Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays. The smells and tastes of the day filled our small apartment. But what I liked most about Thanksgiving was that it was the gateway to my even more favorite celebration – and that, of course, was Christmas.
Grandma was a phenomenal baker. Her strawberry short cake, lemon meringue pie and apple strudel were legendary. But when it came to baking cookies, she left that to my mom. And mom was up to the challenge.
Night after night after Thanksgiving, mom would bring home flour and sugar and bags of nuts, as well as beautifully painted cookie tins. We would store these in our already crowded pantry. But the perishable items, the butter and eggs would have to wait until they were nearly ready for incorporation into the different cookies that she would bake.
I had a hand in all this. My job was to crack all the nuts and put the meats in glass jars – carefully keeping the almonds from the walnuts and the pecans away from the hazelnuts. Fifty pounds of nuts to shell. I enjoyed doing it, but by the time I finished my task my hands were usually pretty sore and tired.
The butter began making its appearance – but the eggs were always an on-going and last minute purchase. There was a store that sold “cracked” brown eggs, about a mile and a half walk from our apartment. They were $.19 a dozen. Because the shells were cracked, they had to be used within a day or two of purchase. But buying these was a big cost saving as mom usually went through 30 dozen or so.
During her annual “cookie confab,” mom never varied her work schedule. She would leave for her store at eight in the morning and return home at six that night. Then a brief dinner – then on to cookie-making – normally until about eleven in the evening.
She made wonderful sugar cookies cut out in the designs of angels and stars and camels and topped with a half a walnut or a maraschino cherry or merely sprinkled with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon.
There were shortbread cookies, carefully sliced in half. Between the two pieces she would sandwich a thin layer of home-made raspberry jam.
There were delicate rum balls which had been rolled gently in confectioner’s sugar. Pecan crescents were always on the list. All in all, mom made over twenty different kinds of cookies each year. But my favorites were the lace almond pralines.
Mom would take the almonds which I had shelled and blanch them. Then she would crush them to the point that they were as fine as a grain of sand. She added a bit of flour to them and some melted butter. When the mixture was lightly bound together she rolled them around small wooden dowels and quickly transferred them to the frying pan which contained several sticks of melted butter.
These cookies were so delicate that perhaps only one out of three came out intact – but I got to eat the ones that did not meet mom’s standards. I still can taste the butter and the amazing almond flavor.
You may ask why mom made so many cookies for a family of four. The answer is that this was her Christmas present to our friends and neighbors and to those people whom she considered her most loyal clients at the store.
She would cut out pieces of wax paper to line the beautiful tins, adding a few of this kind and some of these and would hand deliver them to her customers up and down Park and Fifth Avenues after tying them with beautiful bows.
After tasting her cookies, five of her clients offered to advance the money so mom could open a second business – a cookie store. They weren’t interested in being partners in the business. They simply wanted to be able to buy them throughout the year and raved that they had never had cookies like mom’s before (and I suspect they haven’t since).
Mom had a simple reason that she did not accept these offers.
She said, “I make cookies because I love to do it. I enjoy watching people eat and enjoy them. If I started to sell them commercially – it would just be a business. And that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”
After all these years, I still miss the smells and tastes of mom’s wonderful cookies.
But I am glad that, at least as a child, I had the opportunity to share in her Christmas Miracle.