The Cook in Me: When Do We Start Baking Cookies? Vanillekipferl (Crescents)©
It's that time of year again. It seems like every year the months get shorter and shorter, and twelve of them fly by in what would have seemed like 5 years when we were children. I could swear that Christmas¹ was only a few weeks ago, and that we just popped the cork on the Champagne bottle at Midnight on New Year's Eve. Regardless, I have always loved this time of year that we call the "Holiday Season." One reason is that it seems people are generally in a more benevolent state of mind, and exhibit more tolerance for others than during other times of the year. Why this doesn't continue all year I don't know. I enjoy the spiritual aspect of the season and it seems no matter how old I get, there is still something magical about Christmas Eve. I also love seeing houses decorated with twinkle lights and pine garlands, and the fact that even offices, hospitals and other commercial buildings take the time to decorate for the season. There are many steps involved in getting ready for the holidays, and therefore I have many topics I could address. But for today, we're going to discuss some of the preparations that can be made in advance of the actual day that you celebrate.
Decorating for the season is a preparation that takes careful consideration. Deciding what day to decorate the outside of the house, for those like me who grew up in the Midwest, on the East Coast, or in the Northern States, was always a question that was more difficult than you might expect. You do not want to be outside on a ladder or up on the roof hanging the electric icicles when it is snowing, or when the temperature is below 32° F. Therefore, it is important to catch that last warm day between the end of Indian Summer and the first snowfall of the year for that task, and predicting that day has become quite a feat. When I was growing up, it used to be that the first snowfall in Northwest Ohio occurred on November 10th; at least that was the date most often predicted for the first measurable snowfall of the year. I remember this not because I memorized the Farmer's Almanac every year, or because I am a meteorologist or have a penchant for weather statistics. I remember it because that day is my sister Janet's Birthday. Inevitably, we would wake up on Janet's Birthday and there would be snow on the ground. Sometimes there was just a dusting, and sometimes there were several inches. But because weather patterns have changed over the past few years due to the global warming phenomenon, over population, destruction of the ozone layer and whatever other reasons experts advance as the reason, predicting that last warm day has become more difficult.
Now, for you folks living in the southern states with those lovely, temperate climates all year round, this may not seem like much of a big deal. However in my neighborhood, there was an art to getting those decorations up in what was considered an "acceptable" time frame, or you were subject to scorn by your more astute neighbors. You see, if you put them up too early in the fall, people regarded you as lazy, and assumed that you kept them up all year. If you put them up in a time frame that was regarded as too late, you were considered as lazy, and the question that circulated the neighborhood was, "Why bother to put them up at all?" And believe me, people remembered your decorating habits for as long as you lived in the neighborhood. ("Remember the year George didn't get his lights up until the week before Christmas and there were already six inches of snow on the ground? I'll bet he still can't feel anything in those fingers of his that got frostbitten." Or, "For crying out loud, Ethel, will you look at that? It's July, and George still has his Christmas lights up! Now he might as well leave them up for the rest of the year!") Poor George's only escape was to escape to a new neighborhood on the other side of town.
Because I was never responsible for putting up the outside decorations, I never worried too much about this dilemma. However, I must say that I might have been guilty of prodding my spouse to get the decorations up in a timely manner. My domain, as you might guess, was the inside preparations. In addition to decorating, that included getting the holiday baking done. Just as at the beginning of November, I would subtly suggest that we might want to put the decorations up outside before Thanksgiving, the day after Thanksgiving my husband and children would not-so-subtly ask, "When are you going to start baking Christmas Cookies?"
At my house, Christmas baking was a pretty big thing, and pretty much limited to cookies. Because I was never much of a Fruitcake fan, the only Fruitcake I ever made was limited to miniature loaves that I gave away as gifts to friends when we were too poor to give anything else. Even though it was part of my family's holiday tradition, and my Mother and both my Grandmothers made Fruitcakes every year, that tradition never appealed to me once I had a family of own. (FYI: I am saving the topic of "Fruitcakes" for another day because I do have very specific thoughts about why my Mom continued making it every year, when basically she and my Dad were the only ones to eat it. And then there was always the question as to why it took Mom for what seemed like forever when she went upstairs to the attic every evening to annoint the Fruitcake with rum, brandy, bourbon, or whatever liquor she was dousing it with that year.)
