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The Meaning of Christmas... Cookies?

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Wednesday, 09 December 2009

Writen by Julia M. Usher

Photography by Steve Adams
So, what's Christmas mean to you? Chocolate-peppermint bark, maybe? Or good ol' Pecan Sandies? Or perhaps the classic thumbprint, pressed extra exuberantly to permit the maximum amount of raspberry jam on top? If none of these treats grabs you, then I'm sure you've got some other goody that conjures up Santa, sleigh bells, and the spirit of giving in one bite. After all, it's our memory - not our tastebuds or our eyes, as some insist - that is the first and last arbiter of good taste.

While recent expositions on the relationship between taste and memory have been appetizing, who needs a panoply of famous writers in the New York Times (and now in a book) to affirm what the humble cookie exchange has been telling us for decades? I've been to more cookie swaps than I can count over the years. (I'm up to seven already this season. Read my byline, and you'll see why.) And, sure as the sun rises each morning, these parties invariably unfold this way:

Cookie swapper: You've got to try my [insert cookie name]. It was my mom's [or insert gramma's] special recipe. She made it every Christmas.
Julia: Mmmm . . . [while taking a bite]. Mmmmm . . . [again, while secretly wondering what all the fuss is about].
Cookie swapper: I make it every year, but it never comes out quite like my mom [or insert gramma] made it.
Julia: Hmmm . . . any idea why? [asked, knowing full well that memories have a way of playing tricks on tastebuds]
Cookie swapper:  No, not really. But it's the best, isn't it? [said, beaming ear to ear, fully expecting a positive reply]
Julia: Mmmm . . . [for lack of anything better to say]

Now I'm not one to burst anyone's bubble, and sometimes these family heirlooms do register quite high on my foodometer. But, more often than not, they are positively flavored by their bakers' recollections of time spent with mom (or, shall I say, gramma) during Christmases past.

And so? Does our tendency to overinflate our treasured recipes make them any less praiseworthy? Fortunately for those around the cookie table, not so much. We only get into trouble when we fail to divulge the secret ingredient - that special vignette, or that snippet of family history, which makes the recipe linger as sweetly in our minds as on our tongues.

That said, I give you my mom's special Christmas Morning Croissants - and the story behind the cookie - with the hope that you'll spread the season's joy by sharing your favorite recipes and tales here. Consider this our virtual cookie swap, subtext preferably included!

ImageJulia M. Usher is the author of Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year (Gibbs Smith, 2009). Julia is currently on book tour, baking, tasting and swapping cookies nationwide. For more information, visit



Christmas Morning Croissants

Recipe excerpted from Cookie Swap: Creative Treats to Share Throughout the Year by Julia M. Usher, Gibbs Smith, 2009.

My Mom made these flaky sour cream and walnut pastries by the Tupperware container-full every Christmas morning. (Mind you, I grew up in the sixties when Tupperware was what silicone is today.) Before my sibs and I were allowed to see what Santa had brought us, she insisted we eat the container clean. (Naturally, we ate pretty damn fast.) My croissants are more crusty with caramelized sugar than hers, but they're the best just the same. And that's a fact. No trumped up promises, guaranteed.

Cookie Key

Complexity: Moderate
Active Time: 1 hour
Type: Rolled; hand-shaped
Prep Talk: The dough for these cookies must be refrigerated 2 - 3 hours before it can be easily rolled without sticking. Baked cookies are best stored in airtight containers at room temperature up to 2 - 3 days. Unbaked cookies may also be frozen up to 1 month. When ready to serve, thaw on a prepared cookie sheet for 25 - 30 minutes; then brush with egg wash and bake as directed.

Sour Cream Dough

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into tablespoon-size pieces
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 large egg yolk (reserve the white)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Cinnamon-Walnut Filling

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup walnut halves, toasted and cooled
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 large egg white (reserved for the egg wash)

1. Prepare the dough: Stir the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Cut in the cold butter with a fork or pastry blender until it resembles very small peas.

2. Whisk the sour cream, egg yolk, and vanilla extract together in another bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and gradually stir in the sour cream mixture, blending just until combined. (A few butter lumps are perfectly fine. Avoid over-mixing, as it will toughen the dough.)

3. Divide the dough into three equal portions. Flatten each portion into a disk and wrap tightly with plastic. Refrigerate 2 - 3 hours, or until the dough is quite firm.

4. Make the filling: Meanwhile, place the sugar, walnuts, and cinnamon in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process until the nuts are finely ground, but not pasty. Set aside.

5. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F. Line two or more cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

6. Shape the cookies: Work with one disk of dough at a time. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 12-inch circle, about 1/16-inch thick. Using a 12-inch cake pan or bowl as your guide, trim the dough to a uniform circle. Carefully pick up the edges of the dough and brush any excess flour off the back with a pastry brush. Sprinkle the disk with one-third of the reserved filling, taking care to cover the entire surface as evenly as possible. Gently press the filling into the dough.

7. With a sharp knife or pastry wheel, cut the circle into sixteen wedges. (For a fancier effect, use a fluted pastry wheel.) Starting at the widest end, roll up each wedge to form a crescent. (After each crescent is rolled, brush any scattered sugar mixture off the work surface so that it doesn't get on the back of the next cookie.) Place the crescents, loose ends facing down, 1 - 2 inches apart on one of the prepared cookie sheets. Repeat with the remaining disks.

8. Whisk the reserved egg white until slightly frothy and brush it evenly on top of each cookie. (If you plan to freeze the crescents, do not apply the egg wash until after the cookies are thawed.)

9. Bake 15 - 17 minutes or until the cookies are light brown on their tops and bottoms. Eat warm from the oven for best flavor, or transfer immediately to wire racks to cool.

Disclosure: Samples of products discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or manufacturers.


Last Updated ( Friday, 11 December 2009 )
Breakfast of Champions
peggy (Author) 2009-12-09 07:27:04

Cookies for breakfast? What a cool mom! Rugelach by any other name are still delicious--yum!
Cool Mom!
Julia M Usher (Registered) 2009-12-09 11:40:59

Yes, she is cool! When warm, these cookies are more pastry-like than cookie-like so I completely understand her twisting of the rules here! Also, unlike lots of rugelach recipes where the dough is made pareve (with no dairy) or with cream cheese, this dough contains sour cream. As a result, it's got a completely different baked-consistency: more delicate (flaky on outside, soft on inside) than traditional rugelach pastry. I think you'll see and taste the difference.
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