A certain spoilsport of my acquaintance has decided that only Christians in good standing are allowed to enjoy making Christmas cookies. Her perfectly rational explanation is that since Christmas is a Christian holiday, all the festive tree-trimming, cookie baking and the like are the exclusive property of those who belong to the namesake religion.
Well, yes, it's inarguable, except that I say, "Bah, humbug," and so do millions of other non-Christians who point out, just as reasonably, that tree-trimming has its strongest roots among the Druids, and that shared libations, feasting, and the giving of sweet cakes to mark the winter solstice are celebrations of far greater antiquity than a mere 2,000 years.
In fact, a quick look around the bookstore may suggest that there has been at least one winter holiday cookbook published every year since the Stone Age, and that they are all still in print. Unfortunately, this is not so. As fast as new guides to the goodies are published, fine old ones fall into undeserved obscurity. This year, for instance, brings several new pleasures, among them "The Christmas Cook," by William W. Weaver, and "Rose's Christmas Cookies," by Rose Levy Beranbaum. The first is an informal historical overview, studded like a plum pudding with recreated recipes from 1628 to 1921. The second, as its name makes clear, is devoted to only one small branch of the Christmas baking. It is entirely modern, or perhaps post-modern, its recipes essentially without historical anchor or cultural context. But, like Beranbaum's "The Cake Bible," this is a model of good technical instruction, one which includes hand, mixer and processor directions for each of the 60 recipes.
Although "The Christmas Cook" is the handsomer, both books are as noteworthy for the quality of their design and illustration as for their texts. Both are enjoyable, undeniably festive and genuinely useful. But if you're after tasty traditional recipes and lot's of them, I'd still recommend "Visions of Sugarplums," written by Mimi Sheraton in 1968, briefly republished in 1981 and now out of print again. Mercifully, it is available by special order (see below).
The recipes are mostly from Western and Northern Europe, with a few Latin American ones to spice things up. They run the gamut from sweet breads to candies, including cakes, tortes, pies, fritters, drinks and a multitude of cookies--64, if I counted right.
Every one I've tried has been a winner, and my family insists on having Brandy Ring Twists every year, no matter what. They're equally insistent on plain sugar, rather than cinnamon. Nothing should get in the way of the delicate buttery brandy flavor of these quintessentially Christmas (or in our case, solstice) cookies.
BRANDY RING TWISTS
1 1/4 cups unsalted butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons brandy
3 1/4 cups flour, approximately
1 cup Cinnamon Sugar or granulated sugar
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat egg yolk with brandy and mix into creamed butter. Gradually sift in just enough flour to make smooth but soft dough. Gather this into ball and chill 1 to 2 hours.
Pinch off small pieces of dough, and on lightly floured board, roll into thin pencil-like strips, each about 5 inches long. Twist these rolls together in pairs, rope fashion and turn into rings. Dough should remain cold until it is rolled, so divide into portions and keep some chilled while you prepare rest.
Sprinkle with sugar and place on lightly buttered baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees about 10 minutes, or until pale golden yellow. Cool and store in airtight container. Makes about 5 dozen cookies.
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons cinnamon
1 cup granulated or powdered sugar
Mix well and store in shaker or jar.
Note : When short on time, press these cookies instead of rolling them. Don't bother to refrigerate dough, just put it at once through star plate of cookie press, piping fat rings roughly 2 1/2 inches in diameter.
(From "The Christmas
William Woys Weaver)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1 tablespoon water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Cream butter and sugar then add cocoa, water and salt. Beat egg. Then add egg and vanilla to chocolate mixture. Sift flour and soda together twice, then gradually sift into batter.
Roll out dough between sheets of wax paper 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Cut into 2-inch rounds and bake on greased baking sheets in 350-degree oven 15 minutes. Cool on racks.
Dough can be cut into figures like gingerbread or garnished with icing. Scatter vanilla sugar over them as they come from the oven. Makes about 5 dozen.
Note: These very sweet cookies have strong chocolate flavor and unusual, agreeably dry-crisp texture that's equally good with coffee or milk. They were hit with my 8-year-old friend Celia, who usually favors anise biscotti.
Source: Maria Parloa, et al., "Choice Recipes" (Dorchester, Mass.: Walter Baker and Co., 1904)
"Visions Of Sugarplums" may be ordered from Kitchen Arts and Letters, 1435 Lexington Ave., New York, N.Y. 10128. 212-876-5550.