Living in a household that was of German, English, Czech, Slovakian and/or Moravian ancestry, we enjoyed a wide range of Christmas Cookies that reflected a smorgasbord of ethnic origins. Like the Fruitcake, some of the cookies had to be made early in the season to mellow, or soften before they were ready to eat. Those we started making right after Thanksgiving and took them to the attic for storage. You may think this seems like a strange place to put them, but it served several purposes. First, it got them out of our kitchen, which also served as our dining room, our homework room, and our game room. The room was not that large, and it didn't have much storage space. Second, it kept them out of sight, as in "out of sight, out of mind," which is an important concept when you have four growing children, all of whom had friends, all of whom had a "sweet tooth" or two. I guess Mom thought we'd forget about them if they were up in the attic. I guess she also forgot that my oldest sister and I shared a bedroom on the second floor across from the attic. Third, it kept them fresh because the attic was the coolest part of the house--it was not heated (in fact, it was darn right freezing in there in the dead of winter if you happened to slip in during the night in your pajamas to grab a . . . never mind). And finally, when I say we made Christmas Cookies, I mean we made Christmas Cookies. Without exaggerating, I would say we easily made about twenty different varieties, with at least ten to twelve dozen of each variety. That's a lot of cookies! And where else do you store them in a house that was already bursting at the seams? This was another reason we always started baking right after Thanksgiving. If we didn't, we never would have been able to make all the different varieties that we did. People today don't make Christmas Cookies like they used to. For one thing, who has time? For another, today you can purchase cookies that are just as good as the ones your mother or grandmother used to make from bakeries, supermarkets, and ethnic specialty shops. For me, however, it's one of the traditions that our children and grandchildren will always associate with the holidays, and hopefully with me. And I believe there are some traditions that are worth saving and passing along to my Grandchildren.
I have several varieties of Christmas Cookie recipes that I want to share with you, but I'm only going to highlight them one at a time. Some are from my Maternal Grandmother; some are from my Paternal Grandmother; others are from my Mom; still others are from my Mother-in-Law and her Mother. I'm sure I've got something in my Cookie Jar for everyone's taste. But for today, I am going to share the recipe for the cookie that was the fastest one to disappear at my house, and therefore one of the last ones my Mother made in December. My sisters and I never helped make these particular cookies because Mom always said the dough was too difficult to handle. After having become a parent of only two, rather than four children, and after having made this recipe now for many years, I think her reasoning had more to do with the fact that she got more accomplished when we weren't "helping." We always called these cookies Crescents, and it was not until years later that I learned their real name is Vanillekipferl. They are of either German or Austrian origin depending on which story you believe. This tells me that they came to us through the Moravian heritage of my Grandmother Lasak. The recipe below is very similar to the one my Mother used, and therefore I know the cookies will melt in your mouth. I adjusted a few things, but it is very close. I am sure there are more authentic versions of Vanillekipferl out there. They are not difficult to make. The German and Austrian recipes call for almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts; but my Mother and Grandmother always made theirs with finely ground pecans. They are worth trying, at least once. If you do decide to attempt them, let me know what you think!
¹ I will be using the term "Christmas" throughout this article. When I grew up, people did not consider "political correctness" as the important issue that it is today. But because in my family, Christmas was, and is, the holiday that we celebrate in December, I am using that term.I hope no one is offended by my use of it.
©2012 by Kathy Striggow
This article may not be reproduced or reprinted in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author.
- 14 Tbsp. Butter, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup Powdered Sugar
- 2 Egg Yolks
- Seeds of 1 Vanilla Bean OR 1-1/2 to 2 tsps. Pure Vanilla or Vanilla Extract
- Pinch of Salt
- 2 cups All Purpose Flour
- 1-1/2 cups Pecans, FINELY ground
- Powdered Sugar for finishing baked cookies
- In a large mixing bowl, beat butter until smooth.
- Add the powdered sugar and beat until the sugar is absorbed into the butter.
- Add the egg yolks one-at-a-time, mixing between each egg yolk to make sure the butter has absorbed the yolk.
- Add the vanilla bean seeds OR vanilla and salt.
- Add pecans and flour and mix together until a dough forms.
- Leaving the dough in the bowl, refrigerate dough (covered) for 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 350° F.
- Form dough into crescent shaped cookies about 3-in. in length from tip to tip.
- Place cookies on greased or parchment-paper-lined cookie sheets, approximately 3/4-inch to 1-inch apart. (There is no leavening agent, so they are not going to spread.)
- Bake cookies for 15 minutes or until a light golden brown. Do not over bake!
- While cookies are still warm, roll in powdered sugar. Roll again in powdered sugar once they have cooled.
- Store in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dry place. Cookies will stay fresh for appx. 1 month as long as they are kept in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dry place.