Pam’s Pictorama Post: I know I am far from alone in being a bit bereft this holiday season. While a decision to stay home makes sense, this is the first holiday season I will not find myself with family in New Jersey on Christmas and it saddens me deeply. I am usually a fan of the holidays, but this year fail to have much ho, ho, ho. Of course, much of the world is in exactly the same place, and it is hard to rally even nominal holiday spirit and instead seems easier to try to ignore the calendar entirely.
Nevertheless, Kim and I did produce our annual holiday card and those are going out in the mail this week – look for a Deitch Studio-Pictorama card reveal post next weekend! And a bit of holiday spirit has begun to infuse me. I have been snapping pictures of holiday decorations as part of my morning outdoor workout. Winking fairy lights, faux icicles and bubbling tree lights have always attracted me and many of them are still lit from the night before when I head out in the morning. And I have looked again and again at the limited square footage of our apartment to see if maybe a small tree might fit and provide the cats with the opportunity to pretend they live in a tiny indoor forest. Those few feet of unoccupied space continue to evade me however – Pictorama readers also know, it is a very small apartment.
Therefore, as I have frequently in recent months, I reach into my bag of cooking tricks to see how I might summon a bit of holiday cheer for the coming weeks, and I have landed on Christmas cookies, specifically my grandmother’s ginger spice cookies.
As some of you have read in prior posts, I was blessed to grow up with a maternal grandmother who was an extraordinary cook and who, along with her two sisters (she was Anne and they were Ro, for Rose, and Mickey, or Margaret), turned every holiday into a table-groaning fiesta of food. (I wrote about recreating my grandmother’s Poor Man’s Cake, including the recipe, in a post that can be found here. In recent weeks I wrote about her cherry preserves and that post can be found here.)
Bread, home-made pasta, meatballs, and hams – and for dessert fried dough with confectioner’s sugar (these were also served without the sugar and instead with tomato sauce for subsequent, post-holiday meals) and homemade cannoli. And at Christmas there were Christmas cookies, the production of which would have been taking place throughout the month of December, beginning right after Thanksgiving. (The holiday LP’s would come out at the same time – Andy Williams belting out that it is The Most Wonderful Season of All and Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire.)
My grandmother would come to bake some, although certainly not all, of her holiday cookies at our house and therefore I had a front row seat, helping her and watching for many years. I deeply suspect I can no longer name all of the types of cookies she routinely made each year – as I write more come to mind. Those that stand out in my memory are: Russian tea cakes in the form of wonderful little balls of cookie and nuts covered in powdered sugar, mom’s favorite were a cream cheese variety; thumbprints which were dotted with different jams; gingerbread (which was always made at our house so we could decorate them with icing and other tidbits and smelled just heavenly cooking); chocolate and butter cookie pinwheels; regular butter cookies which were made with pounds of butter and decorated with colored sugar – there was a variation on these which spit out a similar dough with a handheld device and made a somewhat fatter star-shaped version which were decorated with sprinkles instead of sugar. (I had to pause to look this up to make sure I hadn’t imagined it and yes, there is an electric plastic version made today and it is called a cookie gun or handpress.)
I loved the sprinkles, colored sugars, icings and cookie cutters that were brought out on these occasions – the latter and the above mentioned cookie press appeared each year in a series of ancient flour-dusted plastic bags my grandmother would carry them in. Tins of mixed cookies were assembled and given out to the branches of the family and we’d have a supply that lasted into January. She would make endless tins of them for family and friends – the prodigious output was stored on her sun porch which was cool in winter, awaiting distribution.
My holiday favorite was the butter cookies and it is those I am tempted to make, however those pounds of butter are intimidating me in my efforts to pull back on the pandemic pounds I have acquired since March, and instead I have landed on the ginger spice cookies which were another favorite. Among my grandmother’s cookies, the spice cookies (they were always just the spice cookies in our family lexicon) were the only ones that were also made out of season. I do not remember my grandmother making any other cookies at another time of the year – perhaps her extraordinary holiday output precluded additional cookie baking in her mind, I never asked – some things just were and that was one.
The spice cookies were also the first cookies I learned to make on my own. I think by the time I learned to make them I had probably played around with chocolate chip cookies, made from the recipe on the back of the bag of chips. (It was years before we graduated to the sophistication of M&M’s in our cookies – yes, I am that old.) The spice cookies represented my first nascent attempts at baking and was a favorable enough one that at one time I considered it for a career, but that, as we say, is another story.
There is a slightly chewy quality to them if you don’t over bake them and they are quite addictive. They are easily thrown together and were an excellent and gratifying early lesson in baking. I remember receiving an honorable mention for them in a Girl Scout baking competition. The troop leader told my mother that I would have gotten first place on the taste of them, but they were too irregular in shape. This seemed hugely unjust to the pint-sized me as in my mind cookies were about how they tasted, not how uniform they could be. (Looking back on it, there was probably an important lesson about the world I was being given as well and likely that is why it has remained in my mind all these years.)
This year, rather than Andy Williams I have Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Big Band Holiday concerts playing on the computer – a new one will be released on December 19 with a week of available listening. (Early in my career with the band I hit the road during the Big Band Holiday tour and I wrote about that rollicking trip in a post can be found here. I believe I heard that concert a dozen times over the course of that season.) Of course I need to hawk our online Big Band Holiday concert tickets which can be purchased here and can be played on-demand through December 26.) It will be a different and memorable holiday with new traditions this year.
So, with apologies and regrets that I do not have cookie photos yet as I am planning to make them this afternoon, I offer the recipe below. I promised to post photos here and elsewhere after the fact. I have only the rudiments of my grandmother’s recipe, given to me by my non-baking uncle so I may need to tinker with the instructions as well!
Recipe for Anne’s Ginger Spice Cookies:
- 3/4 cup soft shortening
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup molasses (I’m going for the original, not dark here)
- 2 cups flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 3/4 tsp ginger
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- confectioner’s sugar as needed
Combine ingredients: dry first together, then cream butter and sugar and add the egg and molasses. Mix all thoroughly. (A hand or standing mixer is called for if you have one, although I have a vague memory of doing it by hand. I do have an ancient hand mixer I rarely use, from a garage sale and purchased by my father for me. The tape price tag still stuck on it. My memory is that I mixed these by hand though and by hand I do mean, with your hands, not an implement.) Please note that it is shortening (margarine) not butter and it should be quite soft so it mixes easily with the sugar and other ingredients.
A recipe I checked online suggests chilling the batter for 2 hours to prevent the aforementioned spreading. She also uses parchment paper on the cookie sheet which does make it go quickly and with less mess, especially in a small kitchen like mine. My memory (which does not include refrigerating although mom remembered yes when asked) was that we lightly greased the cookie sheet with some of the shortening. Form the balls of dough – about an inch or the size of the ball that came with jax. Bake at 350 degrees for about 6-8 minutes. (Keep an eye on them not to over bake. The first batch in my gas stove overcooked at about 10 minutes.) Allow cookies to cool for the first few minutes on the baking sheet because they are soft – then transfer to a cooling rack. After the cookies are fully cooled shake powdered sugar over them. If you are stacking them in a tin, layer parchment paper between them or they will stick. Eat cookies, listen to holiday music and enjoy!
Postscript! These were like tasting my childhood again!