Friday, December 16, 2011

Through a Powdered Sugar Haze

by Barbara Early

I have a set of Christmas pictures I’d love to share with you.  There’s a baby picture of me in a red velvet dress--a rare color shot. I’m holding a toy up like a weapon, perhaps an early indicator of my personality? Other photos are of me and my cousin--about the same age--at Christmastime. Our mothers liked to buy us matching dresses, which I really enjoyed. (I learned much later that my cousin did not!) Still, they are among my most treasured photographs, which is why I put them somewhere safe for protection. And when my aging brain recalls where that is, perhaps I’ll share them with you!

The fuzzy green robe. I'm thinking this had to be 1969 or 1970.

Christmases were among my most treasured memories. Until I was nine, my  mother and I lived with my grandparents. Our tiny ranch house was filled to bulging on normal days, but on many holidays, all my out-of-town aunts and uncles moved back in with their spouses and children--filling every bed, couch, and rug. Presents would be stuffed under the tree and half across the room, while others were secreted in closets. Well, maybe not so secret, since we usually found them.

The tree--always a real one while my grandfather was alive--filled the small living space with the scent of pine. We children sat on the floor using our tiny, agile fingers to help untangle the wires of the old fashioned lights, and then replace bulbs by trial and error until the whole string came to life. (Of course, we were carefully instructed not to touch the sockets or repeat any of the words the adults used in frustration.) Once the lights were on, we hung the ornaments, many vintage German glass, under careful direction of the adults, who would frequently rearrange them later. And then the tinsel. Lots of silvery tinsel.

The tree was the only decoration I recall from early childhood, except for a ball of rather plastic mistletoe which always hung in the hall--oddly enough in front of the bathroom door. Perhaps that way, no one could avoid it completely!

Check out my little brother. Ever see The Christmas Story?
At least once a day, all us children were sent out to play, usually in the guise of getting fresh air. I suspect it was more for the purpose of allowing the adults a brief respite from the noise and constant childish chatter. So we donned the required snowsuits, boots, scarves, hats, and mittens. I generally found the outerwear stifling and usually found a way to ditch the hat and scarf--maybe on a convenient snowman. Sometimes we’d lace on skates and trudge through the snow to a low area behind our neighbor’s house, which served as a natural skating rink. We’d have to shovel it first, but the surface, while not pristine, usually allowed a small area for skating.

Not long before Christmas, the baking would begin. Now, the one nice thing about having so many family members in one house is that baking duties were often divided. Again, we girls would plead to help. We were allowed to roll out dough, cut out cookies, load them onto trays--even ice them (we would say “frosten”) and decorate them with sprinkles. The kitchen grew hazy with clouds of flour and powdered sugar. And as each family member mentioned a cookie recipe they’d like to try, the plastic bins on the table grew into towers of various confections. I guess a sweet tooth is a family trait.

There was one cookie recipe, however, that we children were not allowed to help with. Or perhaps we never volunteered. Maybe we were less enthused because the dough--which we sneaked in spoonfuls from all the other batches--itself was not sweet. Or maybe it was that the recipe contained nuts. As children, we were firmly convinced that we hated anything with nuts in it. Or perhaps the adults allowed us to believe we didn’t like them, so there would be more for them.

Hmmm. They always used to tell me I didn’t like steak, either.

The awkward years. Christmas in the 1970s.
But eventually, I outgrew my childhood aversion to nuts, and came to love the cookie--not made from a recipe in a book, but from a hand-written, grease-stained sheet of paper that was folded and stored in the old orange Betty Crocker cookbook. The title at the top, in my grandmother’s precise hand (she had copied it from her mother-in-law’s hand-written copy), said “Kiffal,” although I’ve seen it otherwise spelled “Kiffle,” and it’s a time-consuming, almost artisan, pastry-like cookie that has been in my German-Hungarian family for generations. It’s perhaps the closest we have to an heirloom.

Oddly enough, when my cousin’s family were stationed in Germany and couldn’t travel home for Christmas, these cookies were made earlier than normal, loaded into boxes, and airmailed. I guess any irony about mailing these cookies back to where the recipe hailed from, was quickly forgotten.

Usually, the cookies, with their flaky layers of cream cheese pastry and sweetened walnut filling, were reserved for Christmas, but I persuaded my grandmother to make them as a treat for my wedding. They were, in fact, the inspiration for the cookies that Sam presented to Donna in Gold, Frankincense, and Murder--“a delicate rolled cookie dusted with powdered sugar.”

Although how Sam’s Italian grandmother came across the recipe, I’ll never know.

Kiffal (Kiffle)


1 cup butter, softened
2 cups flour
1 egg
9 ounces cream cheese, softened (awkward amount today, but this recipe goes back to the day when cream cheese was sold in 3 ounce packages)

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter, cream cheese, and egg. Add flour. Do not over-mix. Form dough into a ball and refrigerate overnight.

Filling: (makes enough for multiple batches)

2 cups finely ground walnuts (Grandma used a meat grinder. I use a grinder attachment to my mixer. I’d imagine a food processor would work too.)
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
2 egg whites
juice of one lemon, about 1/4 cup
2 tsp cinnamon

Mix all ingredients. If made ahead, refrigerate. Extra can also be frozen and kept for other purposes. It makes a great filling for nut rolls (instead of cinnamon rolls) or in quick breads and coffee cakes.

