A family secret–cookie canes–revealed!

photo-28I received an email from Donna, my college roommate, a “blast from the past” as they say.  The last time we saw each other was 22 years ago, at the holidays, when we made cookie canes together.  Her husband asked her to find me to get the recipe.  Now that’s a powerful endorsement–better than a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Two weeks ago, during our  podcast, Jeremy, Lauren and I were making and frosting these cookies, but our focus during the podcast was on plum pudding, fruit cake and other adventures, so I neglected to give the recipe as promised.

I asked my mother where she found this recipe, and she thinks it was a 1970’s era Good Housekeeping.  The cookies are finished with pink icing, which must be the following recipe:  In a mixer add 1/4 cup shortening, 1/2 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. vanilla, and 3 cups powdered sugar.  Add 1/4 cup of milk in small amounts as you are mixing to make the right spreading consistency. Tint with red food coloring.  This recipe goes on smooth but dries slightly hard so that the cookies can be stored.


The photo here may not make your mouth water.  That’s OK.  I guarantee that they taste wonderful.  It’s a combination of the sour cream, powdered malted milk and walnuts, I think.  Powdered malted milk is becoming more rare in stores these days, so I set a permanent reminder on my phone to buy malted milk on November 24 in preparation for the cookie baking in early December.  This year, my mom found the malted milk at Safeway and bought several jars to share with all of her daughters.  Last year, Susan resorted to ordering it online, when we were desperately calling each other after combing the local stores.

When we were younger, we got a lot of practice rolling out the dough and frosting the cookies.  We weren’t allowed to eat them as we were working unless one broke–and breakage took place often.  This was not because we were deliberately trying to eat the cookies.  They’re difficult to frost straight from the oven.  I like to freeze them first before frosting.

This year, like last year and the year before, I tortured Lauren because she did not roll them “correctly.”  Actually, in reflection, I don’t know why she keeps coming back when she must suffer under my critical eye.  This is a recipe that takes practice–years of practice.

One of my favorite stories happened just a few Decembers ago.  My mother had the cookies on the table, and when Jim (my brother) reached for one, mom made some remark about how he couldn’t eat them unless they were the broken ones.  With a casual sweep of his arm, he knocked them to the floor.  He apologized and handed out the broken pieces to share.

Great family traditions

I was telling Roger about a professor I had in college who used to begin each class by reading us excerpts from a diary of an Ohio farmwife who lived in the mid-1800’s.  When I was in that class, I was entirely unappreciative of the professor’s obsession, and I remember to this day how I wished she would get to teaching and stop rambling.  In the diary, the farmwife worked ceaselessly for her family and livelihood, baking pies at all times of the year which she sold or bartered.  I remember the endless statistics:  pounds of flour and sugar, pecks of apples, numbers of pies.

Here I am, 25 years later, and it’s not the class I took that I remember.  I remember the hard work and sacrifice of that Ohio woman.  Lesson learned.

Christmas is like that, too.  I attended a funeral yesterday, and all six of the speakers remembered how the deceased father had established the tradition of dinner conversation, where each attendee had to be prepared to talk about the significant events of the past year.  One son remarked that the expectation was sometimes dreaded–but remembered with pride.

Similarly, recently, I read an essay written by a teenager who recalled her Christmas family tradition.  Each child prepares a talent to share with the extended family on Christmas Eve.  I would have expected a hint of complaint in this essay; instead, it is a challenge and a joy.  I would bet there is complaining along the way, but that’s not what this young person remembers most.

We all know that the Christmas season involves lights, gifts, plenty of food and family.  I would argue some Christmas traditions involve a little hard work and creativity and will be remembered only in retrospect as the best memories.

Newly marrieds and Christmas traditions

After I posted about Hallmark card commercials on Super Bowl Sunday, faithful listener Denise Reynolds sent me a link to a 1999 Hallmark Commercial about a young woman who joins her new husband’s family for Christmas.  It’s her first holiday away from home.  By the middle I was sobbing.

Valentine’s Day is just around corner, and this February holiday reminds me of  couples and love and how difficult and stressful it can be for new marrieds (or newly engaged couple) to fit in to the established Christmas traditions.

In our family, we attend Christmas Eve Mass together, and every member of the extended family—infant to grandparent—participates in the Mass.  Even pew-warmers must supervise wiggly shepherds and angels.  My son, Ian, was the first live Jesus in the Gospel reading and pageant more than two decades ago, but we have been a part of the mass for years before that.  So, any new member must pass the family test of attending and participating, as instructed by Director Grandma Shirley.  That’s a lot of pressure for a newly engaged young man or woman in our family.  We break them in slowly—in the early years, they hold a candle in the procession and stand in reverence around the Holy Family.    Baby Jesus comes later, obviously.

In our podcast this week, we’ll be talking about engaged and newly marrieds and the best strategies for managing the holiday family obligations.