For as long as I can remember, my church has held a "cookie walk" on the Sunday before Christmas. Basically, whoever wants to participate can bake up a batch of their family's favorite holiday cookies, then stand in a small auditorium at a plastic folding table to proudly offer up their creations.
For a paltry $5, my mom, brother and I gain access to the auditorium, where we stroll from table to table. We use our gloved hands to grab a cookie here and a cookie there, filling the tins or plastic baggies we have in tow to the brim with the homemade wares of our fellow parishioners. Folding Chair With Table
Chitchatting with the churchgoers hawking their products, strategizing with my family as we navigate the room and adding to the bounty of baked goods to schlep home are all sources of warm, wonderful holiday memories. It's hard not to want to bring each and every cookie home to enjoy during the most wonderful time of the year.
These cherished moments, however, pale in comparison to our own holiday cookie tradition. Continued on in the lore of my mom's family, we bake sheet tray upon sheet tray of festively colored and decorated butter cookies, which range from green wreaths with sprinkles to white snowflakes with colored sugars. (In perusing the internet, it seems as though most deem this type of cookie a "butter spritz cookie.")
We make double or triple batches, using our largest bowls and wooden spoons to ensure we have a surplus of cookies that last through the end of the season. They're the primary component of our Christmas Day dessert, as well as a "favor" of sorts that we sometimes send to relatives. For as long as I can remember, the towering amount of cookie tins on the dining room table has been a permanent holiday fixture. My dad was an especially big fan of these cookies, and he would often pile an excessive amount in his hands to munch on as he watched TV.
We use the old-school "cookie guns," sometimes called cookie presses, which allow for what feels like assembly line-style efficiency and productivity. This typically involves one person mixing the dough, a second filling the "gun," another pressing the cookies, someone decorating them and someone else supervising the oven.
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In about an hour, we're able to churn out scores of cookies, which we later pack in nostalgic holiday tins complete with a piece of bread to help slow the cookies from hardening as January creeps closer. (We're not exactly sure of the science of how this works, but a single slice of white, whole wheat or potato bread inside of the closed tin results in much softer, more tender, less stale cookies.)
Incredibly simple and deeply comforting, these cookies are emblematic of the holidays, as well as practically perfect in every way. Crisp yet soft, immensely craveable and perfectly sized, I'd liken them to Pringles or popcorn because it's pretty much impossible to have only one.
Their aroma, bite-size shape, soft chew and festive colors permeate all of my holiday memories. (I don't believe I was munching on them at three months old, but I've enjoyed these cookies for 99.9% of my Christmases.) My mom's parents were German and Slovak, and while we know this is some sort of classic European butter cookie, we're not entirely certain where the recipe originated. Mom's entire immediate family is put to work during the holiday cookie-baking process, with Nana tallying up the precise number of cookies made and comparing the total to previous years.
I'd liken them to Pringles or popcorn because it's pretty much impossible to have only one.
The one nonnegotiable component of this process? We always play Hanson's 1997 magnum opus "Snowed In." (Trust me, Hanson should be known for much more than just "MMMBop.") In many instances, I let the album loop, ensuring that our holiday soundtrack continues to play in tune with the sights and smells of seemingly endless cookie baking.
Often made by my aunts, the rest of our selection may include chocolate chip cookies, nut balls, pecan clusters, pizzelle, decorated sugar cookies, anise- or lemon-flavored rounded cookies with brightly colored icing, as well as those crescent moon-shaped cookies often decorated with a heaping amount of powdered sugar. An assortment of these cookies, my family's butter cookies and our haul from the church cookie walk sustains us throughout the entire season — and then some.
In honor of these traditions, I decided to host a "virtual cookie walk" with Salon Food, allowing our team to share their favorite holiday cookies, as well as what makes them so special. (You can thank me later for that Hanson recommendation!)
You can share your favorite holiday cookies and the photos, recipes and stories behind them by clicking here to email us. Happy holidays!
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about the holidays and baking
Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. He loves hard cheeses, extra-crispy chicken cutlets, chocolate-coated candied orange peels, any and all pasta dishes, croissants, peach juice, coffee and admittedly stans Mountain Dew — as damning as that may be. He is a burgeoning movie buff and has an irrational distaste for potato bread. He is especially passionate about music, social justice advocacy, his loved ones and his dog, Winston.
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