Tis the season of mysteries. What’s wrapped under the tree? Which liquor spiked the eggnog? Who will surprise us with a sudden yet abiding kindness? For the devout, mysteries underlie faith—the miracle of lights that burn throughout Hanukkah, the divine birth of Jesus under the light of a star, the burning Yule logs celebrating the darkest time of the year. Light against fear and loss, light for hope.
In 2020 as I sit in a snow-less Minnesota, the mysteries are of a medical kind, the how, when, and where of vaccines to stop the COVID rampage. Unknowns abound, and an “unknown” sounds more unsettling than a “mystery.” There can be promise and hope and thrills in a mystery. An unknown is just that, a blank, a void. One certainty of the holidays is the resurgence of the cookie. Every year the media covers new cookie recipes, classic cookie recipes, and how to organize cookie swaps. You can insist on chocolate chip cookies, but they are outdone by decorated gingerbread people, glittery sugar cookies, and specialty acts like peppery Pfeffernusse. “Ugly sweater” cookie cutters are sold out, and pounds of butter vanish from grocery shelves.
I face a common dilemma. How many cookies to make when there is no large gathering? Can they be successfully sent via mail without breaking the biscuit or the bank? Can I go it alone?
Because cookie making most of all is a family activity. As kids, my sister and I rolled out the dough but weren’t as successful as our mother is achieving the desired thinness. Thin cookies went further for a family of seven, allowing that the dogs would steal a few.
A mysterious spice made my mother’s sugar cookie recipe distinct, though as in many recipes reworked during the Depression and WWII, shortening replaced butter. (The exception was Cookie Press creations, which allowed no substitutions.) The minimalist gingerbread dough, recipe below, started with hot molasses poured over shortening. It’s not the easiest dough to work with because it’s eggless and depends on molasses to hold everything together. If the dough is too warm, it’s sticky; too cold it cracks; too much flour, it crumbles. Like Goldilocks, you have to discover what’s just right. But they kept very well, and we’d decorate them to hang from the Christmas tree. The cats and border collie never bothered them, especially if the cookies were adorned by cinnamon Red Hots. Then the St. Bernard appeared, and the tree came down when the Saint tugged on a gingerbread man who failed to run as fast as he can.
My husband’s family roots are Norwegian, and that means Lutefisk and Lefse. Like lobster, lutefisk is a butter delivery system, only there’s no lobster. People who confess to loving the preserved whitefish smother it in butter. (Old joke—to call lutefisk fish-jello is an insult to jello.) To make up for the lutefisk, there’s Scandinavian mulled wine, Gløgg (pronounced gloog). Christmas baking involves labor-intensive rearrangements of butter and sugar, which require special presses, forms, or irons to produce spritz, sandbakkels, and krumkake (like rolled pizzelli). In a wooden box, we have the heritage recipes of my husband’s maternal grandmother.
The trouble with “heritage” is that often an element is missing, and circumstances, along with taste, change. My grandmother-in-law, born in1899, was a servant on a Wisconsin farm in the Norwegian-speaking area of Westby. (She married the farmer’s son.) The recipes are jotted down in English as if someone had abruptly asked her to share. Directions are scant or missing altogether. The assumption was that the next generation learned at her side in a hot kitchen the feel of the dough and the look of doneness. Baking by intuition and observation.
And there’s always pie.
Farmhouse Ginger Cookies
This recipe requires refrigeration time.
1 C very hot molasses
½ C shortening
3 scant cups sifted flour. Or start with 2 ¾ cups and add flour if dough is too sticky to ball together. The dough should be firm but not crumbly.
2-3 tsp ginger
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
Heat molasses and pour over shortening. Add sifted dry ingredients. Mix well, roll into a ball, wrap well with cling wrap, and chill several hours.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Let dough warm up for 15 minutes or until pliable. Roll thin on flour-dusted board, cut into shapes with cookie cutters, and place on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for about 8 minutes or until cookies are set and edges are just beginning to brown. If you wish to thread cookies to hang as decorations, use a slotted spatula to lift baked cookie off the pan and poke a hole through the top with a skewer. This must be done when the cookie is warm and soft. After they’re cool and crisp, store in cool dry place or decorate as desired.