Some of my most enduring holiday memories are not of unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning or attending church on Christmas Eve, but of standing in front of the kitchen stove stirring a golden, bubbling brew of melted marshmallows and sugar.
Each December my mother turned our kitchen into a cookie factory with Tupperware of chocolate chip cookies and lemon bars, peppermint-covered brownies, sugar cookies and cream cheese wreaths stacked high in every corner. Looking back, I can’t believe how many cookies we made — tins for neighbors and teachers and coaches and friends and fellow church members and work colleagues, even the mailman. We layered different-sized boxes with a variety of flavors, a square of wax paper separating each row.
People cherished these tins of treats. Everywhere we went, all year long, acquaintances would tell me: Your mother is such a good cook. Those cookies she makes at Christmas!
If there was one cookie that was my mother’s signature Christmas confection, it was her chocolate fudge.
I remember the pot we always made it in; it must have been the biggest we had. We began with 24 marshmallows and four cups of sugar. We added butter, milk and a few grains of salt. Then we stirred, for what seemed like days to my childhood mind. After all was melted and thickened, we added chocolate chips and finely minced pecans. Then we poured it, like a chocolate waterfall, into a pan, the rippling surface cooling into a sweet, smooth pond.
When we made that first batch of fudge, I knew Christmas was coming.
These days, we live in a world where thousands of cookie recipes are a click away, where bakers and pastry chefs are pushing flavor boundaries like never before. But it’s also a world where there are fewer hours to dedicate to dolloping and heating and slicing.
Yet, when I requested readers’ most cherished holiday cookie recipes, so many of you responded. Cookies as gifts, cookie exchanges, cookie-making at Grandma’s — these traditions are alive and well, you tell me.
I heard from dozens of you, sharing your top cookie recipes and often the story of how they came to be your favorites. Your comments, messages and emails echoed several sentiments over and over.
You told me your favorite cookie recipes are tattered and stained and scribbled on, nearly unreadable from use. But they are precious to you. When Juli Albertin lost a recipe she’d been relying on for years, she went so far as to email First for Women magazine in hopes of replacing it. They helped her find it and she’s been making her prized chocolate snaps ever since.
You told me that making cookies reminds you of your grandmother or your sisters or annual gatherings with family and friends. Paula Carr of Vinton wrote that at 16, she tasted a ginger cookie made by her friend’s grandmother. The grandmother gave Carr the recipe and thus began a long cookie-making tradition. Carr is now 60. She says she has made the cookies every Christmas for the last 44 years. She’s baked with her children and grandchildren and is now stirring and tasting with her great-grandchildren, too.
If you’ve moved from your hometown, your recipe likely reminds you of the place you’ve left behind. Reader Blair Celli shared a recipe for Texas sheet cake cookies. She said that even after more than a decade in the Old Dominion, she pines for the tastes of the Lone Star State. The cookies “are a little piece of home for me way out here in Virginia,” she wrote.
I heard from folks who, like my mother, have a cookie that they’re known for. Roanoke’s Cat Conover wrote that she was given a friend’s family gingerbread cookie recipe when she was in her 20s. “I made it and boy was it a crazy hard recipe. It took so much flour and so much stirring. I had to get rid of the spoon and use my hands to mix,” she wrote.
So Conover began tinkering. Today, her recipe is nothing like the original. Now, she uses honey instead of molasses. She’s upped the cinnamon and ginger. And she rolls the balls of dough into a sugar-ginger mix. She calls them her “famous ginger cookies,” and they are a hot commodity this time of year.
But here’s what else I heard. As fond as you are of your family’s recipes and your memories of making cookies, you’re not afraid to change or even ditch an old recipe if it doesn’t work for your life today.
The very first response to my call for cookies was from Happy Healthy Cooks co-founder and Roanoke mother of two, Heather Quintana. Her oldest son is gluten intolerant, but she’s not ready to scrap cookie-making fun. She asked: “Anyone have a gluten-free recipe for ... peanut butter blossoms, M&M cookies and regular sugar cookies for decorating?”
Several readers responded pronto. Christiansburg’s David Verde wrote: “I have a big sweet tooth but had to stop eating refined sugars and grain last year for dietary reasons. I spent some time finding alternatives since any deserts I eat now can only be sweetened with raw honey.” Then he sent a recipe for gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.
As for me, I have never made my mother’s fudge since I left home.
But I do bake many of the cookies that breathed Christmas into my childhood. My mother’s lemon bars are a favorite, as are her peanut butter and sugar cookies. She made copies of all our family’s favorite recipes when I was in my 20s, and even just glancing at the Xeroxed pages transports me back to my kitchen, growing up.
I have also added some new recipes to my holiday cookie canon over the years. A chocolate-dipped shortbread from a friend. My mother-in-law’s recipe for pizzelle, an Italian anise-flavored wafer made in a waffle iron-like machine. A page torn out of a magazine for “snowman buttons.”
But I don’t have a cherished holiday cookie of my own. The kind where I say (as many of you did), “If I don’t make this cookie, it just isn’t Christmas.”
Maybe I’ll find mine among the recipes you shared.
On the blog: Find more of the holiday cookie recipes you shared at blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet.