Sweet Traditions

My mom never baked, but I was introduced to the wonderful world of holiday baked goods at the Lutheran church I grew up in. Those folks knew a thing or two about baked goods (and strong coffee). The fellowship hall at church in December was filled with all sorts of sandwiches and goodies, including bundt cakes and tea breads and loads and loads of home-made cookies, many of which you only see this time of year – like those marshmallow-cornflake wreaths with the little red-hots for holly, and beautifully iced cookies shaped like angels and snowflakes.

As an adult I’ll cheerfully eat your panettone, stollen, marzipan (ha, haters — more for me!), Christmas kringle, fancy buche de Noel, lebkuchen, and I’ll even eat a bit of fruitcake. But honestly, I’d be just as happy with some random selection of bake sale cookies made by church ladies and whoever whipped up a last-minute-panic batch of slice-and-bake cookies with sugar sprinkles.

My high-school boyfriend’s mom was Polish and an excellent home cook and baker, and she spent November and December filling up a chest freezer with cookies – all sorts of jam-filled cookies and ones with poppyseeds, and peanut-butter pinwheels made with mashed-potato dough (I was wondering whether I’d imagined those, but I googled and they are real.) Hers weren’t anything fancy or particularly glorious to look at, but oh were they delicious. She also made real boiled fudge, which she did without a candy thermometer – she just knew when it was ready – poured into old chipped platters, and it was incredible, and I never did get it right no matter how many times she showed me.

Years later, when my girls were small, a friend had several of us over to her house for an afternoon of toffee-making. We brought our heavy pots and our supplies of chocolate, sugar, butter and chopped nuts, and I figured it’d be a disaster – we didn’t use a candy thermometer or anything, it’s all by eye. That was more than two decades ago and I can still remember the ridiculous sense of achievement — and joy! — I felt as I turned out my first batch of toffee on a cookie sheet.  I made it at home for years thereafter, every December, and my kids ate it, and I gave it away to friends and at work, because it was easy and fun and people loved it.

A couple of years ago we made saltine toffee, because I wanted to try it, it seems so weird – and it was tasty (and frankly pretty much no-fail, although boiling sugar still doesn’t make it a kid-friendly project in my opinion) but then we went back to regular toffee because the texture is so uniquely great.

So, what now?  Well, I got my fill of old-fashioned treats this weekend, via two separate church bazaars, well stocked with home-baked goodies, as well as some other handmade, non-edible treats. I sampled a selection of homemade treats  — iced cookies, spritz cookies, meringues, fudge, pinwheels, buckeyes, peanut butter blossoms, those little cornflake wreathes, toffee, the nice church ladies selling plates and bags with an assortment of all my favorites, along with the requisite “mystery” cookies (is that … chocolate and raisins? Coconut and dates? What is that?)

For all the desserts I love (and I do love them!) there’s something about cookies that makes me feel like a little kid again, especially this time of year. But I’m contemplating trying my hand at a buche de Noel, just to see whether I can make one that looks good. Even if it’s a cake wreck, it’d still taste great!

Are you doing any big food plans (baking, cooking, etc.) for the season? Any favorite memories or foods you miss from years past?

images via pexels

  • SpringPansy says:

    There is always so much cooking and baking around my house. As far as baking for the holidays, I’ll make cinnamon rolls for breakfast (along with an egg strata and grapefruits) on Christmas Eve and stollen for Christmas Day. We always make the cornflake wreaths (they are so fun!) although I don’t know anyone else who does. I was glad to see you mention them. We have changed the recipe a tiny bit after my sister nearly broke a tooth on a hard cinnamon red-hot candy — I now use small red M&Ms to decorate the wreaths!

    We’ll also make molasses crinkles, lemon shortbread, 7 layer bars, pecan tassies and peanut butter blossoms. And if we’re still feeling ambitious, maybe rum balls and peppermint topped brownies. So many cookies, so little time!

