HOLIDAY MEMORIES: Christmas Baking with My Family by Edith Maxwell

Holiday MemoriesThanks, Dayna, for hosting me!

I grew up long, long ago in a suburb of Los Angeles. I am the third of four children and the youngest of three girls. My mother, Marilyn, had a sweet tooth and was an accomplished baker. Her dinners weren’t as accomplished, but the six of us were fed simply every day, and anyway, we’re talking about baking for the holidays.

Us four

I don’t even remember when I didn’t bake with Mommy and my sisters, especially at the holidays. For Thanksgiving, we made our own pie crust, and each girl specialized in one pie, mine being pumpkin (still my favorite). As an adult, Thanksgiving is the holiday I love best, with family, friends, and good food.

But during my childhood, the lure of Christmas cookies, candy canes, decorating the tree, anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus, new books and maybe a new bike, and so much more were a treat to savor.

And when my mom called us girls to put on our aprons in the weeks leading up to the holiday, I knew Barbie, Jannie, and I were in for a fun and sweet afternoon. (I don’t remember my brother David ever being included. I should ask him.)

The easiest cookie we made was Mexican Bridecakes. You can’t go wrong with butter, flour, powdered sugar, vanilla, and minced pecans or walnuts. We flattened the dough onto a cookie sheet. My recipe card, which I wrote at maybe age ten, said, “Watch carefully for browning.” That is, they can go from done to burnt in a flash. The baked panful is dusted with powdered sugar and cut into inch squares.

My mother might have learned this recipe from her mother-in-law Dorothy, because I later learned that my aunt Jo and my cousin Andy also made these cookies every year, and I expect Andy still does. I included the recipe at the end of my novella, “Christmas Cocoa and a Corpse,” published in Christmas Cocoa Murder last year.

We made Spritz cookies, ones you squeeze out through a cylinder ending in one of many interchangeable disks bearing patterns that yield Christmas trees, stars, and other holiday themes. We sprinkled the tops with red and green sugars before baking. They come out extra light and delicious, but you need just the right touch to get the bit of dough to stick to the cookie sheet.

Sprtiz Cookies

Of course we made gingerbread people, both boys and girls. I don’t think we frosted them, but we might have. These days I press chocolate chips into the cut-out people for eyes, noses, buttons, and so on. It’s so much easier, and children (including adult children) can get very silly creating Gingerbread Cyclops, body parts made of the chips, and more fun. The cookies taste good no matter how they look, and this year’s Candy Slain Murder has the recipe in the back.

We also made long rolls of what Mommy called refrigerator cookies, even though she always put them in the freezer to chill. She colored half the dough green and the other half red. She pressed one batch flat on a long piece of waxed paper, and pressed the second batch on top of it. She then – and this was a stage I could finally help with – rolled it lengthwise, twisted the ends of the paper, and stuck it in the freezer. When it came time to bake them, I always wanted to be awarded the irregular end of the dough before she began slicing. The slices showed the prettiest green and red spirals, but the colors always faded once they were baked.

Cookie Recipe Cards

As an aside in this tale, you should know that I was always the youngest and shortest in my class. At home (and at school), I had two old sisters with model behavior, and a young brother who was the only boy and got way too much sympathy for that, in my opinion. I had a strong drive for justice and feminism even as a child. So, for whatever reason, I was the one who acted out a little, who never didn’t have skinned knees, and who delighted in sneaking bits of cookie dough whenever I could.

I also came by my sweet tooth honestly. To her credit, I think my mom looked away during some of those sneaks. She had to have known I was doing it, but I don’t remember ever getting in trouble for it. (I’ll add an aside to an aside, but it relates to me as a reader and writer. After we kids went to bed, Mommy was always downstairs reading, because my schoolteacher father often worked evenings at a second job. If I couldn’t sleep, I would creep downstairs with my book and read, too. I always thought she didn’t notice. As a parent I realized of course she knew I was there. But why not let me stay up and read with better light than I would have with a flashlight under the covers until I got good and sleepy?)

Back to the cookies. We always made two kinds of “regular” cut-out cookies (that is, not gingerbread people): my grandmother Ruth’s English Butter Cookies, and my grandmother Dot’s Red Sugar Cookies. I wasn’t sure which came from which grandmother until I remembered my father saying how the Red Sugar Cookies were so “short” – as in shortbread.

Both are sugar cookies. Both get rolled out and cut out with cutters in the shape of bells, stars, Christmas trees. I own and use most of my mom’s cutters, plus some I’ve acquired over the years. I have a Santa carrying his sack, but it never comes out of the cutter easily. A reindeer, except the antlers often break off. And so on.

Red sugar cookies have a higher ratio of butter and sugar to flour and include a hard-cooked egg yolk for even more richness. They also cook faster and burn more easily. English Butter Cookies include a bit of baking powder, so they rise a little and aren’t as delicate. Still yummy!

Sugar Cookies 2019

So we four women of the house would roll and cut and transfer to the cookie sheet. We’d take turns sprinkling on the colored sugars. I, at least, would eat plentiful scraps of the pieces between the cut cookies. Whoever was old enough to handle potholders and hot pans would remove them and we’d let them cool on paper towels.

My mom also had a heavy two-part mold that made a stand-up Santa cake. She used a recipe with chopped cherries and nuts, so it was pretty when you sliced it. She would ice together the front and back, and then decorate it beautifully. I wish I had pictures of some of the professional-level cakes she made at home.

