(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 7, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments. We hope you enjoy it was we count down to the holidays.)
Galleta, biscuit, koekje, biscotti… names around the world for sweet little cakes, which in the United States we call cookies. While the cookie has long been a part of cultural festivals around the world, holiday cookies likely got their start in Europe during the Middle Ages. Spices and dried fruits were introduced to the region where bakers readily added them to baked goods.
According to McCall's magazine, Christmas cookies were well-established by the 1500s in Europe and brought to the U.S. by the Dutch in the 1600s. By the late 1800s, tools such as cookie cutters and moulds appeared on the market to reshape the appearance of many sweets.
Immigrants brought their favorite holiday cookie recipes with them to America, ensuring the family baking traditions would continue. Favorite recipes from around the world included Shortbread from the United Kingdom, Biscotti from Italy, Pepparkakor from Sweden, Spritz from Germany and Macaroons from France.
Holiday traditions create wonderful memories for years to come. For our family, one tradition that we continue is the holiday baking. During my childhood, I fondly remember baking in my dear grandmother's kitchen. The holiday baking was always a family event including treats such as fruitcake, gingerbread boys, cut-out sugar cookies and Spritz. I can still hear the loud clicking of the metal Spritz cookie press, which Mom and Gram mightily wielded. Those kinds of traditions warm our hearts and should be encouraged to endure.
History in the Baking
81 dozen cookies and 12 pounds of candy. That's the typical production of my family's annual CookieFest, a weekend blast of cookie and candy making during the holidays. If you are saying "WOW" right now, then you are like many of my friends who look forward to my annual gifts of cookies. The assortment dazzles those who are non-bakers as well as those left with no time for such tasks.
The way people react to the delectable gifts, I often think that holiday baking is a lost art. I can't conceive of holiday baking as a lost art since it has always been an event in my family.
When I visit the grocery store at this time of year, I see copious amounts of baking products. I am not the only one who is cooking up confections. Dedicating a weekend to baking during the holidays is a luxury few can afford. CookieFest is nearly a holiday of its own in my family. I have to admit that I look forward to this weekend perhaps more than Christmas itself! It's a chance for the girls in my family to get together to laugh and eat. What could be better. The participants these days are my mother, my sister, my niece and myself. Though at different baking skilll levels, we share the love of baking as we do of gardening.
CookieFest begins at least a month before the weekend event with advance preparations. Lists must be reviewed and we must pore over every cookie recipe for a possible new entrant to the party. Often we'll try out a new recipe. If it is a success, it is added to the regular list. Such was the case with the peanut butter snowmen, an idea seen in a catalog. Though time-consuming, it has become a hit with the younger crowd.
Sales on baking supplies usually begin by the week before Thanksgiving; we begin to collect ingredients at that time. Because there is just too much to produce in a weekend — even with the four of us — we start creating the week before CookieFest. Items with long shelf — fudge, peanut brittle, toffee, and caramels — are made in our individual kitchens.
Baking supplies are not the only ingredients in this festival. My sister and her daughter bring the holiday movies, which play in the background while we are busy in the kitchen. My mom and I chuckle every time we hear the two of them giggle with exacting voices during Clark Griswold's antics in "Christmas Vacation." Snacking food items are a must-have ingredient in this family recipe. A tray of veggies helps keep from tasting too many sweets. No gathering of our family is complete without an appearance from cheese, glorious cheese!
Baking at this level is easier when you have lots of space, so we were thrilled when Mom's house underwent remodeling some years ago. This gives us space to spread out and establish different staging areas. I begin by preparing a small table with all the smaller ingredients like chips, nuts and sprinkles. The kitchen table is the sprinkle and ball-rolling station, while the dining rooms serves as the cooling area and repository. Over the years we've learned which arrangements work and which don't, so now we're a well-oiled cookie-making machine.
We've all gravitated towards specialties. My niece — now 19 — still loves to decorate cookies with sprinkles, a task she learned at a very early age. As she matured, her jobs became more substantial but she never misses the decorating. She now is "Chief Chocolate Drizzler" as well as commander of the sprinkles. My sister concentrates on the dough mixing and cookie gun operation as well as monitoring the oven. Some years ago I became the peanut brittle expert by making the candy for my in-laws. That job now is completely mine. In fact, I was ceremoniously presented with the North Pole Peanut Brittle Factory from Mom. Speaking of Mom, I'm sure you aren't surprised to read that we leave all the really difficult jobs for her; being a mom, she is the expert of course… none of us would be brave enough to tackle caramels but she boldly accepts that task every year.
By late Sunday afternoon, we have completely trashed my mom's house and are utterly exhausted. It takes nearly an hour to divide up the goodies into our collected tins. The next day a different production begins at each house. Cookie trays and boxes are assembled and delivered or mailed off to far-away friends. Reviews are always glowing and often come with requests for more. It has become interesting to me to hear friend's favorites. I hear comments like "I love these, my Mom always made them," "I haven't had Spritz for years," "These pretzels are my favorites," and of course, "I MUST have this recipe."
If you have considered starting a new baking tradition in your family, you won't be disappointed in the outcome. It is a satisfying feeling to share these home-made gifts with others. It is an even greater gift to spend time with loved ones.
— Dedicated lovingly to the memory of my mother's mother, Ethel, who nurtured my love of baking.
 Food Timeline (Christmas Foods)
Homemade Cookies and More (History)
Christmas Carnivals (History)
Our Cookie Heritage, suite101.com