I don’t know when the tradition started in our family, but every year the week before Christmas we would have a baking day. Mom would put Christmas music on the record player and gather us together in the kitchen. We would spend the entire day baking goodies and singing along with the music.
I find it amazing that, events from so long ago still paint a vivid image in my mind. In my earliest memories of baking day we still lived in the little house on Val Verde. I can see Jo-Ann, a dish towel tied around her neck, standing on a chair in front of white metal cabinets. I was kneeling on a little wooden stool wearing a pink apron, one I made entirely by hand in a Blue Bird meeting. Carol-Ann was also posted at the counter nearby.
The Director, that was Mom, stood ready to hand out recipes, help with instructions and remind us to be neat and tidy. Over the years the venue changed but baking day prevailed until I married and moved away.
Without realizing it we learned about fractions as we halved and doubled the recipes. We learned to read a temperature gauge as we boiled various candy concoctions to the proper stage. And we learned to tell time as we timed the cookies in the oven.
We picked our favorites from recipes scrawled on 3 X 5 cards, torn from magazines or flagged in favorite cook books. We weren’t passive about which recipes we wanted to measure, mix and bake. We all had favorites.
Our family peanut butter cookie recipe had to be started early in the day. The dough was mixed, rolled into a couple of long rolls, and put into the refrigerator to chill. Later in the day the rolls were removed from the refrigerator and sliced and baked. I liked helping with the peanut butter cookies because I knew they were Dad’s favorite.
We stuffed dates with walnuts and rolled them in powdered sugar. We melted marshmallows and mixed them with Rice Krispy cereal. One year we might make fondant candy, another it might be some kind of candy made with butterscotch chips. But certain treats always found their way into our agenda.
We always made cocoa fudge. We used the recipe on the back of the Hershey’s Cocoa can. In later years we could afford to shell walnuts and add them to the fudge. To this day, I prefer fudge made from the cocoa recipe better than all of the other quicker and easier methods that have evolved.
Mom always made divinity. I can remember the year she thought she had cooked it long enough, but apparently she hadn’t. No amount of beating would make it stiff. We dropped it from spoons full onto waxed paper and it had to stay in the refrigerator until we were ready to peel it off of the waxed paper and eat it.
My favorite part of baking day, however, was making sugar cookies. Early in the day, one of us always mixed up multiple batches of dough. Like the peanut butter cookies, the sugar cookie dough had to be chilled. Near the end of the day, after the dough had sufficient time to chill and our other baking was complete, we sifted flour over the pastry cloth and the covered rolling-pin. We removed the cookie cutters from the jar. And only when everything was ready, did we remove the first ball of dough from the refrigerator.
We lined up the cookie cutters; the star, the stocking, the Christmas tree and Santa. We would have made all Santa’s and trees if Mom would have let us because they were the biggest. We discovered that if we mixed up the order that we cut them out, Mom didn’t realize that we were making a lot more Santa’s than anything else.
After the cookies were baked and while they cooled we cleaned up the mess in the kitchen. Then it was time to ice our cookies. Our icing recipe was a simple one. It consisted of a little milk, a drop or two of vanilla and a lot of powdered sugar. We divided the icing into at least four bowls. We poured green food coloring into one, yellow into one and red into one. The largest batch remained white.
The trees were iced green and sprinkled with something called ‘Decorating Decors’—little balls of colored sugar–to represent Christmas ornaments. The stars were usually just yellow, but the Santa Claus got the works.
We carefully cut raisins in half, one half for each eye. A little bit of red icing colored his cap. The white was added last. We sprinkled coconut on his beard to make it look hairy. The cookies were really pretty primitive, but we thought they were works of art.
After I married I moved away from my family. I bought a Santa cookie cutter so my kids could have the Santa tradition, complete with raisin eyes and coconut beard. It was a smaller cookie cutter and never quite made the grade for me.
Years later when
my parents decided to move closer to me, I asked my Mom about the Santa cookie cutter. She told me she thought that Jo-Ann had it. But she wasn’t sure. I was bummed. I really wanted that cookie cutter. I finally asked Jo-Ann if she was using it. She told me she had never had it. I was heart-broken to think that our special Santa was no longer part of the family.
In 2003 my Mother passed away. During the sad chore of cleaning out her apartment I discovered the Santa cookie cutter tucked in the bottom of a bucket of miscellaneous baking items. I now have possession of all four cookie cutters that we used as children. Recently I discovered the original recipe sheet from Swift’ning (a brand of shortening from years ago) in mother’s old recipe box.
I have no children or grandchildren living near so I seldom use my Santa now. It is old and the sides are wearing away, but I wonder if my friends would like a Santa Cookie.
Maybe this year I’ll bake some Santa cookies in memory of Mom.