Recipe of the Week: Christmas with my Grandparents

By Laura Mahoney

IMG_9412-1Christmas at my grandparents’ house was gloriously predictable. We could always count on a bottomless pitcher of Manhattans for the grownups, and a dinner of Virginia ham cooked two hours too long to eliminate any chance of trichinosis, alongside Grandma Helen’s perfectly cooked twice-baked potatoes.

For dessert we munched on Grandma’s homemade cookies as the adults partook of the many bottles of “after-dinner drinks” that magically appeared on the table after the dishes were cleared. We mocked the homemade fruitcake sent each year by the relations in upstate New York as we savored every bite of the cookies.

As a kid, I spent all year waiting to eat Grandma’s cookies. She always made the same three kinds: sugar cookies with holiday-colored sprinkles on top; lebkuchen, which I think in German means “bite this and it will break your tooth;” and my personal, dreamy favorite, the butter-and-powdered-sugar-melt-in-your-mouth bombs she called “almond balls.”

Laura, her brother Mark and her Grandmother, 1973
Laura, her brother Mark and her Grandma Helen, 1973

I moved to California in the early 1990’s and rarely made it back to Falls Church, Va., for Christmas and my grandma’s cookies any more. But I dreamed about them often. After Grandma Helen died in 2004, I decided to start the cookie tradition in my own home so my kids would know the joy of an almond ball.

So I called my Aunt Carol to ask for Grandma’s recipes, imagining her rummaging through Grandma’s recipe box to find tattered cards with the instructions written in her own hand. I’m sentimental that way. My fantasy was shattered when Aunt Carol said: “Oh, those recipes are from the Betty Crocker Cookbook.”

Okay, so they aren’t precious heirloom recipes. But the memories that come with them are priceless, and the new memories we’ve been making with them in the past few years have only made them better.

Laura's Aunt Carol, brother Mark (and his lebkuchen), and Grandma Helen, 1980
Laura's Aunt Carol, brother Mark (and his lebkuchen), and Grandma Helen, 1980

My kids clamor to decorate the sugar cookies, and eat them just as eagerly. When my parents arrive from their home in Texas, my mom snarfs down the almond balls while my dad crunches away on the lebkuchen. “Nothing says Christmas like lebkuchen,” is what he says each time he takes the lid off the cookie tin and reaches in for another.

Grandma Helen is with us still.

Except for the part where we use our Hanukkah cookie cutters to make the cookie shapes. My husband and kids are Jewish and we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas in our house. It’s our own gloriously predictable holiday tradition.

Nothing says Christmas like my dad eating a lebkuchen in the shape of a dreidel.

Almond Balls

These are also known as Russian Tea Cakes or Mexican Wedding Cakes. Grandma always told me she rolled them in powdered sugar a minimum of 14 times, but I’ve found that rolling them twice as the recipe says is still delicious.

1 cup butter or margarine, softened
½ cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ¼ cups all purpose flour
¾ cup finely chopped nuts – I use almonds of course, but walnuts are also good
¼ teaspoon salt
More powdered sugar for rolling

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix butter, ½ cup powdered sugar, and vanilla in large bowl. Stir in flour, nuts, and salt until dough holds together.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place about 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until set but not brown. Remove from cookie sheet. Cool slightly on a wire rack.

Put a generous amount of powdered sugar in a wide bowl or on a plate. Roll warm cookies in powdered sugar, cool on wire rack. Roll in powdered sugar again.

Lebkuchen

Mix together and bring to a boil: ½ cup honey and ½ cup molasses. Cool thoroughly. Stir in ¾ cup brown sugar, 1 egg, and 1 tablespoon lemon juice.

Sift together and stir in: 2 ¾ cups sifted flour, ½ teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 teaspoon allspice, and 1 teaspoon nutmeg.

Chill dough overnight. Roll about a quarter to and eighth of the dough at a time onto a flat surface, keeping the rest chilled. Roll the dough to about ¼ inch thick, and cut into oblongs about 1 ½ inches by 2 ½ inches, or use cookie cutters. Gather the scraps together and re-chill until firm enough to roll again. Place the cookies one inch apart on a greased baking sheet. Bake until no imprint remains when you touch them lightly.

While cookies are baking, make glaze icing. Combine ½ cup unsifted confectioners sugar and 1 tablespoon cold water. Brush it over the cookies the minute they are out of the oven. Then quickly remove them from the baking sheet. Cool, and store to mellow in a container for a few days. Sometimes these cookies can become too hard and chewy. If you put a slice of bread in the container with them they will soften up.

Holiday Sugar Cookies

This recipe is not from Betty Crocker, but is from the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook by Cook’s Illustrated. As much as I loved Grandma’s sugar cookies, I decided to go with a different recipe. We affectionately call Cooks Illustrated “The Anal Chef,” and they never let us down. The payoff for the hard work is well worth it.

2 ½ cups all purpose flour
¾ cup superfine sugar, available in the grocery store
¼ teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch pieces and softened
2 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Whisk the flour, sugar, and salt together in a large bowl. Beat the butter into the flour mixture, one piece at a time, using an electric mixer on medium-low speed, then continue to beat until the mixture looks crumbly and slightly wet, 1 to 2 minutes. Beat in the cream cheese and vanilla until the dough just begins to form large clumps, about 30 seconds.

Knead the dough in the bowl by hand a few times until it forms a large, cohesive mass. Turn the dough out onto a clean counter, divide it in half, and pat it into two four-inch disks. Wrap the disks tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until they begin to firm up, 20 to 30 minutes.

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Working with one disk of dough at a time, roll it out to a 1/8-inch thickness between two sheets of parchment paper. Slide the rolled dough and parchment onto a baking sheet and refrigerate until firm, about 10 minutes.

Working with one sheet of dough at a time, cut out shapes using cookie cutters and lay on two parchment-lined baking sheets, spaced about 1 inch apart. Bake cookies until light golden brown, about 10 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through. While each batch is cooking, cut out the cookies from the next sheet of dough. Collect the scraps of dough together and re-chill as needed so you can roll out more sheets and cut more cookies.

Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet for 2 minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely, about 30 minutes. After they cool, decorate them with the sprinkles, icing, and confections of your choice.

Laura Mahoney is the Sacramento staff correspondent for BNA, a news and information publisher based in Washington, D.C. Laura covers the state Capitol, regulatory agencies, courts, and private sector for BNA’s many daily and weekly publications. Laura lives in East Sacramento with her husband and two children.

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1 Comment

  1. Stasa Morgan-Appel says

    Nom nom nom!

    “Nothing says Christmas like my dad eating a lebkuchen in the shape of a dreidel.” It’s true! 🙂

    Actually, I ate way too many of your sugar cookies last year, including dreidl-shaped ones, and they were fabulous.

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