My fondest childhood memories are of Grandma’s kitchen at Christmastime. My cousins and I would exhaust ourselves all day in the snow, finally clambering into the enclosed porch where we’d leave an explosion of winter gear. Red-cheeked, loud and hungry, we’d burst into her kitchen looking for something to eat. If she was busy cooking, with Mom and my aunts, we’d quickly get shooed away. But if the kitchen was empty, and the adults were off playing Schafkopf* and drinking Old Fashioneds in the dining room, we’d go directly for the cookie jars on the counter…
My grandmother had no fewer than three cookie jars going at any given time, at all times of the year. I’m not kidding: She had cookies—lots of them—year-round. Come Christmastime, she went into hyper-drive-cookie-making mode and stocked the house with all kinds of cookies, bars, nuts, candies, even homemade caramels. It was truly a child’s paradise!
Bernice Hoff was a stout, barely-five-foot-tall German Lutheran that loved to cook. (At least, that was what she did much of the time… I hope she loved it!) It ran in the family. Her mother, my great-grandma Mueller, was known far and wide simply as “Cookie Grandma.” Anyone visiting Cookie Grandma was sent home with a tin of assorted cookies to treasure and devour. Her daughter, Bernice, was born on their small dairy farm in central Wisconsin and grew up during the Great Depression. They had a large family, and Bernice went on to marry Lenard and have six children of their own. My husband’s grandmother whose family raised beef cattle in Minnesota also had a seemingly endless supply of cookies for the family, neighbors and farm hands. Cooking, canning, and baking to feed an army was simply second nature to all these farm women.
My grandmother’s cooking, although resplendent, sometimes bordered on the arterially hazardous: sunny-side-up eggs were cooked in bacon drippings and cream-top milk was never shaken before it was poured on morning cereal. Heavily buttered popcorn was served about an hour after dinner, followed by a large bowl of ice cream before going to bed. Red meats, most often in the form of a type of sausage, were served morning, noon and night. The menu changed after Grandpa’s open heart surgery in the mid-80s, but these are the memories of my childhood. Ah, those were the days!
Grandma made every cookie known to man. Gingerbread men, decorated adorably, were soft and delicious. Thumbprints were filled with her homemade jams, made from raspberries grown in her backyard that summer. Peanut butter kisses, lemon bars, multi-colored spritz, rum balls, ginger snaps, even simple sugar cookies were all made with tremendous care. To this day, some remain a mystery to me. Did she make the angel food candy from scratch? What did she call the wonderful pecan balls rolled in powdered sugar? I think I loved those the most.
Now that it’s my turn to cook and bake for the holidays, I find myself appreciating Grandma more than ever. How did she DO it? I find I hardly have the patience to make more than a batch or two. How could it be that she never ran out? I don’t have a “down cellar” where one would typically put ice cream buckets, coffee cans or Tupperware canisters full of cookies. And the kids don’t seem to eat sweets at the rate we once did. I suppose that is a good thing.
Instead of “baking up a storm,” perhaps the most important thing I can do for my children and loved ones this holiday is to pass on something meaningful. It can be small; it doesn’t have to be shiny or expensive. It can even be a simple act. But it should have meaning. Grandma’s cooking had meaning. It was important to her; she knew hard times and what it was like to scrimp and save. She wanted to see everyone full and happy!
I like to share recipes. I’ve always thought that recipes, especially the ones handed down from one generation to the next, told a story. And by following a recipe tested by time, we get to go through the same motions as those that came before us, savoring the same dishes they did. It’s faintly ritualistic, but I feel it connects me to my past.
For Mohawk Valley Living readers everywhere, I offer my favorite cookie recipe, passed down to me from my mother. Despite the unfortunate name, “ammonia cookies” are simply one of the best cookies you’ll ever have. It contains ammonium carbonate, a very old-fashioned leavening agent sometimes found in traditional German recipes. In years past, my mother was able to find this ingredient at the drug store, but now it’s found online as “baker’s ammonia.” The result is a delicate and delightful “poof” of sugar that will melt in your mouth. And because of their delicate nature, you cannot ship these cookies long distances. You’ll have to share them in person…the very best way to share Christmas cookies!
*An old German card game with the craziest, most complicated rules. The name translates to “sheep’s head.”
½ C butter, softened
½ C vegetable oil
1 ½ C sugar
2 C flour
1 ½ tsp ammonium carbonate (be sure crystals are fine; crush if needed)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon or orange extract
pinch of salt
Mix all ingredients well. Roll small balls with your hands (should be smaller than a golf ball); dip in colored sugar before placing on cookie sheet. Bake at 325° for 12-14 minutes, or until cookie has puffed and edges are just barely starting to brown. Allow to cool slightly before moving to cooling rack. Makes 4-5 dozen. (NOTE: Do NOT open the oven door before baking time is up. You will get a hot blast of ammonia! Yuck!)