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?|
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.|
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.
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups flour
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:
2 egg whites, beaten
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!