Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Remembrance Of Cookies Past

Do you have a favorite holiday memory? Or, even a memory, favorite or not, that just means the Holidays to you? I was forced to think about that last year. It was just over a month past the end of my ill-fated love affair, and I was facing Christmas without the kids. I needed a shot of holiday cheer, and I needed it fast. What to do?

I remembered a cookie my Mom used to make, back when I was a kid.

A bit about my Mom, Christmas at our home, and these cookies.

As I've told you before, my Mom wasn't really a great cook. She wasn't horrible, but she wasn't especially adventurous. Pretty much everything was fried, at least until my Dad's heart attack. After that, everything was shoved under the broiler.

She was, however, a proficient baker. She made great pastry, and I still can't match her biscuits. Every Holiday, be it Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving, she would bake, and bake, and bake. I can't say whether or not she enjoyed it, but she did have a sweet tooth, and spared no effort to fill the dessert table at each opportunity.

Christmas baking meant pies, of course; pumpkin, mince, and chocolate for sure, sometimes apple, and usually a sweet potato in later years. Every year she made fudge, pralines, divinity, a non bake fruitcake abomination that consisted of crushed vanilla wafers and, something else, I'm not quite sure what, and lots and lots of cookies.

The usual cut-out cookies were there, iced with powdered sugar icing tinted a garish red and green, some kind of spiced date bar that I wish I had the recipe for, spritz cookies in the same shade as the icing, and fruit cake cookies.

The fruitcake cookies were ubiquitous to my childhood Christmases. We had them at home, if I went to a friend's house, they were pretty much guaranteed to be sitting on the counter there as well. My grandmother always had them, and I can remember eating them at church get-togethers.

The funny thing is, I didn't really like those cookies. They were white and bland, and filled with artificial, chemical tasting candied fruit. That was it. The cookie was just an innocuous vehicle for candied fruit and citron, along with a small amount of nuts. I didn't like fruitcake, well, not the one's I'd been exposed to at this point in my life, and I didn't like the overly sweet, artificial taste of candied fruit. Yet, every year, I looked forward to those cookies, and I anticipated their appearance on the kitchen counter.

The only time I ever saw those cookies was at Christmas time. One taste of that chemical, bitter citron and I knew that Christmas was really almost here. When you're 10 years old, that's a pretty big deal.

I thought about those cookies as I tried to jump start my holiday spirit, so I set out to make them. There was a problem; nobody but me remembered them. I guess they must have been some 70's fad from a women's magazine or something, because I couldn't remember the last time I had them, and I couldn't find anyone who even knew what I was talking about.

I started pouring through my collection of Holiday cooking magazines. I finally found a recipe that I thought might be close, so I made them, along with toffee and pecan tassies and far, far more sweets that we could ever hope to eat in three Christmases. I played Christmas music the whole time I baked, and by the time I had the counter filled with goodies, I had made it through the whole day without thinking of you know who.

Satisfied with my day's work, I made a pot of coffee and sat down with one of my cookies. It was a pale, golden white and had a very faint vanilla smell. I bit in. The moment that tang of candied citron hit my tongue, I could see my Mom's old kitchen. I could imagine the little Santa shaped cocoa mugs that lined the bar, and I could smell the Christmas tree. (Flocked, with a color wheel on it) It worked. Make no mistake, this cookie is a far cry from Proust's madeleine, but it accomplished it's goal.

Later, when the kids came home, they surprised me by liking those cookies. I made several more batches, and experimented a bit. I tried substituting first some, and then all of the candied fruit for dried. I used apricots and dried cranberries, even dried cherries. While the dried fruit may have made a better cookie, it was not the Christmas cookie of my memory, for that, it needs the candied citron.

This year, I needed the same boost, so last Friday, I put on the Christmas CD's, I made a pot of Earl Grey, and I baked these cookies. Maybe someday my kids will fondly remember me in the kitchen baking these, and always associate that memory with Christmas.

I hope so.

Fruitcake Cookies

1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups AP flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup cottage cheese (small curd, creamy - don't use low fat)
1 egg
2 Tab milk
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 cup mixed candied fruit with citron * see note below
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Beat the butter in a large bowl until soft. Lightly mix in half of the flour. Add the next 7 ingredients, mix until well combined, stopping to scrape the sides occasionally. Stir in the remainder of the flour, and the fruit and nuts.

Bake at 375 F for 10-12 minutes on parchment paper. Cool on a rack. This recipe makes about 30 cookies for me.