    • March says:

      Yikes, that didn’t even occur to me about the red-hots! That is one of my favorite treats, those wreaths. It sounds like you like a lot of the same “classics” hehe — and your Christmas Eve and Christmas Day spread sound awesome!

  • VerbenaLuvvr says:

    We used to make so many goodies for my kids’ school and church bake sales, but those all have been discontinued over the last couple of years due to liability concerns and also covid. It makes me so sad. They were huge fundraisers and a chance to get together and enjoy wonderful treats. I am currently on the hunt for a cookie recipe from my childhood–German honey cookies, the doughnut shaped ones with thin icing.

    • March says:

      Oh, that is sad! I hadn’t even thought about the school ones … the church ones definitely didn’t happen the last 2 years as far as I know, so I was glad to see them back. Those honey cookies sound fabulous!

  • Portia says:

    Not much of a baker here March.
    Jin does the odd cake.
    Would LOVE it if we had Bake sales here in Sydney. Maybe we do but I don’t know about it.

    We have lost our Chines butcher and we are REALLY sad about it. They had the best pork and would always let us buy loads of extra skin for crackling. Jin is already on the hunt for a replacement butcher but they are hard to find.

    Portia xx

    • March says:

      Ooooof, losing a resource like that is the worst — they have the perfect item, or food, and then you have to try to find it somewhere else — I hope you do! I’d love to sit down with you and Jin for a meal, I bet it would be a hoot! There’s an allegedly really good butcher here I drive by all the time, I keep meaning to stop by and see what’s up.

      • Portia says:

        March, there’s a spare bedroom with your name on it here. You can use it as a base as you adventure Australia.
        Jin will cook. We’ll fill the table with friends.
        Portia xx

  • alityke says:

    I bake my own sourdough bread each week but no longer make sweet stuff. Any unfermented wheat & my GI tract becomes explosive! I’m diabetic as well so sugary treats are not my friend.
    I’m not great at cakes, biscuits or cookies anyway & the local farm shops & bakeries do it all far better than I can.

    I would love to know what all of these US treats are though. Tassies etc sound so cute

    • March says:

      I hit up the local bazaars and bakeries now that I’m living alone and I don’t have anyone to share the bounty with at the moment if I bake a batch of something, seems sensible! I LOVE sourdough and would probably make it if there weren’t an excellent bread baker two blocks from me. Tassies are basically tiny pecan pies and the right size in my opinion since they’re very sweet! I’d love to go to an international fair where it’s “here are the popular sweets in our country” so we can check them all out.

  • rosarita says:

    I have wonderful memories of baking/candy making with my mom and sister. Date pinwheels, toffee, caramels(so much work) etc. I also had a German uncle who was a wonderful cook and baker who made anise cookies with hard icing, chocolate crinkles and shortbread, among others. His specialty was chocolate cheesecake, and he made it in little individual pans. Fruitcake that he made way before the holiday and soaked in his homemade plum brandy. I don’t bake anymore.

    • March says:

      Chocolate crinkles, mmmmmmm…. maybe that will be my next cookie, I didn’t get any in this batch and I love them, and they’re not hard to make. All of your cooking and baking sounds absolutely wonderful. I’m on team hard-icing for sure.

  • matty1649 says:

    I don’t bake, but I do buy home baked Christmas treats from Christmas fairs. Love ,love,marzipan X

  • cinnamon says:

    When my son was at primary/secondary school the annual fetes were the places to buy seasonal baked goods. My plan for this year is rather slimmed down sweet-thing-wise. I’ll bake my mother’s flourless chocolate cake (dubbed killer cake decades ago) which will take half a day, make a total mess of the kitchen, and make me both sad and happy. Otherwise, the sweet will come from the local bakery and/or be thrown together with what I can find at the farm shop. My mother didn’t loving baking or cooking but she did it. Mostly, she baked stuff from recipes that had been in the family. Huge batches of fruit cake given as holiday gifts, that chocolate cake, little horns stuffed with apricot jam and nuts, bundt cakes drizzled with icing. My father had a serious sweet tooth. The thing I most associate with him is a seemingly now gone chocolate bar called Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. So good.

