Seasons by the Sea: Holiday Cookies, Sweet Memories

Cookies in general evolved from flat cakes and sometimes sweetened pie dough
If there is no time to bake for Santa, a number of bakeries make holiday cookies that look a lot like homemade, such as these gingerbread, butter, and Mexican wedding cookies from Tate’s Bake Shop in Southampton. Jennifer Landes

Christmas and holiday cookies serve many purposes. They can be given as homemade gifts, kept around the house as a special treat for friends and family, used as tree decorations, and put out on the mantle Christmas Eve with a glass of milk for Santa Claus to fortify himself as he makes his rounds round the world.

Cookies in general evolved from flat cakes and sometimes sweetened pie dough. They were eaten ritually and offered at celebrations around the world. They were probably only served on special occasions because sweeteners and spices were still rare and expensive. In some cultures, the cookies were stamped with images of gods, goddesses, animals, and other symbols. These cookies were substitutes for actual animal and human sacrifices. Yikes!

The German springerle cookies are a good example. These date back to the pagan midwinter festival Julfest, and the anise-flavored cookie is often embossed with a jumping horse, the sacred animal of Wotan, king of the Nordic gods.

The word “cookie” comes from the Dutch “kockje,” meaning “little cake,” and the word’s earliest use in print was in the late 1700s. By the mid-1800s, cookies were still being lumped into cake chapters of cookbooks but by the late 1800s, they had earned their own chapters.

Throughout history and around the world, cookies have had some kooky names: yeasted wigs, jumbles, courtships, apees, rusks, queries, and Shrewsbury cakes.

Americans love cookies probably more than anyone else and our most popular type (chocolate chip) is our invention and is probably the first thing children learn how to bake.

When I asked people what their favorite Christmas cookies and memories were, there was a great variety of answers. Lace cookies, chocolate crinkles, lebkuchen, koulourakia, Moravian sugar, krumkake, and the classic plain sugar cookie, cut into holiday shapes and decorated. My son confessed to a fondness for “the gross but weirdly good Pillsbury sugar cookies, soft in the middle, with food coloring flavor.” Where did I go wrong?

The aforementioned lebkuchen are my friend Justin Spring’s favorite. He loves “the warming spices, candied orange and lemon peel, candied ginger, honey, and that hard white icing.” Lebkuchen, a.k.a. “life cake,” was originally called honey cake. During the 13th century, it became lebkuchen in the German speaking part of the world. The monks who made it, to accompany strong beer, believed that the spices — pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, anise, coriander, and clove — helped aid digestion.

The chef extraordinaire Mark Sanne remembers his Norwegian grandmother’s krumkake fondly. He describes it as “a buttery, cardamom-flavored, thin, cone-shaped cookie that we always made in December. The smell of cardamom signals the start of the Christmas season to me.” These are thin waffle or pizelle-type cookies cooked in a special griddle. They are beautifully delicate and can be filled with whipped cream if you wish.

One of my oldest childhood friends and neighbors in Virginia, Marion Markham, remembers her mother having a faux Waterford crystal stacking cookie jar filled with ribbon candy, shortbread cookies shaped like bells, and Kahlua balls (those must’ve been for the adults, buried at the bottom of the jar).

Anything gingerbread is my favorite. Gingerbread cookies have existed in some form or other since soldiers in the Crusades brought spices and sugar back to Europe. Molasses is still used as well. This was more readily available long ago, before refined sugar. Gingerbread cookies can be thin and crisp or soft, thick, and chewy. My “secret” ingredient is a pinch of white pepper for extra bite. Thank you, Jeremiah Tower of the famed Stars restaurant.

There are so many kinds of celebratory cookies from around the world, bredda, fattigmann, kerstkransjes, pepperkakor, pfeffernusse, sandbakelse, and kourabiedes, not necessarily for Christmas, just special occasions. And I offer sincere apologies for not writing this earlier to include Hanukkah treats such as sugar cookies, rugelach, jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot), and levivot.

For Kwanzaa, from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits of the harvest,” there aren’t really any food rules, per se, but there are symbols and traditions represented. The table is laden with dishes that can represent classic African-American soul food or dishes such as groundnut stew from Ghana, many curries, jollof rice from Nigeria, and thieboudienne from Senegal. Thieboudienne is a one-pot dish of fish with rice and tomato sauce with spices. The Kwanzaa table is set with mazoa, fruits and vegetables representing the harvest; the kikombe cha umoja communal chalice; zawadi, gifts; muhindi, ears of corn to represent each child at home, and kinara, a seven-branched candlestick to hold the red, black, and green candles that are lit each evening. Coconut cake, sweet potato pie, and ambrosia could be served for dessert, but if there is a Kwanzaa cookie, it would be benne wafers, thin, crisp, delicious sesame seed cookies.

Making cookies with your children for holidays is a fun and bonding activity. Assembling ingredients is something tiny ones can do. They will make a mess but that’s part of the process and the rewards are sweet!

If by chance you just don’t have the time or inclination to bake, there are plenty of gourmet shops and online resources for great cookies. Byrd’s of Charleston makes amazing benne wafers, and Williams-Sonoma sells Moravian ginger and sugar cookies. If you do bake, and I hope you do, here are some recipes, simple and traditional.

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Gingerbread cookies can be thin, thick, soft, or crisp. And instead of plain sugar cookies, why not try a recipe for brown sugar cookies from Kathleen King? Jennifer Landes