I delighted in repeating the Christmas cookie-baking experience year after year with my two little boys, with my bigger boys, then my teen sons, and now with my adult sons. I’ve also made cookies with my two young friends (now, yikes, 11 and 14) as they grew. I’m trying not to dwell on how hard it will be not to have anyone here to make cookies with me this year (can you hear those tears now splashing onto my keyboard). But hey, it’s better to be alive for next Christmas, right?

I can’t believe I don’t have a picture of baking with my sons in the last decades, but believe me, when we are together, we cook and bake and play games like Scrabble and Farkle.

Phat Cats
From left, Edith’s beau Hugh, younger son JD, Edith, older son Allan, daughter-in-law Alison

My sisters and I remain close as adults, despite living a thousand miles apart from each other. I’m sure baking with them and our mother at the holidays helped cement that bond.

Readers: What are your favorite holiday sweet recipes? Did you learn to bake with family? I’ll send one commenter a paperback of each of my two Christmas mysteries!

Giveaway

The Author's Writings

Candy Slain MurderIn Candy Slain Murder, Country Store owner Robbie Jordan’s life seems merry and as bright as the Christmas lights glistening around South Lick, Indiana – until a man claims to be the long-lost half-brother of Robbie’s assistant. A fire destroys the home of a controversial anesthesiologist, exposing skeletal remains in his attic. The twin of the long-dead woman is murdered. Unavoidably intrigued, all Robbie wants for Christmas is to stop her winter wonderland from becoming a real nightmare.

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About The Author

Maddie Day pens the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Agatha Award winning Edith Maxwell writes the historical Quaker Midwife Mysteries, the Local Foods Mysteries, and short crime fiction. With twenty-three mysteries in print, twenty-seven in production, and more underway, Day/Maxwell lives with her beau and their energizer kitten north of Boston, where she writes, gardens, cooks, and wastes time on Facebook. She hopes you’ll find her on social media under both names, on WickedAuthors.com, at MysteryLoversKitchen.com, and at her web site.

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Dayna Lintonhttp://dayagency.com
Dayna is the owner of not only Novels Alive but of Day Agency, a full-service self-publishing agency for independent authors. She has been assisting independent authors to achieve their dreams of becoming published authors for over 15 years. From New York Times and USA Today Bestselling authors to the first-time author to every author in between. Dayna is a self-professed bibliophile. While dancing has always been her first love, reading came as a very, very close second, with gardening coming in as a close third. Dayna is also the divorced mom of four adult children and a very proud grandma. She is also a web designer, social media specialist, book blogger, and reviewer. She's a long-time Disney lover and a Utah Jazz, Utah Utes, and Dallas Cowboys fan. See Dayna's reviews here: Dayna's Reviews

16 COMMENTS

  1. So many fond memories of baking with my Mom in the kitchen – both as a child and an adult. Mom was an excellent cook/baker an everything was homemade from scratch, no mixes. We started to bake way ahead of time to get all the different cookies, cakes and pies made. Then we would make goodies boxes to be shared with family, friends and shut ins. As much fun as the baking was, I can remember the joy it brought Mom to see the smiles on folks that looked forward to her yearly deliveries.

    Remember the cut out sugar cookies and how Mom used them to keep my older brother, by 4 1/2 years my only sibling, and me not only occupied during the long holiday break but getting along with no bickering. We would spend hours decorating the cookies swapping the icing colors back and forth. We also made the spritz cookies and how fun it was to get to use the “gun” – which I still have. There were always a minimum of at least a dozen type cookies and the same with candy. One of my favorite cookies was Cherry Winks which had chopped pecans and cherries in them.

    Still have the hand written recipes from both my Mom and my Granny. I’m also thankful that before Alzheimer arrived in full force that I was able to write down the recipes that were only recorded in Mom’s memory. Each time I see the recipe cards, it warms my heart to know who wrote them and the years of practice to get them just right through the generations. It’s another reason why holiday memories are so precious to me.

    Trying to keep Mom tradition alive, I too had made the goodies and passed out the goodie boxes. I make me understand the smile on Mom’s face from way back when during our delivery trips. Sadly expense and age have limited the amount of goodies and number of boxes made, but this year it seems even more important to put that smile on both the recipient’s face and mine.

  2. I have a sugar cookie recipe handed down from my grandmother… looks a lot like your card, all dirty from years of use. I did learn to bake with my mom and occasionally get in the mood to do some holiday baking… it hasn’t hit yet this year. Our new family favorite is a copycat recipe of Starbuck’s Cranberry Bliss Bars.

  3. My mother and grandmother were excellent home cooks. I remember being around them when they cooked. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I also started cooking myself using a Better Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls. We did not bake together that I remember. I do bake with our grandchildren.

  4. My mom was an excellent baker and cook, and at Christmas, she really went nuts! As I said on FB, I swear, Mom thought it was her solemn duty to feed the neighborhood treats at Christmastime.

    Every Christmas, we all took turns stirring the fudge because you had to keep stirring so the evaporated milk didn’t burn, and then it had to boil for 10 minutes (no more). Your arm was SO tired after 10 minutes. Then you added the chocolate chips, marshmallows, and walnuts, and if your arm didn’t feel the burn after stirring until smooth, you were some sort of superwoman/man. But, oh! is it worth it!

    Mom always made fudge, peanut brittle, English toffee, date bars to die for, banana bread (which was really all year), peanut butter cookies with Reeces, Rocky Road pie (I took over this duty), and other treats she felt the need to try out. And the volumes would break the bank. I think she would do about 10-15 lbs. of fudge each year! Now, I do the same treats for my family, neighbors, and friends. It just isn’t Christmas without these treats.

  5. Our family are shortbread cookie fans. We only bake them during the holidays. Sweet and delicious they melt in our mouths.

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