Monday, December 16, 2013

On Christmas Baking and Chocolate Peppermint Spritz Cookies

Dear Joey,

Let's talk of pleasant things, shall we? Skip all the "There's been so much going on, lately" catch-up and jump straight to Christmas cookies? What do you say?

I've been thinking a lot about Christmas cookies in the past couple of days, ever since my Grandma Teague told me she was just getting her Christmas baking underway. As I listened to her admit that she was finally letting go of the need to strive toward perfection during Christmastime, and was only going to bake a handful of varieties of cookies this year, I completely missed the point and started fretting about the fact that I myself haven't started my Christmas baking yet. Nor had I made any sort of list or plan about cookies and the people to whom they would eventually be given.

I guess the truth is that I don't think of myself as a Christmas baker.  I bake during Christmas - that's true. And I even enjoy it. And the season doesn't really feel complete without doing at least a little of it. But I don't have an urge or need to make a certain treat this time of year. I know that sounds completely bizarre coming from me of all people, but in all honesty I am pretty content with a box of Candy Cane Joe-Joe's and a tin of my mom's Russian Tea Cakes.

But alas, the more I thought about Christmas cookies and how I'm the mom now, making new traditions (or passing on old ones) to our children, I realized I ought to get my act together and at least devote a little bit of brain power to what sorts of cookies I want our girls to think of when they think of Christmas. It was just this afternoon when I decided that Spritz cookies were going to  be at least one tradition to pass on. There may be others that make the cut along the way too, but for now, those are the ones I'm going to perfect.

Ah, Spritz cookies. Those delightful little butter cookies decorated with shimmering red and green sprinkles. They always looked a little bit like ornaments to my little girl eyes. I can see them piled high in a funky old Christmas tin alongside all the other treats that filled my Grandma's dessert table. In my memory, there was always a great variety of cookies, but the ones I remember most clearly are Russian Tea Cakes, Krumkake, and of course, Spritz cookies.

Spritz cookies are a traditional, somewhat under-celebrated cookie these days. Apparently they originated in Germany, but I always think of them as Scandinavian (since my Norwegian Grandmother always baked them but I don't remember my German grandmother ever  making them). There isn't much to them: butter, sugar, vanilla, flour. What makes them special is the way they're made and the shape they take. Using a cookie press with changeable molds, they can be Chrismas trees or wreaths or flowers or hearts. The result is a delicate little butter cookie whose beauty was completely lost on me in childhood. It's not to say Grandma's Spritz cookies weren't any good -- they were. They are. But, well, is it any surprise my heart didn't swoon over a dessert that didn't include chocolate? 

Even so, whenever I think about Spritz cookies now, I wish I would have lingered a little longer over those gems and paid them their due. Even though I sort of think of them as old-fashioned, in my grown up mind, that makes them charming and important. And as I stirred together the dough and filled the cookie press and made dozens of those delicate little cookies, I thought about my grandma and how she lovingly makes those cookies year after year, and how she must have learned how to make them from her mother, and then I started thinking about all the women's hands who had mothered all the generations before me. I wondered how many of them felt like they had to create a perfect Christmas every year, and how many of them baked out of duty and not pleasure?

Mothering comes with so many non-negotiable duties, some the same as they were in the generations before me, but others aren't. Baking cookies certainly isn't one of them these days though. Baking is inconvenient, it is messy, and it takes up a lot of time, and in a  culture that seems to value convenience, it's easy to skip the messy, time consuming things in an attempt to save one's time and sanity. But I find that when I do the messy things, the messes always somehow manage to get cleaned up, eventually, and I'm left with are the smiles and the giggles and the shy, hopeful whispers of "May I have another one Mommy?"

I think it's safe to say that I bake for the pleasure of it. And I hope my girls someday will, too.


Chocolate Peppermint Spritz Cookies
Adapted from 100 Days of Real Food 

These cookies don't look like much, but if you like chocolate and peppermint and crispy little tea cookies, I think it's safe to say you'll enjoy them. I admit I wouldn't go out of my way to hunt down a good Spritz cookie recipe had I not had a cookie press begging to be used, but since I had one, and a good one at that (a Wilton Cookie Pro Ultra II), it was easy to walk in my grandmother's shoes and make a batch of Spritz cookies. If you are in the market for a good cookie press, I highly recommend this one.

1 cup salted butter, softened
3/4 cup evaporated cane juice
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons peppermint extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour

First, prepare your cookie press by getting everything set up (design plate chosen/inserted and get everything assembled to the point where all you need to do is add the dough). 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Then, soften (but don't melt!) the butter. In a stand mixer, mix the butter and sugar on medium high until well combined. Add the egg, extracts, and salt; reduce speed to low. Add the cocoa powder and flour. Stir until just combined. The dough will be a little sticky.

Then, fill your cookie press, and press the dough out onto an ungreased cookie sheet (don't use parchment paper, either). You can add sprinkles at this point, if you want to - just sprinkle on top before you put the cookie sheet in the oven. Bake at 375 for 8 minutes--much longer, and they'll burn. Remove from pan and let cool on a wire rack.



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