My first food memory is making cookies with my mom, in particular, Christmas cookies. I can't remember a childhood Christmas when I wasn't in the kitchen with her. At first she would only let me dip the cookies in sugar, coconuts or nuts. Then I graduated to making the thumbprint cookies. I would delicately insert my thumb into the raw dough, making sure each impression was exactly the same. I was in bakers' heaven when she finally let me form them before baking. Imagine my delight when I could use the mixer and actually MAKE the batter!
At age 8, I was possessive of the kitchen and my baking equipment like most girls are of their Barbies. When my sister and brother came to help, I barked orders at them and gave them "gofer" tasks. (humm, no wonder they don't come into the kitchen to help, even now).
My mother laughed at my meticulousness and ignored my bossy behavior. As I got older she let me take on more of the baking responsibilities, and even let me add a new recipe to the list each year. We gave cookies away to friends and family, making and giving away more and more each year. Friends requested cookies as soon as Thanksgiving was over. When I moved on to another job, the first question a coworker asked was, "Will I still get Christmas cookies?" By the time I was 20, our Christmas cookie-making became an elaborate process. We made over a dozen different kinds and around 1000 cookies each year.
The kitchen was not only filled with the sweet scents of cinnamon, chocolate, toasted nuts and sugar, but there was a melody of laughter, song, and good-natured heckling that filled the room. I tried to sing Christmas carols and my mom would come back with stinging comments rivaling any by Simon Cowell. Our banter would ping pong back and forth as we rolled, dropped, cut and baked cookie after cookie. Christmas meant cookie-making with my mom, more than anything else, even Santa Claus or a decorated tree.
This is the sixth year that my mom has been absent from the Christmas kitchen. She passed away in 2003 from lung cancer. The first year, baking without her alone in a silent kitchen was unbearable. Nothing came out right. Too many tears went into the biscotti dough, and it was too wet to bake. Each year, I continue to bake (maybe not as much as before), and it gets easier. I have great memories of our baking together, and they have filled her spot in the kitchen. Only physically absent, she is still in each cookie I bake. All I've learned, all the memories, and the joy of baking together are still there. She also taught me to share what I make, so now I'm sharing with you.
Of the various cookies we've made over the years, these snowball cookies are the most requested of friends and family. They have several names, Russian Tea Cakes, Mexican Wedding Cakes, and Italian Wedding Cakes. In our family, we call them snowballs, because, well, that's what they look like. I hope you make and/or share them with someone you love.
Christmas Snowball Cookies
(Makes about 4 dozen)
1 1/2 cups butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups roughly chopped toasted almonds
About 2 cups powdered sugar for dusting over the cookies
Cream the butter and the sugar in a stand mixer. Once the mixture is creamy, add the eggs, one at a time, and mix until incorporated. Add the vanilla with the last egg.
Sift together the flour and salt, and add to the creamed mixture. Mix together on low just until the flour is combined. Add the chopped almonds and mix just until incorporated. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator, and roll about a tablespoon of dough into a ball (Each ball should be about one inch in diameter.) Bake for 20-22 minutes, until lightly golden on the bottom. After you remove them from the oven, let them cool slightly for about 5 minutes, then roll in powdered sugar. After they cool completely, give them another dusting of powdered sugar. Enjoy!
What are some of your fondest baking or cooking memories?