The Suitcase Lady


December 14, 2010, 9:35 pm

The idea behind a Christmas cookie exchange is simple. A number of women each agree to bake a gigantic batch of a favorite Christmas cookie. The group then gathers, and each baker trades a dozen cookies with everyone present. Voila! Each lady leaves with dozens of cookies of many varieties and saves hours of time in the kitchen.

Please don’t sign me up. Baking Christmas cookies is a yearly joy for me, and each of the many kinds I bake is filled with family tradition.

My beloved Christmas Cookie Cookbook came from the Wisconsin Electric Company in 1957. Three generations, my grandmother, my mother and I, all attended the free Friday cookie baking demonstrations in the Electric Company’s downtown auditorium. We all left with complimentary cookbooks which contain the best (and thoroughly tested)  cookie recipes in the world.

Each December I get out my tattered, battered book and bake our family’s favorites… California Dream Bars, Toffee Nut Squares, Chocolate Snowflakes, Mexican Wedding Cakes, Gold Cookies, Pinwheels and Gingerbreads. My son gets his own batch of Oatmeal Jam Diamonds.

I also use another ancient cookbook, The Big Chocolate Cookbook, to create Chocolate Orange Cookies, Chocolate Fig Cookies and Chocolate Coconut Squares.

The cookies I don’t bake are equally important. After my Aunt Vi died, our family retired the cookies we made exclusively for her, pastel pink and green coconut kisses. My Aunt Vi had a thing for pink food.

The Tiger’s Paw cookies have been retired as well. My son-in-law baked these extraordinarily labor-intensive cookies. All the tiger claws, slivered almonds, had to be carefully placed in each paw.

Only my mother could make rolled, white sugar cookies. They were mostly butter, and she would turn the furnace down to make the house frigid enabling her to roll the cookies paper thin before the butter melted. My father always watched the oven for her while she rolled and cut.

My mother-in-law’s specialty was anise cookies. Our daughter continues that tradition. Her first attempt at duplicating her Grandma’s recipe turned into hockey pucks, but she has mastered the recipe now.

I happily share plates and boxes of cookies with friends all during the holidays. And when I receive a gift of homemade cookies, I know there is more than cookies on that plate. I’m getting a taste of another family’s history as well.

8 Comments for this entry

  • Kay

    Hi Mary,

    We’re having a cooking exchange tomorrow night! Loved the column…it’s all true! And nobody makes cookies like your mom.

  • Mary

    Kay! Was your mom a cookie baker? I do know that she could can up a storm!

  • Naomi

    For me it’s tempting to give homemade chocolate chip cookies or brownies, which everyone likes. But that’s not very holiday-ish, so I end up trying new recipes — some of which aren’t very good. I admire your energy for baking!

  • Mary

    Naomi! I’ve never tried an Electric Company Cookbook recipe that didn’t work. If I spot one of those cookbooks in a thrift store (they do turn up) I’ll get it for you!

  • Linda

    The cookie highlight of the Christmas season was when Aunt Lois arrived with her shirtbox of delicate sugar cookies, lovingly baked, packed and carried to our home. No one in my experience ever rivaled the thin delights she shared each Christmas.

    I too remember going with our grandmother to get the annual cookbook at the Electric and Gas companies (Gas Co was always the favorite). I have a great collection, including the “war years” on how to make cookies with rationing. The 3 mile line to get this year’s cookie book deterred me but upon a begging email plea, they actually mailed one to me. It’s amazing that it’s such a hot item but tradition is hard to break.

  • Ann Piehl

    Cookies really provide a strong connection to our past. Just look at Marcel Proust and his madeleines!

    In the 1930s a distant cousin found a good recipe for cut-out, frosted butter cookies in a ladies’ magazine. This cousin shared the cookies and the recipe with her daughters and with my mom, a good buddy of the daughters. My mom, my aunt and the cousin’s daughters all made those cookies every year. They are Santa Claus Cookies to my generation. I have been making them since 1976. I bake, and Rich along with several friends of ours and of our daughter frosts them. The kids, long out of college, still insist on coming over to frost, and their creations can be amazing. We’ve had a teddy bear shape that became a palm tree, a gingerbread girl dressed as a hula dancer, an elf frosted to look like an alligator, assorted school logos, some molecular models and many psychedelic masterpieces. This year I made an extra small batch to take to my 93-year-old second cousin (one of the original bakers )who can no longer manage to bake; she squealed like a teenager when I called to tell her I was coming with Santa Claus Cookies.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  • Audrey Olmstead

    I’ve put in a long day at work…and just read your blog about Christmas cookies. I’m smiling now and dreaming about going home and finding my special old cookie recipes to share some of my family history with friends and neighbors. Thanks, Mary!…and Merry Christmas to you and Russ!

  • Mary

    Audrey! I am guessing that you have some amazing family recipes from Norway. Wish we could get up there to see the rooms at The Swedish Institute. Sounds like you won’t dig out until about May, though!!!