Growing up in upstate New York, the holidays at my house meant one thing: baking. And I mean baking in a big way. You'd have thought that the Pillsbury dough boy and the Keebler elves had set up shop at our house.
It didn't matter that we didn't have much when it came to money. Mom saved up money and also knew to buy items she would need in bulk during the year. We'd start baking about two weeks before Christmas and made the following treats:
- Date Nut Bread
- Welsh Cookies
- Sugar Cookies
- Butter Cookies
- No Cook Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies
- Thumbprint Cookies
- and Peanut Blossoms
The hyperlinked recipes above are all listed on my recipe blog called And I Helped!
We made at least 25 to 30 loaves of date nut bread. I'm not kidding. We'd use the disposable foil loaf pans and get a production line going. A loaf of date nut bread and a tub of whipped cream cheese was Mom's basic calling card during a holiday visit. Wrapped in aluminum foil, tied with ribbon.
Cookie making was split into different tasks spread over several nights. The first night we mixed all the dough since most of it had to be refrigerated before rolling out and cutting into shapes. The next night was for baking with lots of rolling, cutting and cookie sheets. And storage bins!
The last night was the best: cookie decorating. Mom usually organized a party with my cousins, neighbor kids or kids of co-workers. She'd take an old linen banquet tablecloth about 8 feet long and cover the dining room table. Then we set out all the cookies - mostly butter and sugar. Frosting was made with confectioner's sugar and milk. Then it was separated out into white coffee mugs (so you could see how much food coloring was needed) and colored.
Then the kids went to town working on their creations. The little artists worked in various styles: the "Designer" (aka Rembrandt) who fastidiously executed true-to-life renderings of Santa and snowflakes; the "Drizzler" (aka Jackson Pollack) who took a spoon, loaded it with icing and drizzled it across the cookie (and usually a neighboring artist's cookies as well); and the "Deranged" (aka Dali) who mixed different colored icings, layered icing and sprinkles, and created an abstract vision of melting Santas and warped stars.
When it was all done, Mom let the cookies dry overnight, stacked them in the storage bins, and simply shook out the tablecloth in the snow and placed it in the washing machine. Throughout the winter I would see scraps of frosting, bits of cookies and brightly colored sprinkles peek through the snow.
While I thought it was lots of fun and something to look forward to each Christmas, years later I realized there was a lesson in all this effort: It wasn't necessary to have a lot in order to give a lot. You did what you did best, added your own special touch, and gave it from the heart. It reminds me of the last verse of one of my favorite Christmas songs, In the Bleak Midwinter:
What can I give him
Poor as I am
If I were a sheperd
I would give a lamb
If I were a wise man
I would do my part
But what I can I give him
Give him my heart
Photo: Recipes for Good Eating, Crisco cookbook, 1944. [Author's note: for some reason this photo just seems bizarre to me as does the title. Do you think there was ever a "Recipes for Bad Eating" cookbook? And the scene is right out of Mommie Dearest.]