    • March says:

      You can still buy those Peanut Chews here! I see them at the odd market, one of those retro candies. I’ve never had one but I bet I’d like it, it’s got that gooey/peanut/chocolate thing going on. I like flourless chocolate cake in veeery small doses so I don’t get a migraine lol, I bet yours is lovely.

  • ElizaC says:

    We love the holiday church/community events! The Seattle Polish club has a wonderful Fall bazaar with lunches and a tables full of amazing pastries for sale! Hubby and I were just discussing today where to get the panettone for our Xmas breakfast. Turns out one of our local bakeries is making them at a much better price than the grocery store. Cottage cheese stollen, pfeffernusse cookies, biscotti…. we would love to bake them all this month but will probably only get to one.

    • March says:

      Oh I would love that! We had more of those types of events in Washington DC, unsurprisingly. And I love that you and your husband were discussing your panettone acquisition! I have a cottage-cheese cookie recipe I want to try out but have not yet.

  • Tara C says:

    I am a terrible cook but a rather goid baker. My husband loves butter tarts so I make those for him. I’m partial to cutout shortbread iced cookies, cranberry ginger chewy cookies and anything with marzipan. In fact I even love to smell like marzipan – I have so many almond gourmand frags.

    • March says:

      LOVE marzipan — what are your favorite fragrances? Butter tarts, iced cookies and chewy ginger cookies sound pretty awesome too!

  • Dina C. says:

    My favorite is pecan tastiest, those mini pecan pie cups. I have the mini tartlet pan to make them, and they’re not hard. I can no longer have chocolate — heavy sigh — since it’s yet another migraine trigger, so these are good for me. I’m also happy with sugar cookies made with cookies cutters and decorated. My hubby likes old fashion molasses cookies and popcorn balls, neither of which I’ve attempted in a while. Maybe I’ll give those a go this year.

    • Dina C. says:

      Tassies not tastiest!!

      • March says:

        I looooooove pecan tassies (I knew what you meant!), I feel like they’re the perfect size and I like the ratio of crust to filling, pecan pie can be … a lot. Chocolate is also a migraine trigger for me so many of my faves now are not chocolate — especially ginger, lemon, and anything with spices (cinnamon, mace etc.)

  • KayKay says:

    For our family, once we hit December, it’s baking season, most of the gals (and a few of the guys) in our family get together to bake up all sorts of goodies over the next few weekends until Christmas. Then the weekend and week prior, before the holiday, all of the baked goods are assembled into cookie boxes to be shared out amongst the family and gifted to friends. It’s a time when all of the old family favorite recipes are pulled out and put to good use, to name a few… Grandma’s Oh Henry Bars, Auntie Hanna’s Russian TeaCakes, Granny D’s Jean’s Bars, Mom’s Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies, Aunt May’s Chocolate Snowball Cookies, and my all time favorite Scottish Oat Shortbreads (half dipped into dark chocolate and finished with a sprinkle of crushed flaky sea salt.) This year is particularly exciting because my new sister-in-law is joining in the baking fun for the first time this year. I look forward to this season every year because its a pretty awesome feeling to be surrounded by my hilarious family, a healthy (or unhealthy depending which aunt you ask) amount of spiked egg nog and hot cocoa, and nibbling on the “ugly” cookies, off-cuts of bars and snitching bits of almond pastries for Nana when my mama’s not looking. Does a body’s soul good to be in the midst of the love and laughter.

    • March says:

      Oh, this sounds like so much fun! I’ve longed for something like that in my life and family, I would have loved it. The girls did bake with me a lot when they were teenagers, but that’s as “group effort” as it got. The ugly cookies and the offcuts are the best part lol. What a wonderful tradition!

