Thursday, December 17, 2009

Author Kathleen Ernst's Favorite Christmas Cookies

A few years ago I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at a Bouchercon with Kathleen Ernst. I knew her Edgar and Agatha nominated American Girl History Mysteries, that she had won an Emmy for her television writing/producing and I knew that she was a nationally known Civil War expert. What I hadn't known was that I was about to meet an amazingly talented person who writes books for all ages who I would then be lucky enough to have as a friend. I've seen Kathleen do programs for fond American Girl fans, for adult writers, and other audiences with the same humor, skill, and love of her craft. Now I see she has cooking skills as well! Enjoy!

My Favorite Christmas Cookies

I didn’t know my father’s mother very well. Grandmother Ernst was Swiss, and reserved. I was too young when she died to have forged any kind of real relationship with her. I’ve always regretted that. I have no personal mementos, no treasured keepsakes.

Not so with my mother’s mother. Grandma Johnston lived long enough to know that I’d developed a sincere interest in family history.

Each year Grandma J. baked hundreds of Christmas cookies. Wherever I happened to be living, I could count on receiving a tin box full of Christmas cookies. I visited one December during her final years, when her health was failing. She sat in a wheelchair in the kitchen, directing my grandfather as he mixed the cookie dough. I can still see her frail hands patting the dough into balls, and placing them carefully on cookie sheets.

After Grandma J. died, I inherited her recipe cards. Some were decades old, battered and ink stained. Some were much newer, even typed. If she’d gotten the recipe from a friend, she noted the name.

I thumbed through the cookie recipes, recognizing family classics, puzzling over types I didn’t recall. Then I came to a card for Nut Wafers. In parenthesis, my grandma had written “Mrs. Ernst.”

I’d never known that Grandma J. had gotten this, or any, recipe from Grandmother E. This was something personal, a tiny glimpse into my Swiss Grandmother’s life. I could hardly wait to bake these cookies.

Following the recipe precisely, I mixed up a batch. I used Grandma J.’s old brown bowl, the one she’d always used for cookies. I knew the Nut Wafers would be perfectly wonderful. After all, both of my grandmothers had liked them.

Well…they weren’t perfect. When I used a damp cloth stretched over a class to flatten the dough before baking, as instructed, it stuck to the fabric. When I baked the cookies, the edges crisped before the centers had set.

I spent a couple of days feeling sad. Then I tried again. I gave myself permission to tinker. With just a couple of minor changes, I ended up with a cookie that I love.

Each December, I bake Nut Wafers. Doing so still makes me feel close to both of my grandmothers. It doesn’t matter that I changed the recipe a bit. Now it belongs to all of us.

Kathleen’s Grandmothers’ Nut Wafers
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups raw sugar
2 eggs
2 t. vanilla
1 c. ground walnuts
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted
1-1/2 t. salt
½ t. baking soda
2-1/2 c. flour

Cream the butter with the sugar. Beat in eggs, vanilla, ground nuts, and melted chocolate. Stir the remaining ingredients together in a separate bowl, and then add slowly to the dough mixture.

Drop by rounded teaspoons onto a greased cookie sheet, about 2” apart. These spread, so don’t use too much dough. Bake 10-12 minutes at 325 degrees. Cool slightly before removing to a drying rack.


Deb Baker said...

What a touching story! My mom has taken over the Christmas cookie tin gift giving. I love her rum balls. Can't wait to try these.

Lori Orser said...

Truly, a wonderful story. I have recipes from my mother and grandmother, and a couple from a great-grandmother. I love the way she (GGM) wrote: "Flour, sugar, salt, vanilla" as if we could guess the proportions! My grandmother also credited the person from whom she got non-family recipes, so to this day we make "Mrs. Johnson's Brownies!" There are wonderful bits of family history in the recipe cards and pages! Thank you for sharing one with us.

Kathleen said...

Lori - Recipes cards, and the recipes themselves, are such wonderful keepsakes, aren't they? I found a couple of really old cards like those you mention---just the most simple list of ingredients. I know my GM got them from her mother, and I treasure them. When you bake something that your GM or GGM baked, it's truly a tangible connection.

Deb, my family doesn't have a tradition of rum balls...but I think we should!

Heidi said...

What a wonderful legacy! I have quite a few favorite recipes my mom used to make on holidays, like the German Stollen, & 24-hour Fruit Salad, and I have fond memories of the family gathering to decorate sugar cookies before Christmas.

What fun!

Alice Trego said...

Reading this made me think of a recipe I have from my step-grandmother, a true German woman who was a marvelous cook. I so loved her German Fruit Cake that one day I asked her for the recipe. She told me she had no recipe card for her cake, that she always knew the right amounts of all the ingredients.

So I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote as she dictated the order and amounts of ingredients she used. I usually make this cake each Christmastime to give as gifts, and I know exactly which piece of paper in my recipe box contains my step-grandmother's instructions for this wonderful cake.

Ann Parker said...

I love this post! I also have a collection of recipes on index cards, stored in a small wooden box labeled "Shaw-Walker -- Chicago, Muskegon, New York." Inside, in my mother's handwriting, it says: "From my mother, Her mother, and her mother's mother. 4 generations of us!"
Some cards are typed, most are hand-written, pencil or ink. Some skip amounts and/or list no oven temperatures, such as this for Nut Bread: "1/2 c. sugar, 1 egg, 2 cups milk, 4 cups flour (small), 3 B. Powder, Walnuts. Bake about 1/2 hour."
It's a bit of a mystery to me, but I treasure them all...

Amy said...

I love this post, and these comments.
Alice - I am sure we would all love to see that fruit cake if you are willing to share!
I too have a bunch of handwritten recipes from one Grandma - the other wrote nothing down. I've been transcribing them - trying them, figuring out missing details, etc. and will put them together for my siblings and cousins.