Saturday, December 25, 2010

Reflections on Christmas Cookies & Traditions

My first Christmas as a bona fide ‘grown-up’ was in 1975. I was married to my first husband and was celebrating our first Christmas together. At the time he was in the Army and we were living in Frankfurt, Germany in a tiny rented apartment in the city. We were invited to Christmas dinner at Art and Mitzy’s home. Art and Mitzy were American transplants in Europe. Art had been a dentist in Milwaukee and was trying to launch a second career in the opera. Mitzy was a pianist. The holiday dinner would be filled with other transplanted Americans, musicians, businessmen, their spouses and children. My husband and I were the only ones with a military connection. I still remember quite vividly the conflict between feeling the adventure of a European Christmas and missing my own family Christmas traditions.

Growing up in New Jersey with a large extended family, I was blessed with rich memories of holiday gatherings filled with aunts and uncles and cousins. My mother was particularly attuned to relatives in the nether reaches of the family tree and friends of family members that were left hanging on their own during the holiday were usually found at the family table. Our house was filled with frolic and frenzy and especially great food steeped in festive traditions. My great-grandmother’s English mincemeat and plum pudding, fresh cranberry-orange relish, and most importantly – Christmas cookies.

In the pantry there was always a stash of cookies of every variety. Some were annual holiday standards and some were new recipes. For my mother it was critical that she always be prepared for drop-in visitors. Being prepared equaled “something to go with coffee” and at Christmas time that something meant cookies.

So for that first Christmas in Germany, absent family, or decorations, a tree or shopping, or snow, I latched onto the one thing I was convinced would tie me to long-standing family traditions – baking cookies. At that time I didn’t have the extensive recipe collection I do today so I combed my new cookbooks and holiday magazines for likely candidates. There is one cookie recipe I found that stands out today over 30 years later – Currant Cookies. I found the recipe in Family Circle magazine. The cookies are basically a shortbread cookie – lots of butter, very little sugar, plus lemon zest and currants flour. At some point over the years, I added my own variation by soaking the currants first in brandy, or bourbon, or some other flavored liqueur.

The recipe for Currant Cookies is really, really simple and yet, almost every time I make it, the result is a little different. Some years really outstanding. Some years – best forgotten. I’ve made Currant Cookies in Germany, in New Jersey, in West Virginia, in Ohio, and now I’m making Currant Cookies in South Dakota.

I got a head start on cookie making this year and found myself assembling the ingredients for this year’s batch of Currant Cookies about 2 weeks ago. I asked myself – how will they turn out this year? Moist and melt in your mouth? Or dry and floury? Will the lemon zest zing on your tongue? Will the currants be little pops of soft sweetness as you chew?

As I was creaming the butter I started thinking that Christmas traditions are a lot like these currant cookies. My own particular recipe has evolved over the years and yet is pretty simple: lots of Christmas music especially from the choral repertoire, Christmas movies, and even if I don’t haul out all the decorations each year, I always have lots of candles around the house.
I especially love the season of Advent with its countdown to Christmas in both the sacred, liturgical world and the commercial secular world. And each year, as the days of Advent tick by, I revisit my vast store of Christmas memories and traditions, revel in the happiness they bring and, at the same time, feel some uneasy stirrings that maybe this year won’t measure up to the glories of Christmas Past.

And somehow, just like my Currant Cookies, even when I follow the same recipe using the same ingredients and the same techniques, some years are outstanding and some - well let’s just say if they don’t make it into that vast store of memories, they won’t be missed all that much. As the days of Advent wind down I often find myself thinking that maybe this Christmas will be one that I don’t need remember. And that seems a little scary to me.

But then, each year I find myself sitting at the Christmas Eve service at church, hearing the story from the Book of Luke and singing the carols of old. And I think – what was I worrying for? So what if the traditions change from one year to the next, old traditions fade and new ones take their place? There is only one ingredient you need for the recipe that is Your Life - the knowledge that Christ was born, fulfilling God’s promise of love, redemption, and restoration. With that insight, that little scary feeling goes away and I am renewed, invigorated, and ready to take on any new variation that comes into my life

To All My Readers, I wish for you a Very, Merry Christmas!

Currant Cookies
¾ cup currants
1 cup butter, softened
¼ cup sugar
Peel of one lemon, grated
2 ¼ cups flour.

Plump currants in hot water, or use brandy, bourbon or liqueur to flavor if desired. Set aside for 10-15 minutes to allow currants to absorb flavor.
Cream butter and sugar until very light and fluffy. Stir in currants and lemon peel. Gradually add flour and stir until smooth.
Shape into one inch balls and place on greased cookie sheet one inch apart. Dip tines of fork in sugar and flatten to 1 ½ inch. Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown around the edges.

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