Requiem for a Christmas Cookie

What happens when you kill off a time-honored holiday treat?

Photo |

Photo |

I guess I should start by explaining that in my family, I’m the one who makes the Christmas cookies. I bring a big tray of them to the family Christmas Eve gathering, and I give tins of them every year to my siblings, my first cousins who are physically present at the aforementioned Christmas Eve gathering, and my nieces and nephews who have attained the age of majority. The rule used to be nieces and nephews who had attained the age of majority and were maintaining a domicile separate from their parents, but the recession has hit the millennials hard, so I’ve relaxed a bit.

You might think such specific rules of cookie-reception are over the top, but then, you’ve never looked into the glowing eyes of my nephew Nicholas when, the Christmas after he turned 18, he accepted the tin I handed him with wide, glowing eyes and said, “My own? All for me?”

The Christmas cookies I make are from recipes we found in my mom’s cookbooks and recipe holder after she died back in ’81. And since they’re cookies she made every year for Christmas Eve and to give to family members, they’re pretty retro. No Salted Caramel Latte Squares in my cookie tins; no Pomegranate-Sesame Oil Thins. These are Betty Crocker-era treats. The most exotic items in the canon are the Date Nut Pinwheels. These recipes predate specialty food stores and the Williams-Sonoma catalog. We’re talking butter, sugar, flour, eggs and maybe some sprinkles on top.

I usually start making cookies two weeks before Christmas, and I always start with the same thing: the Springerle. Springerle are those rock-hard anise-flavored rectangles that have little designs pressed into the tops. And they’re a total pain in the ass to make. For one thing, you have to remember to buy anise seed, which isn’t something I ever use for any other purpose. They also contain grated lemon peel, which I resent because it means I have to wash the grater afterwards. (I hate specialized equipment. I’m a generalist.) They also have to sit overnight on oiled baking sheets sprinkled with anise seed before you bake them, so every year I have a kitchen full of pans of unbaked Springerle sitting around just as I begin the cookie-making. But what I really hate about Springerle is that the recipe begins with mixing eggs and sugar and beating them for 10 minutes. Ten minutes! That’s 10 minutes in the midst of the pre-holiday upheaval, standing at the kitchen counter with my trusty little hand-mixer, watching the timer on the oven count down ever … so … slowly before I can really get things under way.

It would be one thing if I liked Springerle. I don’t. And in 30-plus years of cookie-making, I’ve gradually come to realize: Nobody else does, either. Nobody ever looks at my tray of handsome Christmas Eve cookies and squeals, “Oooh! I’ve been waiting all year for another Springerle!” In fact, Springerle tend to be the duds left on the tray after the Filled Butter Rings and Swedish Heirlooms and Holiday Macaroons have all been eaten, and sit there, spurned, in their iron-hard anise-scentedness. Which is why, this year, it finally occurred to me:

You don’t have to make springerle.

Just thinking this thought made me nervous. It felt like a betrayal — of my long-dead mother, of the Springerle rolling pin I inherited from her (more specialized equipment), of tradition, of Santa Claus and Baby Jesus too. No Springerle! What would be next — no Gingerbread Men? No Christmas cookies at all?

But then I thought about it some more. Over the years, I’ve made a few tentative additions to my oeuvre. The Cranberry Pistachio Icebox Cookies proved a huge hit. My family members would miss those if they went away. When something is added, isn’t it only logical that something be subtracted? Especially if that something has anise seeds in it and requires 10 minutes of hand-held-mixer mixing right off the bat?

So this year, I’m not making Springerle. I’m going to see if anybody remarks on their absence. It is, I suppose, possible that among my relations there are closet anise-seed enthusiasts. But I’m betting if there are, they can be assuaged by the Chocolate Fudge Fig Walnut Bars I’m making instead. Life is full of changes; you have to embrace them if you hope to grow.

Next on my hit list: Oatmeal Raisin Drops. I find them insufficiently festive. And hey, there’s a great wide world of Christmas cookies out there.