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 2022, we’re coping with the darkness the season and the news brings—long nights, the ongoing pandemic, children’s illnesses, war, displaced people. We hope for big solutions and look to cozy comforts, like cookies. Cookies multiply to be flavored with peppermint, almond, or anise, and then decorated. “Ugly sweater” cookie cutters are sold out, and pounds of butter disappear from grocery shelves.
Cookie making is a traditional family activity. My granddaughters love the decorating part and sometimes the icing goes right into the mouth instead of on the cookie. My sister and I as kids rolled out the dough for cut-outs but weren’t as successful as our mother at 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. The eggless dough depends on molasses to hold everything together and presents challenges. 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 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 two-hundred-pound dog 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. 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.
Krumkake or SkrulYouTube fills in the gaps now, so traditional cookies still abound. Enjoy them by the fire while reading a good mystery. May I recommend one of my Twin Cities Mysteries, Where Privacy Dies and Should Grace Fail? That’ll prepare you for the new one coming out February 14th, When The House Burns. No cookies in that book, but there is pie and a special appearance of brownie pudding—recipe to be released at pub time.
And happy holidays to all!
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.