Friday, December 4, 2009

Full circle

As soon as I realize that we would be eating supper in the dark if it weren’t for the wondrous invention of the electric light, I get hit with the urge to make Christmas cookies. I chomp at the bit until Thanksgiving passes (according to my personal laws and regulations, Christmas is not allowed to swerve out into the passing lane and cut off Thanksgiving) and then, only then, do I set free my inner child and start tossing flour and sugar all around the kitchen like nobody’s business. I have no limits, I exercise no restraint, I have no shame, and it is marvelous. (The grocery bills don’t exactly make Mr. Handsome sing for joy, but he doesn’t do much complaining when his mouth is full.)


The first cookie I made this season was one that I haven’t made for a couple years because I could always count on my mother to bake them and then share with us—raisin-filled cookies. But this year I didn’t want to wait around for my mother to start baking. I wanted those cookies all for myself, and right away, please. So on Tuesday afternoon, in the middle of a long day of solid rain, I stuck Handel’s Messiah in the CD player and took the rolling pin in my own two hands.


These old-fashioned raisin-filled cookies (a little spoonful of ground nuts and raisins tucked between two rounds of sugar cookie dough, the edges pressed gently together, and then the final touch—the only bit of adornment allowed—one little raisin poked into their caps when they are still hot from the oven) are plain yet comforting, honest in their unassuming modesty. In fact, they are so simple that many an unknowing person unwittingly bypasses them for the more glitzy sugar bombs—the gooey lemon cookies, the chocolate-nut toffees, the iced gingerbread men. Therefore, we don’t usually share these cookies with complete strangers because we’ve learned it takes a certain kind of person, mainly one of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, to fully appreciate these labor intensive sweet cakes. But for those of us who grew up with them? Oh my, do we ever love our raisin cookies!


From the way I’m going on about these cookies, it’s probably pretty obvious that they played a central role in our Christmas celebrations. I remember my father helping my mother set up the old metal meat grinder that she used to mash up the raisins and then watching, entranced, as the ground raisins, dark, moist, and richly fragrant, slowly snaked their way out of the side of the machine and softly plopped into the waiting bowl. My brothers and I would sometimes help to roll and cut the dough (with my mother in the background forever warning us against over-working it), and we’d wait impatiently by the oven for the cookies to finish baking so we could perform the raisin-poking honors.


Nowadays I use a screaming food processor to chop up my raisins and walnuts (my mother left out the nuts), so for a few very loud moments the atmosphere in my kitchen is not quite as romantic as it was back in the good old, food processor-less days (which, by the way, still persist in my mother’s house). But then I’m done with the obnoxious (but oh-so-marvelous) machine and peace is restored and goodwill reigneth (until the Baby Nickel starts smashing his fists into my freshly cut circles of dough, but I’m ignoring that part for the sake of the romanticized Christmas cookie baking ideal that I’m forever striving after).


Regardless of the method used, these cookies still produce the same results: my kids delight in these Christmas treats in the same way that my brothers and I did when we were little. And in this way, via raisin-filled cookies, I am completing one of my life’s (hopefully many) full circles. If only all traditions could be so delicious.


Now it’s your turn. What’s one (or two or three) of your Christmas baking traditions?

Raisin-Filled Cookies
Adapted from the Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter

These cookies are plain enough to be a part of the main meal (and they are probably much healthier than what many people call muffins), so as well as eating them for dessert, afternoon snacks, and with a glass of milk before bedtime, we sometimes also enjoy them for breakfast along with our cereal.

There is always a little raisin filling left over after assembling the cookies (this time I had about half a cup extra), and it’s very yummy stirred into a bowl of warm breakfast oatmeal. As a matter of fact, you may find that you like the raisin-walnut puree topping so much that you decide to make a batch of filling for the sole purpose of globbing it atop your hot cereal.

A note about rolling out cookies: Remember that less flour makes a more tender cookie. You want your dough to be floured enough that you can handle it, but still sticky enough that you get mad at it every now and then for gumming up the rolling pin, your fingers, the tabletop, etc.

1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
5 ½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 recipe raisin filling (recipe follows)

Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat some more. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients and then add them to the creamed butter alternately with the milk.

Cover the bowl of dough with plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator for about four hours or overnight. (It freezes well, too.)

On a well-floured counter, roll out the dough till it’s about 1/4-inch thick. Use a round cookie cutter (I used a drinking glass) that is about two inches in diameter to cut out cookie rounds. Place the rounds on greased cookie sheets, leaving about two inches between cookies (they will spread quite a bit as they bake).

Put a teaspoon of filling in the center of each cookie and then top with another circle of dough. Gently press down on the edges of the top cookie so that it sticks to the bottom cookie. (There is no need to use a liquid to stick the cookies together because the dough softens as soon as it hits the heat and the two cookies quickly melt together.)

Bake the cookies in a 350 degree oven for 10-13 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned (a little bit of brown gives the cookies good flavor), and the tops look dry.

Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets for two minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack. While the cookies are still quite warm, poke a single, solitary raisin in the top of each cookie, pushing it down far enough so that it won’t easily fall off, but not in so far that it disappears from sight. (This is a good job for the impatiently lurking kiddies.)

Yield: About four to five dozen cookies.

Raisin Filling

2 cups raisins
½ cup walnuts
3 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup water

Put the raisins, walnuts, and flour into the food processor and pulse till they are finally chopped. (Or put them through a food mill or finely chop them with a knife.)

