Back in the Kitchen Again: It’s Christmas!

Good morning, dear readers, it’s time for true confessions and some recipes. In June I was diagnosed with gallstones, and by October, this had developed into gallbladder disease. For weeks, breakfast, lunch, and dinner were bland, innocuous foods as to not upset the tummy. A couple of days before Thanksgiving I had surgery, and since that time, my life, especially the cooking life I adore, has slowly returned to normal. You know I’m not feeling well when my Thanksgiving cooking magazines come in the mail and by the holiday, I still haven’t cracked the spine!

I remember reading an op-ed piece in the New York Times a week or two after 9-11 that has stuck with me these ten years. The theme was what it meant to get back into the kitchen and cooking again; having your life go back to “normal.” For me, six days after surgery, I slowly crept back in the kitchen and made a hearty soup. Each day, I cooked more and more, walking a little farther and a little faster, each making me stronger both physically and emotionally. Being unable to enjoy food and its preparation was an interesting “life course” for me, yet one I would prefer not to take again.

So I knew I was really feeling better when I decided to make Christmas cookies for my co-workers last weekend. I’ve taken a hiatus from making cookies for several years; it seems like every where I turn there are sweets, so I figured why add to the mix and waistline? But after looking over a cookie catalog, I knew my Christmas cookies were better than anything made in a factory, so I thought it was time to share, just two batches. With Christmas music in the background, the stove on, mixer in hand, the kitchen was humming again. It’s good to be back.

Butter Balls
This is a family recipe that everyone in my family has made at one point or another. The original recipe calls them Butter Fingers, but to be easy, we always formed them into balls, hence their “new” name. A Christmas didn’t go by growing up that we didn’t have these in the house. Butter, flour, and nuts, you can’t really go wrong. I recommend a nice cup of coffee with a cookie or two. They are moist and yummy! Like all “older” recipes, the directions are sparse!

Butter Balls
14 Tablespoons butter, softened
4 Tablespoons confectioner sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup ground nuts (I usually use walnuts, but pecans are good, too)
2 teaspoons vanilla and 1 teaspoon water, mixed
Confectioner sugar for rolling

Mix all ingredients together and shape with hands. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. Watch to make sure they don’t get too brown. When cool, roll in confectioner sugar when cool.

Sugar Cookies
When I was growing up, every December we would receive a tin of homemade cookies from my Czechoslovakian great-grandmother. Of the variety of probably seven or eight different kinds of cookies (which she made well into her 90s!), one of my favorites were the sugar cookies. These cookies weren’t like other sugar cookies, these were soft and moist instead of crispy and crunchy.

I was at a Greek food festival earlier in the year and when I was waiting to have dinner, I perused the sweets table and bought a small package of sugar cookies. They were EXACTLY like Grandma’s! Regrettably, the baker had left by then, so I consulted a cookbook I have, Cherished Czech Recipes, and found one that is close to it. I bought two bags of cookies that afternoon, finishing them up the next morning. When I decided to make cookies this year, I wanted to try a recipe similar to Grandma’s. Upon eating these, they don’t taste exactly like them, but they are close substitute!

Czechoslovakian Christmas Sugar Cookies
From Cherished Czech Recipes, collected by Pat Martin, Penfield Books

1 cup sugar
½ cup butter
½ cup lard (I used all butter)
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
½ cup buttermilk
3 ½ cups flour
2 eggs
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla or grated rind of orange or lemon (I used vanilla)

Cream sugar, butter, and lard. Dissolve baking powder in buttermilk; add to creamed mixture. Stir in flour, eggs, salt, and flavoring. Roll out thin on lightly floured board and sprinkle generously with sugar. (Note: I decorated with red and green sugar after they were cut into shapes and on the cookie sheet.) Cut the cookies into different shapes with cookie cutters. Bake at 350 degrees until slightly colored.

Cook’s note: It might be easier to before rolling out the dough if you pop it in the freezer or fridge for a few minutes. I had a hard time with it being sticky, since it was quite warm in the kitchen.