Let’s talk of pleasant things, shall we? Skip all the “There’s been so much going on, lately” catch-up and jump straight to Christmas cookies? What do you say?
Christmas cookies have been on my mind for the past couple of days, ever since my Grandma Teague told me she was just getting her Christmas baking underway. As I listened to her admit that she was finally letting go of the need to strive toward perfection during Christmastime and was only going to bake a handful of varieties of cookies this year, I completely missed the point and started fretting about the fact that I myself haven’t started my Christmas baking yet. Nor had I made any sort of list or plan about cookies and the people to whom they would eventually be given.
I guess the truth is that I don’t think of myself as a Christmas baker. I bake during Christmas – that is true. I even enjoy it and honestly, the season just doesn’t feel complete without doing at least a little of it. But I do not have an urge or need to make any one certain treat this time of year. I know that sounds completely bizarre coming from me of all people, but truly, I am pretty content with letting other people do all the dirty work so I can loaf on the couch with a box of Candy Cane Joe-Joe’s and a tin of my mom’s Russian Tea Cakes.
But alas, the more I thought about Christmas cookies and how I am the mom now, and responsible for making new traditions (or passing on old ones) to our children, I realized I ought to get my act together and at least devote a little bit of brain power to what sorts of cookies I want our girls to think of when they think of Christmas. It was just this afternoon when I decided that Spritz cookies were going to be at least one tradition to pass on. There may be others that make the cut along the way too, but for now, those are the ones I am going to perfect.
Ah, Spritz cookies. Those delightful little butter cookies decorated with shimmering red and green sprinkles. They always looked a little bit like ornaments to my little girl eyes. I can see them piled high in a funky old Christmas tin alongside all the other treats that filled my Grandma’s dessert table. In my memory, there was always a great variety of cookies, but the ones I remember most clearly are Russian Tea Cakes, Krumkake, and of course, Spritz cookies.
Spritz cookies are a traditional, somewhat under-celebrated cookie these days. They originated in Germany, but I always think of them as Scandinavian (since my Norwegian Grandmother always baked them but I don’t remember my German grandmother ever making them). There isn’t much to them: butter, sugar, vanilla, flour. What makes them special is the way they are made and the shape they take. Using a cookie press with changeable molds, they can be Chrismas trees or wreaths or flowers or hearts. The result is a delicate little butter cookie whose beauty was completely lost on me in childhood. It’s not to say Grandma’s Spritz cookies were not any good — they were. They are. But, well, is it any surprise my heart didn’t swoon over a dessert that didn’t include chocolate?
Even so, whenever I think about Spritz cookies now, I wish I would have lingered a little longer over those gems and paid them their due. Even though I sort of think of them as old-fashioned, in my grown up mind that makes them charming and important. As I stirred together the dough and filled the cookie press and made dozens of those delicate little cookies, I thought about my grandma and how she lovingly makes those cookies year after year, and how she must have learned how to make them from her mother, and then I started thinking about all the women’s hands who had mothered all the generations before me. I wondered how many of them felt like they had to create a perfect Christmas every year, and how many of them baked out of duty and not pleasure?
Mothering comes with so many non-negotiable duties, some the same as they were in the generations before me, and some that aren’t. Baking cookies certainly is not one of them these days. Baking is inconvenient in today’s world: it is messy and time consuming. In a culture that values convenience, buying cookies saves time and sanity. But I find that when I do the messy things, the messes always somehow manage to get cleaned up eventually, and what I’m left with are the smiles and the giggles and the shy, hopeful whispers of “May I have another one Mommy?”
I think it’s safe to say that I will continue to bake at Christmastime for the sheer pleasure of it. And I hope my girls someday will, too.
These cookies don’t look like much, but if you like chocolate and peppermint and crispy little tea cookies, I think it’s safe to say you’ll enjoy them. I admit I would not go out of my way to hunt down a good Spritz cookie recipe had I not had a cookie press begging to be used, but since I had one, and a good one at that (a Wilton Cookie Pro Ultra II, which I highly recommend), it was easy to walk in my grandmother’s shoes and make a batch of these delicate little beauties.
UPDATE: I first made and wrote about these cookies in 2013. I updated the recipe this year (2016) to be both gluten free and dairy free, but the ingredient list to make the cookies with butter and wheat flour is pretty much the same–just omit the xanthan gum and use salted butter instead of Earth Balance and all purpose or white whole wheat flour instead of gluten free flour. The good news? The kids couldn’t tell the difference and Addie again three years later shyly asked me if she could have another cookie, just like she did when she was three years old.
1 1/2 cups Gluten Free Flour Blend (like this one), or white whole wheat flour
First, prepare your cookie press by getting everything set up (design plate chosen/inserted and get everything assembled to the point where all you need to do is add the dough).
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Then, soften (but don’t melt!) the butter. In a stand mixer, mix the butter and sugar on medium high until well combined. Add the egg, extracts, and salt; reduce speed to low. Add the xanthan gum (if using), cocoa powder and flour. Stir until just combined. The dough will be sticky.
Then, fill your cookie press, and press the dough out onto an ungreased cookie sheet (don’t use parchment paper, either). You can add sprinkles at this point, if you want to – just sprinkle on top before you put the cookie sheet in the oven. Bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes–much longer, and they’ll burn. Remove from pan and let cool on a wire rack.
*Variation: for plain Chocolate Spritz Cookies, increase vanilla extract to 2 teaspoons and omit peppermint extract.