It Takes a Gingerbread Village

Sweet Rewards: From gingerbread people to the much-loved kolachi, a plate of cookies means Christmas.

It Takes a Gingerbread Village

Christmas is all about the cookies

By Sara Bir

Last night my aunt called me to ask if there were any special kinds of Christmas cookies I’d like her to make for my family’s upcoming holiday visit. This is not too unusual a request, though it should be noted that instead of a traditional Christmas in front of the yule log, we are this year going camping for three days in Death Valley. No tree, no gift exchanges, no televised specials, no Mannheim Steamroller CDs–just us and God’s great breadth of nature. The elements.

She could have asked if I was bringing my Therm-a-Rest, or if I had enough long underwear or water bottles. Hydration, shelter–these things do not matter in my family as much as Christmas cookies, without which our reason for the season would quickly deteriorate.

So we may be out there, skin scalded from the spiteful sun or the relentlessly biting wind, throats aching and parched, but we’ll have cookies. And as long as there are plentiful quantities of Mexican wedding cakes and cranberry-date bars, everything will be fine.

You can pull off a Christmas without a tree or without snow or without presents–the Whos of Whoville did. But try, just try to have a Christmas with no cookies, not even one, not even a piddly snickerdoodle whisked from a platter and popped into the mouth with a dieter’s stealthy guilt. The shape of the season is so highly intertwined with cookies that gingerbread boys and sugar-cookie cutouts have become insignias for the holiday. How? Why? Easter endures without cookies; so does Halloween, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Hanukkah, the Fourth of July, and President’s Day.

Oftentimes people grow up identifying with one special Christmas cookie in particular, a cookie whose presence it would not be Christmas without. Unfortunately, I grew up in a family that had about 15 cookies whose presence was required for Christmas to be Christmas. We packed cookies in the freezer, in tins stockpiled in the garage, and in Tupperware overrunning the cupboards. The closer to Christmas day
it got, the more peanut butter blossoms and seven-layer dream bars would appear on special Christmas-themed platters set out on the kitchen counter.

Come December, cookies became the primary food group, the base of Satan’s food pyramid. Bars, balls, bonbons, cutouts, pressed cookies, drop cookies, no-bake cookies–no branch of the cookie family tree went under-represented.

I grew up in the Midwest, where cookies functioned as an alternate wintertime currency. Tins and trays migrated from one neighborhood household to the next year after year, recycled, returned, and refilled, creating a window to other families’ holiday cookie habits. Some were highly anticipated and welcomed (Mrs. Hanf’s crème de menthe squares), while others (weird and sticky stained-glass cookies occasionally decorated unintentionally with a stray cat hair) were kindly accepted and promptly neglected.

And still, in these undomesticated times, all corners of the cookie universe are thrown into light come Christmas time, when usually forsaken Old World favorites–drowned out by an endless procession of coffeehouse biscotti and deli chocolate-chip cookies–are pulled from the yellowed depths of brittle recipe files. Their names are clunky to pronounce, and their origins give away a family’s background: lebkuchen, krusczyki, springerle, speculaas, pfeffernusse, cucidata, biscochitos, krumcake, sandkager.

Perhaps the oddest holiday cookies are the least obscure, the New World ones that have evolved since the advent of jello, canned fruit cocktail, gumdrops, gummy bears, Hershey’s Kisses, and M&Ms. With these cookies, artificial color–a frosted kaleidoscope of hues–is a plus. Candy cane cookies, tinted redder and whiter than the White Stripes’ stage getup, look like they were made out of Play-Doh.

Green cherry trees, a thick cutout cookie from Meredith Press’ Cookies for Christmas, requires one jar of green maraschino cherries, chopped and added to the dough. Does anyone over 10 eat stuff like that? Or the technicolor-bright Christmas Holli-Doodles, Wonderland Cookies, and Christmas Jewels of Betty Crocker’s 1963 classic Cooky Book, the holy grail of weird cookie recipes? Or those weird dragees, the edible metallic balls that grace cookies but mimic BBs?

There are cookies we make not because we want to, but because we have to. They are identity cookies, specialties so tied up in the makeup of our DNA that we might as well carry around a cookie in our wallets instead of a driver’s license. The cherry coconut bars (Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book again) that my grandmother used to make so haunt her that she has to make a pan every year, just to look at them because no one else will eat any (those festive maraschino cherries are once more to blame).

During the holidays, the bakers of the world are blessed and burdened, because a person who bakes cookies one Christmas becomes the person who is expected to the following year. But it is we the bakers who have the last laugh, for the true grace of cookies lies not in the eating but in the making: the repetition of motion, the coolness of the dough, the artistic possibilities of decorating, the satisfaction of creation.

For those whose relationship to cookies is of a precarious nature (love-hate or gluten-allergic), you can still make your cookies and not eat them; simply to be near cookies may be enough. Take them to work and become the most loved person in the office for the day. Cut your macrobiotic pressed salad into bell, tree, and angel shapes! Make Christmas sushi instead, and create exciting seasonal rolls whose cross sections form images of sleighs!

For me, it’s not Christmas without kolachi, which is a mutated version of the Polish yeasted bun kolazci. It’s basically a flaky, buttery cookie dough–not yeasted–rolled thin, filled with apricot, prune, or nut filling, and folded into a little bundle that bakes into a devilish miniature pie. As a young and craft-driven kid, I delighted in making kolachi, though it was the seven-layer bars and sugar cookies I ate while watching cartoons after school.

Maturity befits kolachi, though, and I grew to love eating the little pies as well. Somehow I became the designated kolachi maker in the family, and it is now my responsibility to make sure our Death Valley Christmas will be graced with kolachi.

Making kolachi is not difficult, but it is labor intensive–which I somehow manage to forget every year in the postbaking cookie-eating blitz. I got a cruel reminder when the bulk of a recent prime Sunday was spent rolling out dough, cutting it into 1 1/2-inch squares, filling them with apricot filling, tediously folding the corners over in an attractive manner, rolling the cookies in granulated sugar, baking the cookies, eating sample cookies, cooling the cookies, eating additional samples, scraping kolachi dough off of the floor, eating one last cookie, taking a respite with a beer, eating one more last cookie, finding an appropriate container in which to store the cookies, and doing a load of laundry that was speckled with apricot filling.

During this period of time, I was able to listen to Beck’s entire back catalogue. I got delirious and began to think how nice it would be if I could send Beck some kolachi to eat while he was on tour. I became a lean and efficient machine, a self-contained assembly line fussing tenderly over the conception of a tiny, edible fleet.

Then I went running, motivated by the day’s prolific kolachi intake. No wonder weight gain is a problem in the dark winter months, considering the prevalence of Christmas cookies, precisely portioned bundles of naughty high-carb, high-fat goodness. Dr. Atkins would surely have a heart attack just to hear of it, though he may appreciate the protein content of flourless almond macaroons.

Please note that while Dr. Atkins’ Christmas will be purportedly healthful, as he and the Atkins clan tuck into their Christmas dinner of steamed salmon and greens, the souls of their stomachs shall be empty, for no tender cookies will caress their lips. My family, we will this Christmas perish from exposure in the cruel desert, but we shall perish with an abundance of cookies, and our souls will be eternally nourished with kolachi.

From the December 19-25, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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