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