Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas Cookies 2016

I had big plans to mix up all of my Christmas cookie dough over thanksgiving weekend and then freeze it to bring out, cut, and bake over the next few weeks. That didn't happen Thanksgiving weakened, or the weekend after either, nor the one after that. All last week, I got butter out of the fridge to soften, only to put it back after I ran out of time or eggs or sugar. Finally, Thursday, I went on an epic mixing spree, and whipped up five batches of dough (the secret is to start with the lightest cookie—sugar—and end with the darkest—chocolate gingerbread—so you only have to watch the mixing bowl and paddle once, when you're done. In addition to my three staple Christmas cookies— the aforementioned sugar and chocolate gingerbread and spekulatius—I made two new kinds: chocolate sables, which are my all-time favorite cookie and which I made for the first time last month, and heidesand, which I just rediscovered after more than two decades.

My high school best friend's parents were from Germany, and a generation older than most high schoolers' parents. Her dad was a chemistry professor (retired, possibly?) and her mom did some translating work on the side of keeping a spectacular house. Inside the She was a stickler for rules and details—inside the medicine cabinet were labeled hooks for each person's toothbrush, including one for me; the juice jug in the fridge had a table that said "for breakfast only" and at that meal you were allowed only a tiny glassful. They weren't what I'd call rich, because they did not engage in conspicuous consumption, but they must have had money and they spend it well. They lived in a modest-sized house but it was beautifully proportioned and tastefully decorated; they were thrifty in their food expenditures (her mom bought generic, which mine never did, even at our poorest) but always served multiple dishes at breakfast and dessert after dinner; they drove sturdy but older cars (Subaru and toyota), but travelled to Europe and had a cabin in the mountains. They were intellectual and sophisticated in a way few people I knew at that time were—they listened to classical music, discussed politics, had extensive vocabularies (the first time I heard the word "turbid," was when her brother used it to describe the iced tea). They took me on my first trips to the ballet and the ski slope. I housesat for them when the bicycled around Europe after their children's high school graduation (my friend had a twin brother).

One year around Christmastime, my friend's mother invited me to their house for tea and cookies. Among the many beautiful and delicious cookies arrayed on the tray, were humble brown rounds. They didn't look like much, but they had a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth taste and a sandy texture. Mrs. Stickler told us the German name of the cookie and that it translated to "sandy moor." She also said they gained their sandy texture from browned butter.

My friend and went to colleges on different coasts and over the years we grew apart and out of touch, the way people do, especially back in the days before email and Facebook. I haven't heard from her in many years. I don't know if her parents, who were as old when we were in high school as my parents are now, are even still alive. But I've never forgotten those cookies, and now and then have tried to find a cookie called "sandy moor," with no luck.

Finally, this year, it occurred to me to enlist the internet. I tried Google translating "sandy moor." I tried searching "traditional German Christmas cookies." I finally got a hit with "German browned-butter cookies," which led me to this website, with a recipe for Heidesand—or "heath sand"—cookies. As I read the description and history of the cookies, tears poured down my face. I'm not sure why. Perhaps I missed my friend, and her family, who had opened up my world a bit. Perhaps I missed that time in life when mothers baked cookies and had tea parties. Perhaps I just really love browned butter, sugar, and salt.

I made a double batch, so certain was I that these cookies would transport me back to a time when I was 17. The browned butter came off without a hitch, and the dough came out every bit as crumbly and hard to work as the recipe said it would. I managed to work it into logs by scooping handfuls of dough crumbs into ziplock bags and mashing and rolling them into submission.

The next day I took the logs out of the fridge and attempted to slice them, upon which the disintegrated back into crumbs. I let them warm up a bit and tried again, with a larger, sharper knife, which helped some, though many slices lost chunks on their way to the cookie sheet. The recipe recommends rolling the edge of the cookie slices in pearl sugar. I didn't have any pearl sugar, but I did have some naturally colored red and green sugar, but it refused to stick to the cookies, no matter what I tried (I was tempted to lick the edges to make it stick, but don't worry, I didn't).

They aren't the prettiest cookies on the tray, but they are good, buttery and a little sandy. They're a little tough and don't quite have that melt-in-the mouth quality of Mrs. Stickler's. I think I might have overworked the dough, and sliced them a bit thick. The ones that I managed to stick a little sugar to are better; the sugar adds another texture layer of crunch and just a tiny bit extra sweetness to a not-too-sweet cookie. They're definitely going to become a regular member of the Christmas cookie line-up, though I might try some other recipes, to see if I can hit that perfect sandy sweet spot.

I realized that both the Heidesand and the sables are types of shortbread, and that I really love shortbread. Butter + sugar + flour + salt = yum! I'm thinking maybe I should write a cookbook of nothing but shortbread. I looked online and found that there's one (but only one) out there already (and appears to be out of print), plus a murder mystery and a romance with the word "shortbread" in the title. So maybe, after I finish up a couple of other book ideas, that will be my next project.

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