chip at the top of the landing peaking down into the living room. I quietly joined him. Our conversation went something like this, I believe:

Me: “What are you doing.”
Chip: “Go back to bed!”
Me: “Not until you tell me what you’re doing.”
Chip: “I’m waiting for Mum and Dad to bring our presents up from the basement.”
Me: “You mean Santa was here!”
Chip: “No, you dope. Mum and Dad get the presents and hide them in the basement.”
Me: “Na-ah!”
Chip: “Ya-ha, you big baby!”
Me: “But what about Santa?”

Just then we heard the racket and giggles of Mum and Dad coming up the basement stairs. Chip and I stopped talking. The door swung open and we leaned over. There between Mum and Dad was a beautiful, shiny Radio Flyer loaded with wrapped packages. Mum and Dad giggled and laughed and smooched and headed for the basement again. Chip and I let out our breath.

“Let’s go before they see us,” he said. He made a dash to his bedroom while I tiptoed softly, hearing Mum and Dad enter the living room with another load. I went to the doorway of the boys’ room. “Santa coulda taken the toys down the basement,” I whispered in. “Don’t be such a dope,” Chip hissed back.

When I crawled back into bed, my cold feet woke Kathy. “Is there really a Santa?” I asked. Kathy hesitated just long enough to give me my answer. “Sure, there’s a Santa. Now you better get some sleep.” Too late. I listened; I thought. No Santa. Poop. Santa would have just put the presents under the tree; he wouldn’t have dragged them to the basement.

The lump in my throat grew bigger by the minute. Could it be? No Santa? While Chip hadn’t come out and actually said there was no Santa, I knew what he meant. How could I be so dumb? It all made sense now. There really wasn’t a Santa, and I WAS a dope! No Santa? I cried myself to sleep.

The next morning I took my time descending the stairs. The boys were already tearing wrapping paper off their gifts. I watched sadly. It certainly didn’t bother Chip that there was no Santa. Mum took my hand and led me into the kitchen. There, on the table in the nook, sat a beautiful two-story dollhouse. What? Really? My whispered gift! Santa or no Santa, somehow I had gotten my dollhouse! Was this a Christmas miracle? I got a dollhouse! Merry Christmas to me!

Santa still remains special to me even after that Christmas when I knew for sure that Santa wasn’t a real, physical presence. Years later as a typing/shorthand/computer ap teacher, I would have my high school students use their acquired skill to write letters to Santa. Some of those letters were hilarious and some very poignant. As cynical as I have become with age, whenever I see a “fake” Santa, however fake he may be, I feel a tug on my heart strings. Ho! Ho! Ho! –Linda

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