*This post marks Day 13 of Miss Ginsu’s 2007 Advent Calendar.
My dad’s family grew up really poor. Six kids in an uninsulated shack. My uncle Karl and his brothers were all stuffed into the attic, and he told me he remembered that on cold winter mornings they woke up with frost on the blankets.
Grandpa built the place himself and worked a series of odd jobs to support the family.
Grandma cooked, sewed, cleaned and did everything from scratch, from home-brewed cough syrup (rosehips brewed with honey and brandy) to the kids' haircuts and clothes.
I know everyone waxes nostalgic about their grandma’s cooking. It’s like a national obsession. I’m not sure whether it was more a lack of skill or a lack of quality materials, but my grandmother was a terrible cook. I just can’t get on board that “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go” haywagon.
She was far from Martha Stewart, but I still have enormous fondness for the gifts she made for everyone every Christmas.
We’d all arrive for Christmas Day dinner to find a long line of red cotton stockings labeled in permanent marker with our names. Inside, she’d stuff hard candies, oranges and shell-on nuts.
Additionally, each holiday brought a new round of grandma’s famous name cookies. She’d bake everyone in the family a rock-hard cookie as big as your open hand and frost it with something like sugary plaster. Every cookie was iced in grandma’s shaky hand with flowers, decorations and your very own name.
She individually wrapped the cookies in plastic, slipped each inside one of the margarine boxes she’d saved up throughout the year (nothing went to waste in that house), and stacked them in the freezer for presentation on Christmas Day.
My cousin and I were kids, so we’d spend hours gnawing happily at the edges. I have a feeling my aunts and uncles saved their name cookies to toss out at the soonest private opportunity.
We all had good fun at the expense of grandma’s cooking, but truthfully, grandma died soon after my senior prom in high school, and I still miss those awful cookies.
I adored name cookies not for their flavor, but for the feeling of love and individual recognition they gave me each holiday season. Even in a shack filled with smoke, tension and far too many people, I was remembered. I was known.
Every December meant my very own name would appear on a homely red stocking and a marginally edible cookie. All made by hand by a grandma who loved me.
This year, I won’t be sewing any stockings, but I’m making name cookies as a gift for some folks at work that I want to recognize and appreciate.
Like grandma’s cookies, my name cookies will demonstrate thought, effort, resourcefulness and a love of homespun craft. Unlike grandma’s cookies, my name cookies will be tasty. Unlike grandma, I have good kitchen equipment and the money to buy real butter, good flour, farm-fresh eggs, good spices and pure vanilla extract.
You can the basic version of the Wonder Dough recipe I mentioned the other day, or the gingerbread cutout cookies below.
Gingerbread Name Cookies
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup dark molasses
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
For the icing:
2 egg whites
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
Raisins or chocolate chips
Colored sugars or other edible sprinkles
For Gingerbread Cookies
- Cream the butter until smooth. Blend in the sugar and eggs.
- Mix in the molasses and vanilla.
- Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.
- Add the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture in three batches, mixing after each addition.
- Flatten dough, wrap in waxed paper or plastic and refrigerate 1 - 2 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Roll dough out on floured board about 1/8-inch thick.
- Cut large circles with a big cookie cutter, or cut the dough the way grandma did: use the cut edge of an emptied and well-cleaned 28 oz can.
- Place cookies onto a cookie sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Cool in the pan 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool fully.
For Royal Icing
Beat the egg whites with the vanilla extract until frothy. Add the sifted powdered sugar and beat until stiff and glossy. If desired add food color. Transfer to a pasty bag and pipe on cooled cookies. Allow 2-3 hours for the icing to dry.