* The fruit should be chopped much finer than it comes out of the container. To accomplish this, I lightly oil my knife with vegetable oil. It makes the job much, much easier.

Scooped out and ready to bake.

Out of the oven - They don't get very brown or crisp, you want them soft.

Cooling on the rack.

A final note -

The title of this post is an obvious reference to Proust's great work. In recent years, it has become de rigueur to refer to this work as In Search Of Lost Time. I thought the earlier title better served my purpose, but after re-reading this post, I'm not so sure. Searching for lost time is a fair description of my blog, n'est-ce pas?


Anonymous said...

Mine are my (step-)mom's Italian cookies. They aren't a sweet cookie at all. As a matter of fact, the dough is so thick you have to hand stir it or it'll break your mixer. Stuff is tough. You take this dough and tie it in a knot, bake it, and then spread a thin icing on them. We used to add food coloring to the icing and we'd have every color of the rainbow. One batch makes 6 dozen cookies.

Now that I'm older, I appreciate these cookies more because they go awesome with coffee. But, some of the few good memories I have of my childhood have baking these cookies as a centerpiece.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Christina - It's funny how the memory works - I don't remember when my Mom stopped making these, but it had to have been years and years ago, but I remember the cookies vividly.

Blog Princess G said...

I used to make something similar... how lovely that you made these and that the memories came flooding back.

Bee said...

I think your title is perfect . . . although don't we all search for lost time at Xmas? What percentage of that holiday is nostalgia?

I actually had an epiphany today about my manic phase of baking: it is all to do with childhood memories of getting reading for Xmas, the anticipation of it all, and other cozy feelings. Not dissimilar from what you describe, actually.

I thought that I recognized these cookies, but the cottage cheese made me realize that yours are truly a different biscuit. BTW, they don't sell cottage cheese in England! I don't think I've ever thought about it, but I'm sure they don't.

I wonder what Christina's cookies are called?

Brave Sir Robin said...

Blog Princess -

Thank you so much for stopping by. I went by your site, and I must say it is filled with lovely things.

On one page I saw food, and Theatre, and Poetry, and kittehs!

Did you design it just for me?


Brave Sir Robin said...

Bee - You slipped in while I was answering Princess! (btw - you will love her site, I'm sure of it)

No cottage cheese? Hmm. Farmers cheese maybe? Boy, I'm a pretty big fan of cottage cheese. Maybe do they call it something else?

I'm sure my Mom's cookies didn't have cottage cheese, but these are as close as I'll probably ever come. It really is a vehicle for the nasty candied fruit.

What you say is so true, the hustle and bustle of getting ready always added to my anticipation and excitement when I was a child.

My Dad always put up lights, my Mom baked, the level of activity from my fairly hermetical parents was something that set it apart.

I'd never thought of it in those terms before.

Hmm, as is so often the case, you've given me something to think about.

Christina - I forgot to ask, will you share that recipe? the idea of a cookie dough you can tie in a knot is intriguing.

Anne said...

I can't think of particular favorite memories, but what really signals "Christmas is coming!" to me is the music my mom typically plays at this time of year: the Home Alone soundtrack and an album of Christmas songs sung by soprano Kiri Te Kanawa. I thought that Christmas with Kiri was awfully silly when I was younger, but now I love it. I put the two albums on repeat this weekend when I had a little manic baking phase of my own. They made things feel even Christmassier than the lit and decorated tree did, and every Kiri song brought back a memory of childhood Christmas preparations.

The biggest food association I have with Christmas is not so much cookies or pre-Christmas preparations but what we eat on Christmas day: popovers for breakfast, standing rib roast with Yorkshire pudding and Parker House rolls at dinner, and trifle for dessert.

Brave Sir Robin said...


Good to see you here. you've been missed!

I hope your work is slowing down. When you have time, I'd like to hear more about the published work. I'm not sure I'd understand it, but I'll try.

I'm think of rib roast this year. It will depend what the market has tomorrow. I'm taking all the kids to visit Scottie tomorrow, and I plan on hitting Central Market on the way home.

SaoirseDaily2 said...

Thanks for the recipe Robin. If I can ever make it to the store again I am going to buy what I need to make these.

Happy Christmas Eve, may your evening be magical.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

This is a great post! Your kids are lucky you bake such wonderful treats for them. And of course, the pot of Earl Grey is perfect.

Merry Christmas and warm wishes for a joyous new Year!

PS I love your new banner! GORGEOUS photo!! Is that along the Texas coast?