Put the sugar and water in a heavy bottomed sauce pan. Add the chopped nuts and fruit. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, till the mixture has thickened. Remove it from the burner and cool to room temperature. At this point you can use it to fill the cookies, or you can store it in a covered container in the refrigerator (or freezer) till a later date.

About One Year Ago: The Selfish Game

13 comments:

  1. I have never tried or even heard of these cookies!! They look delightful. And I told myself I wasn't going to be making a lot of Christmas cookies this year. Blast you, JJ!:-)

    Our baking traditions usually include several different kinds of Christmas cookies and pumpkin streusel bread. Most of our traditional foods remain squarely in the hands and kitchens of our mothers where we spend a good week right over Christmas- cookies galore, fudge and a Swedish tea ring every Christmas morning.

    How many kinds of Christmas cookies do you usually make, JJ? I'm a little nervous to hear your answer:-).

    ReplyDelete
  2. I remember my grandmother making these during the holidays!! It was the spread of mouth watering warm food, some raised in her garden (recipies from Julia Child and others) prepared for the homeless shelter -- topped with a dessert of multi-layered chocolate cake that was exceptional!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. #1 I must admit that if I was a guest at a cookie exchange I would pass these up due to their plain appearance. (What? How rude...)

    #2 However... since I have liked everything I have tried here on this blog of yours... I will try these... tomorrow... I already have 5 different cookie doughs in the fridge waiting to be baked... so why not add one more?

    #3 What's up with the 1/2 color 1/2 sepia tones? I like the sepia tones... looks kinda old fashioned.

    #4 For the greater of mankind you really out to figure out how to put your recipes onto little recipe cards things... that way when I print out the recipe it will fill neatly in my recipe box...

    #5 Did you go to Panera today?

    ReplyDelete
  4. You got me to thinking and I just realized that the only Christmas cookie I still make that my mother made are Spritz Cookies. She also made a Russian Tea Cake (actually a sweet dough with chopped pecans in it, rolled in a ball and then powdered sugar) but I finally gave up on those because even though I have her recipe, mine are always drier and not nearly as good as hers were.

    My Scotch grandma made to-die-for Shortbread but she never had a written recipe. My mom and aunts all took their try at duplicating Grandma's Shortbread and came pretty close . . . but it's just not Grandma's. I have the recipe and make it every third year or so but it just makes me kinda miss Grandma 'cause it's not quite as good as hers.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I started my cookie baking today, too!

    (I can't tell you how much I agree with you....poor Thanksgiving doesn't get it's due, does it?!)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Mama Pea, I make Russian Tea Cakes, too!

    Mavis, The pics are black-and-white, not sepia, and the reason I did it that way was because those couple shots were rather shoddy and looked better in B&W. I ended up really liking them that way, too, but I didn't want all the pictures to be like that because I think it makes the cookies look too much like cardboard. I hope the cookies turn out tasty for you. And no, I did not go to Panera today. Why ever do you ask?!

    ThyHand, I have no idea how many kinds I make. Counting cookies AND candies AND pastries, perhaps a dozen, give or take six. How's that for a non-answer?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Oooh, I remember these cookies well! (Can you guess my background?) Just never had the recipe. I think I'll be adding them to my *shamefully* small selection of Christmas cookies. (I am definitely not the baker you are!)

    The one constant of my Christmas cookie baking, though, is date pinwheels. You can't beat 'em for the convenience of pulling out a frozen roll of them around New Year's to bake up a fresh batch. And they stay moist long after other cookies are starting to dry out. (When you bake as often as I do, you want them to last a l-o-n-g time!)

    JDM

    ReplyDelete
  8. My favorite Christmas cookie recipe is not a cookie at all...it's toffee. My mother took a candy baking class when we were very young (I don't even remember this, but she told us when we were older), and learned to make toffee that is perfectly crisp and delicious. She made these every year and (thankfully) taught me how to make them as well. I only let myself make toffee at Christmas-time, although it is not necessarily just a Christmas treat. I also like to cover the toffee pieces with chocolate. I might just have to make my first batch today!
    Shannon

    ReplyDelete
  9. Apart from the caramel corn, which a friend suggested must contain crack (it does not) and the usual stuff, we do my great-aunt's recipe that is basically butter, egg, rice krispies, pecans, and dates rolled in coconut. They are truly awesome.

    I am going to try these raisin cookies! They look superbly yommy. -MAC
    MAC

    ReplyDelete
  10. MAC, May I please have that recipe?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Aunt Mary's Crispy Date Bars (I am such an infant I laugh every time I say "date balls")
    1/2 c butter
    1 c sugar
    1 beaten egg
    1 c dates, chopped
    2 and 1/2 c rice krispies
    1/2 cup pecans, chopped
    1/2 tsp vanilla
    dash salt (to taste)
    shredded coconut OR powdered sugar

    Cook the butter, sugar, egg and dates in a saucepan 5 min, stirring. Cool to lukewarm; add rice krispies, nuts, vanilla, salt. Mix well and either press into a greased brownie pan and cut into bars when cool, or make balls and roll them in the coconut or sugar.

    ReplyDelete
  12. MAC, I am definitely making them and I will be calling them MAC's Date Balls. I don't think there's any other option.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Just don't write it on the bathroom stalls at church.

    ReplyDelete