Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cookie karma: what goes around comes around

Every family has a recipe that has been handed down from mother to daughter and, today, to son, so often it’s considered a family heirloom. In mine, it’s the Christmas honey cutout cookies, a pain-in-the-ass recipe that is believed to have accompanied my great-grandmother from southern Sweden to northern Michigan in the 1880s and that has plagued generations of Swedish-American women in the Upper Midwest ever since.

At first glance, the recipe seems innocent enough (see below). But do not be deceived: the instructions to make dough you can roll are insidious. If there’s not enough flour, the dough is too sticky and you’re left with a gooey mess. If there’s too much flour, the dough won’t stick and the cutouts just crumble. (I’ve baked many wingless angels and footless Santas in my time.) It takes years of experience to master this delicate balance and, more often than not, this phase of the project degenerates into nonstop profanity or even physical violence: an older sister in a fit of frustration once slapped me with a spatula when I offered to help her; we were in our 20s.

Then there’s the endless cutting and decorating.

The job of children in the family is to trim the cookies with colored sugar and sprinkles. At first, this is fun. My children, and occasionally their friends, strive to make each cookie distinctive, a masterpiece unto itself. They take their time, and I wait patiently while they decorate the first tray or two.

But soon I nag, as my own mother did, to “just get it done.” And after a while, they get bored and quit. I can usually cajole them into doing a few more trays, but finally, sick of their whining, I let them go and finish the cookies myself. A tray of all red bells or all green trees. The Horror! They howl in protest, but they don’t come back and help. (They aren’t that stupid!) But even with their assistance, the rolling and cutting goes on for hours and, occasionally, days.

Once the cookies are in the oven, they burn faster than a marshmallow at a barbeque. So they need constant attention. I’ve learned the hard way it’s impossible to decorate and bake at the same time.

I recently found out my maternal aunt and her daughter have never baked Christmas honey cookies. I couldn’t believe my ears! How did they escape this fate? I offered to share this bit of heritage with them, but they gave me an unequivocal “No!” Instead, they offered me a recipe for cranberry pie that supposedly came from my grandmother, although my mother has never heard of it. They tell me it’s both tasty and easy: “I make two at a time,” my cousin assured me, “one to eat and one to freeze.”

After foisting the honey cookie curse on my own daughters, I’ve now suggested we stop making them. But it’s too late. They’ve already decided Christmas isn’t Christmas without the honey cookies.

Occasionally I share the cookies with my Swedish neighbors. It’s a variant unknown to them. One even asked for the recipe. I was happy to oblige. It’s only fitting this diabolical concoction return to continue its legacy of anguish in its land of origin.

Christmas Honey Cookies (single batch)
1 cup sugar, 1 cup honey, 1 cup butter (part margarine). Cream sugar, honey, and butter. Add 1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 2 teaspoons hot water. Add ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon anise extract, and 4½ cups flour to make dough you can roll. Chill dough overnight. Roll dough flat and cut with cookie cutters. Bake at 350° F. until cookies are light tan in color, about 3-4 minutes.

1 comment:

  1. I just buy the premade Pepparkakadeg and roll them out and put them in the oven. My son when he was small helped for the first sheet of them. Now he lasted for 2 sheets worth. But I always end up finishing. Your recipe sounds tastier but my way is easier.


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