On baking day:

Refrigerated dough
2 egg whites, beaten
Powdered sugar

Roll out dough onto a well floured surface, to a thickness of less than an eighth of an inch. (The dough will incorporate more flour as you roll.) Cut into circles with a round glass or large cookie cutter. (You want a diameter of around 3 3/4 to 4 inches.)

Put a little less than a teaspoon of the filling on the edge of the cookie. (You’ll be tempted to use more, but the cookie will burst while cooking if you do.) Starting at that side, roll (not too tightly!) then curve into a crescent. Use egg whites to seal, and pinch edges shut. Brush tops with egg whites, then place on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-35 minutes. Remove carefully from cookie sheet and sprinkle with powdered sugar while still warm. (I put my sugar into a wire mesh strainer and shake it over the top.) Allow to cool completely, then sprinkle with sugar again.

This is a time-consuming cookie, and it can take a few tries to get them to look nice. Please feel free to send me your mistakes!


  1. I am loving these Inky Days of Christmas! Great photos Barb. Is that a polyester pant suit I see?

    And a real recipe ! Nowadays I ask my kids which one they want because I just can't do the 8 varieties any more. But I'm going to copythis one off.

    Thanks for sharing your Christmas with us. I could hear the noise level in the background and feel the love!

  2. Our most famous family traditional Christmas cookie is the pizzelle. My grandma made them every year. It's just a light crunchy cookie that looks like a snowflake and tastes similar to the outer shell of a cannoli. She gave me a pizzelle maker and her recipe for my wedding gift. My sister already made them this year, though, and I haven't been eating sugar, so I'm thinking we might just get by on the batch she sent me. Unless of course my daughter wants to carry on the tradition. Pizzelle maker still works fine.

  3. Deb--

    Alas, that is a polyester pantsuit in the picture. And yes, it was hideous back then too. It was the beginning of my awkward days, which have now hung on for decades.

    If you look in the back of the first picture, do you think we'll have to identify the rotary phone for any of our younger readers? And it was, at that point, hooked up to a party line.

  4. Dina--

    I love a good pizzelle. Does your recipe have anise? That's another cookie I was thinking of when I wrote the novella--which is why the scent of anise was lingering in the hall.

  5. I like to use anise and vanilla. My mom uses vanilla, orange, and I think a dash of coconut.

  6. Oooh. Now I might have to get a pizzelle maker. :)

  7. Maybe Sam's Italian grandma had a German beau before she married Sam's grandpa? :-)

    I didn't know they didn't sell cream cheese in packages anymore. (Shows you how much time I spend in the grocery store)

    I love frosted Christmas sugar cookies. I tried to make them once when my son was little. I didn't have much patience for leaving the dough in the refrigerator for the required amount of time, and it was even worse when it came to perfectly rolling out the dough. But the true disaster was when it came to frosting them. From then on, we had to settle for oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies and hope someone would take pity on my son and husband and give us Christmas cookies. My favorite are the trees because they're usually the biggest. ;-)

    I love these Christmas posts, too, Deb. It's fun to learn more about each other.

  8. The sell cream cheese in 8 ounce packages now. Only, I guess, they used to be sold in 3 ounce packages. And then the recipe worked great, because it took exactly three packages. Now it takes one, and 1/8th of another. Guess I'd better buy some bagels when I make these next week.

  9. Such fun posts! Peeking into each other's Christmas pasts...

    For some reason I don't remember Christmas cookies. My mom wasn't a big baking fan. We did always have a huge gingerbread house my dad got at the bakery in Aspen where he stopped every morning for pastries. Those houses were my Christmas treat for weeks. Probably not very healthy, but I survived.

    Barb, having just finished "Gold, Frankincense, and Murder" earlier in the week, I LOVE that you used those cookies in the story!

  10. Love the pics, Barb! Your awkward phase was nothing to mine. Seriously from 12-15 (probably longer) I was a complete disaster.

    The recipe sounds wonderful. My mom and I like to bake together upon occasion, and this would be a fun one to try. We have a pizzelle maker! I did catch the anise reference in GFaM,and I wondered if that was the implication.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  11. We probably had more than our share of cookies. You could tell when the adults were trying to get rid of them, when a huge tray was put out for breakfast. LOL.

    And a gingerbread house was probably less sugar per capita than what we had. Still, cookies figure large (pun intended) in my holiday memories and traditions. It hardly seems like Christmas without them.

    I'm trying to cut back this year. We'll see if I can manage that.

  12. Niki, I always wanted a lovely gingerbread house. But, my sugar cookies, I never mastered the art or the patience. :-(

  13. I've done a few gingerbread houses with my daughter, but they weren't part of our family tradition when I was growing up. Fun, though. Now, I guess, they have kits.

  14. Love the post, Barb! Wonderful memories, fun photos, awesome recipe. These Inky days of Christmas are so much fun.

    Your photos are awesome. Yes, your brother reminds me of Randy in The Christmas Story. ("I can't put my arms down!") I had a dolly rather similar to yours. She could "blow out" a plastic birthday candle. (Not.)

    And you are totally cute in all the pics! I deliberately didn't put in any pics of me from age 8-on, LOL. I think my awkward phase lasted for a decade or so. I went sorta punkish in high school to cover it up. Now I just *take* the pictures. :)

  15. I'm at an age when I am no longer mortified by old pictures.

    The new ones, however...

  16. going to have to attempt the cookie recipe.

    loving the 12 days of Inkies Christmases!!!!


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