Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there’s an additional element in the air that I can neither name nor ignore.
With each chilly morning, each holiday reference, each reindeer song, memories of Christmas pasts sharpen.
Dismiss this if you will, but I dare anyone to try to conjure a childhood Christmas memory with the same richness of detail and sensory depth while breathing spent sparkler fumes in July.
What I like best is that my most fond Christmas memories have nothing to do with presents. OK, I admit, that isn’t entirely true–Christmas, at age 10, when I woke to a Barbie Van and Hair Salon under the tree in the same morning has yet to be topped by any random combination of Starbucks and Applebee’s gift cards.
But by and large, the longings I hold for the holidays in my rearview are more for the people and time together, not items unwrapped.
One thing I miss most is making cookies with Grandma Alice. Coming from hardy German stock, baking with Grandma wasn’t one of those fluffy commercials full of sweet smiles and tots stirring crispy rice so hard it spills onto the countertop while mom giggles and pinches their noses.
No, baking with Grandma Alice meant if you made a mess, you darn well cleaned it up before someone else stepped in it and tracked it across the floor.
No-nonsense and full of passion for life–and with an ornery streak a mile long–her abundance of love and spunk was no secret.
Of all my years of memories with Grandma, “I can’t” never came out of her mouth. If she wanted something, she went after it with gusto–which included her vices.
Shorter than me by at least a foot, I tried convincing her, following a very serious seventh-grade health class lecture on the dangers of smoking, that her chain-lit Basic 100s were the reason for her shrinking.
But she’d have none of that. She had smoked since she was 12, she informed me, and she wasn’t about to stop now, even if she ended up no taller than a gnome.
I did my best to slow her smoking, going so far as to hide an unopened carton of her cigarettes against the far back wall of her tallest cabinet when she was in a different room, only to get a call at Mom’s house around 11 that evening demanding I get out of bed, come to her house and get the cigarettes down.
(I still don’t know how she figured that out.)
The only time she didn’t smoke was when we made cookies. And by “make cookies,” I mean to say that with the help of me and my sister, the three of us created such a gigantic sugary spread that we feasted on holiday leftovers into the following week.
Her recipe books were old, the pages stained with dots of grease and splatters of milk from previous generations, but those made the recipes all the more special, knowing aunts and great-aunts had used the same recipes from the same book to make the same cookies to bring joy to the people in their lives.
My favorite cookie recipe with Grandma first came about when I had to do a food project for Spanish class. Not knowing a taco from an enchilada, Mom sent me to Grandma’s to get her recipe for Mexican Wedding Cakes.
Though I questioned the wisdom of asking a small-town, German-blooded woman how to help me make Mexican Wedding Cakes, it only took a bite to know Mom was on to something.
A literal melt-in-your-mouth ball of butter, flour and sugar baked crisp yet soft, boasting chunks of hand-cracked black walnuts then double-rolled in powdered sugar, the class demolished the heap I’d piled into the Tupperware tub in less than five minutes and asked for more.
Not a single person questioned the authentic ethnicity of the recipe, only lamented the fact that there wasn’t more.
At least 20 years have passed since the first batch of hand-rolled Mexican Wedding Cakes came hot from the oven, yet the same warm feeling still touches me when I make them today.
The tradition passed down and refined over the course of what probably amounts to thousands of hand-rolled cookies keeps the memory of Grandma close in a way no ordinary gift ever could, in the absence of her signature cloud of cigarette smoke and throaty giggle.
In the hopes of passing on–or helping to start–a memory-filled tradition for your family, make a few batches of these delicious cookies along with someone special.
Grandma Alice’s Mexican Wedding Cakes
Makes approximately 4 dozen cookies
1 c. butter, softened
½ c. powdered sugar plus extra for rolling hot cookies
1 tsp. vanilla or almond flavoring
2¼ c. flour
¾ c. finely chopped nuts (preferably black walnuts, lightly toasted)
¼ tsp. salt
Heat oven to 400F. In a large bowl, mix butter, powdered sugar and vanilla/almond flavoring until well combined. Stir in flower, nuts and salt until dough pulls together.
Roll dough into 1-inch balls. Place balls about an inch apart on a cookie sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes until set and barely browned.
Remove from cookie sheet to cooling rack and allow to cool no more than 3 minutes or until balls are firm enough to pick up but still warm. In a bowl with the additional powdered sugar, roll each cookie until covered and return to rack to cool completely. Once cooled, roll a second time in powdered sugar and share.
Beth Morrow is an educator, camp program director and avid baker who loves using the holidays as an excuse to play with sugar in all its forms. Reach her at email@example.com.