  • Maggiecat says:

    I’m thinking of trying a buche de Noel this year. I used to bake a lot (I make a banana spice bread to die for) but don’t much these days. Between my back issues and my husband’s diabetes, it seems questionably worthwhile. But I miss it and love treats of all kinds (including marzipan!)
    Maybe this year….

  • Musette says:

    Lol! You know I’m sitting over here, watching my blood glucose levels hit 4lebenty billion just from reading this post!
    And I don’t even have blood glucose issues!
    But! For all that, this is a fabbo post. I can see that church basement and all the goodies.
    And no. I’m not baking a DAMB thing. Because I am a fiend.

  • Pam says:

    Your post has great timing. I have spent this ENTIRE day baking cookies for an event tomorrow. I’m exhausted. Mainly some I make every year called Victorian Currant Cakes. I hope they like em. I love cookies too.

    • March says:

      Uh I am pretty sure I would LOVE a Victorian currant cake, featuring currants! I’m always thrilled when I find a bakery (there’s one up the street!) using currants, in their case orange-currant scones that are fabulous. I hope tomorrow is a success!

  • MMKinPA says:

    My mom baked sugar cookie cutouts (Santa and Christmas trees); my brother and I were in charge of icing and decorating them. I never mastered rolled doughs, so I haven’t even tried to make them in years. She also had a recipe for tiny anise cookies. I have her recipe box but can’t find the recipe, sadly, I’d love to make some to send to my brother but haven’t found a similar recipe online. I might rally and make some cookies to send to my son who has his first college finals next week!

    • Shiva-woman says:

      Were those Pfeffernusse? Or Peppernuts? There are two versions, one soft and very anise with spice and the other a harder crisper crunchy version, though they look the same, covered white “mushroomy” cookies. That’s our family tradition and I love them. I have a great recipe if you’d like it.

      • March says:

        looooooove pfeffernusse so much. I prefer the ones with the hard sugar glaze but let’s be real, I’d eat any and all of them all the time.

    • March says:

      Rolled and cut cookies are probably the only cookie I just won’t make, I can’t deal with that. I’m willing to squash a ball of dough with a sugared glass and that’s as far as I go. Anise cookies sound wonderful! The local cookie, biscochitos, are traditionally made with anise, which not everyone loves. I’m always wildly disappointed when I get some without it, then they’re just cinnamon-sugar shortbread.

  • Tom says:

    I don’t anymore but I used to when my godchild was a kid. Of all the things I like (and pass the marzipan, please) cookies are just it for me. Love them. A bake sale and a nice cup of NY style regular coffee and I’m in pig heaven.

    I’ve made a buche de noel. They aren’t hard- I’ve found the trick is souse the cake a little and to stick it in the icebox every time you do anything. You can put the room temp icing on the cold log, chill it, add more stuff, chill it, etc. then chill the whole magilla to set it, THEN bring it out, put on the little meringue mushrooms and the spun sugar moss (if you’re really dedicated/crazy) and such. Then it’ll be perfect by the time you’ve finished dinner. Or you can say screw dinner and just eat the cake.

    • Tom says:

      Oh and you can put a thinly rolled layer of marzipan between the cake and the buttercream before rolling up.

    • March says:

      Thanks, Tom! Partly I want to try one for the challenge and partly I think it’s nuts, since I have nobody to share it with! But it does sound do-able! It’s nice to meet a fellow marzipan-eater; I honestly don’t understand how/why people don’t love its sweet almondy deliciousness. I’m thrilled to run across it as a surprise ingredient in a chocolate or in a dessert.

      • AnnieA says:

        I like marzipan too, but since I grew up in a sugar-free household a little of anything sweet goes a long way. One piglet,please!

    • Queen-Cupcake says:

      I love the idea of a thin layer of marzipan in the cake roll. I made one a few years ago, complete with meringue mushrooms, and took it to a friend’s house for Christmas dinner. It was actually not hard to make, and the dinner guests were wowed!