Story by Chelsea Rose Moore
Photos by Yetta Reid Photography
Styling by Chelsea Rose Moore
My brother and I stood on the top step together, our hair neatly combed, our faces scrubbed, our clothes sparkling clean. Under our arms, we held large trays with depictions of Santa Claus and snowmen. We reached up and rang the doorbell, waiting for an answer. The few moments it took for the door to open felt endless, because we’d been waiting for this moment all year.
Grandma Pat opened the door, gave us big hugs, and told us how nice we looked. We raced inside, ready for the festivities to begin. To us, her house was magic. There was a closet full of costumes, cupboards packed with plastic “pretend” food, dozens of board games, a secret passageway, and hundreds of movies we’d never seen. She even had the Disney Channel.
But today, none of that mattered. Today we were decorating cookies.
We knew the routine. Grandma Pat had spent days preparing, and her dining room table was bursting with hundreds of cookies, making our mouths water and our eyes grow big. There were her cherry winks, her holly cookies, her peanut plantation crunch, her lemon bars, and our favorite Pennsylvania Dutch sugar cookies.
We rolled out the dough and used cookie cutters to cut holiday-themed shapes. When we thought she wasn’t looking, my brother and I shoved bits of cookie dough into our mouths while we worked.
We made frosting in all shades of colors and spent the afternoon transforming the cookies into artistic masterpieces. My brother and I loaded our cookies with heaps of frosting and sprinkles, believing the more frosting we added, the tastier our cookies would be. Grandma Pat quietly watched as our cookies became puddles of frosting and festive adornments, while her cookies were perfection worthy of a magazine spread. One year, when I was a little older, she encouraged me to use fewer sprinkles “for beauty’s sake.” Sometimes, she said, less is more. I still hear her voice in my head when I decorate cookies. Simple is always best. Simple is more.
We decorated cookies for our grandpa to enjoy as an after-work snack. At the end of the day, we loaded our trays with cookies to take home. We were proud of our handiwork and couldn’t wait to show our parents. We would enjoy every single cookie as we counted down the days until Christmas.
Many things have changed since my brother and I spent our afternoons in the kitchen with Grandma Pat. We’ve grown up, and no longer need a stepstool to reach the kitchen counter. My grandpa is spending his first Christmas in Heaven, and Grandma Pat doesn’t bake anymore. But I like to think I have carried on her cookie-baking tradition and will introduce it to future generations, starting with my daughter.
Isn’t that the beautiful thing about traditions? They are bigger than we are. They exist before we come into the world, and they continue after we leave. Traditions build a legacy for our children to remember and cherish. We are giving them memories to pass on to their children one day. We are giving them stories to share and jokes to laugh about ‘round the Christmas tree. We are shaping young hearts and minds as we build into future generations. Perhaps, most importantly, we are learning to love our families well.
The simplest traditions are the ones I remember most. It wasn’t the grand gestures or the big fancy gifts. It was the marshmallows in our mugs of hot cocoa, made by my mother. It was the way my grandpa read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to all his grandchildren, with his loud voice echoing through the house. It was Bing Crosby on the radio and the ornaments on the tree. It was Santa Claus at the mall asking us, “What do you want for Christmas?” and it was our stockings hanging in front of the blazing fire.
But these traditions run deeper. These traditions are a transfer of ourselves, a passing-on of our own characteristics, hobbies and loves. We are sharing our love of family, our love of gathering friends together, our fondness for baking, and our memories of Christmases past. It is in this way traditions reach across generations and bring us a little closer. They shape our lives, and in some cases, shape our futures. They allow us to speak in ways we otherwise could not, because they give us opportunities to speak with our hearts.
When I was in high school, Grandma Pat sent me a little package filled with recipe cards. Tied together with a pink ribbon, the package contained all of her best: her mother’s famous biscuits, the peanut candy roll, the snickerdoodles, the cherry winks and holly cookies, the scones she served with tea, and the Pennsylvania Dutch cookies we made together. Each Christmas, I read them, and remember her dining room table filled with cookies. I will never forget the way it looked.
Over the years, Grandma Pat’s recipes have become family legends, talked about each year as we reminisce about Christmases-past: the snickerdoodle cookies my dad loved, the “elevator lady spice cookies,” and the gingerbread cake my mother likes to make now. I call Grandma Pat to tell her what I’ve baked and how I wish we could bake together again. She loves hearing it. Although her cookies adorn my table now, I always follow her guidelines: use a minimal amount of frosting and only a few sprinkles, for beauty’s sake.
Below are a few of Grandma Pat’s Christmas recipes, starting with the sugar cookies we decorate every year.
Pennsylvania Dutch Cookies
1 cup softened butter
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
2 ¼ cups sifted all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
Frosting (recipe below)
Combine all ingredients. If dough is too dry to handle easily, work in a little milk or cream, one teaspoon at a time. Roll out to 1/8-inch thickness (NOTE: these need to be thin!) on a floured board or waxed paper. Cut into shapes and bake on an ungreased sheet at 400 degrees for 6-8 minutes. Cool before removing.
2 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 (or more) tablespoons whole milk
Mix confectioner’s sugar with vanilla and milk to create desired consistency for spreading. Add coloring, decorations, or eat plain. Cookies freeze very well in single layers – then in air-tight containers.
½ cup butter
30 large marshmallows
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon green food coloring
3 ½ cup cornflakes
Cinnamon red-hot candies
Melt butter and marshmallows over low heat; stir in the food coloring and vanilla, allowing it to blend thoroughly. Remove from heat and gently mix in cereal until it is well-coated. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto waxed paper (shaping into wreaths if desired), and decorate with the cinnamon red hots. Three candies to a wreath is usually perfect! Remove from paper when thoroughly cooled.
¾ cup butter
1 ½ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, beaten slightly
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup red glace cherries, chopped
4 cups cornflakes, crushed finely
24 halved red glace cherries
Combine ingredients, except for cornflakes and halved cherries. Form into small (large marble sized) balls. Ross in crushed flakes, top each with a cherry half, pressing down slightly, and bake at 350 degrees for about 14 minutes – until lightly browned. Cook before removing. Yield: 4 dozen.
Peanut Butter Crinkles
½ cup butter
½ cup chunky peanut butter
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg, beaten slightly
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour Extra granulated sugar, for topping
Salted peanuts, broken in half
Combine ingredients, except for extra sugar and peanut halves. Shape dough into 1-inch balls, roll in extra sugar, and place 2 inches apart on prepared sheet. Press peanut halves slightly into balls of dough and bake at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes. Cool slightly before removing from sheet. Yield: 3 dozen. ML
A special thank you to Becky Olmstead, Serena Olmstead, Cal & Theo Reid, and Amelia Moore for making beautiful cookies and bringing joy to us all.