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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Memories of Cookies Past

When I was little, Thanksgiving was a holiday unto itself, not just a precursor to Christmas, as it seems to be now. But the flow of Christmas Cookies from my grandmother started before Thanksgiving. She’d send loads of them and they were all tidily, immediately devoured by my many siblings and me. Inevitably, they were spritz—small, dainty, meticulously decorated, and having a melt-in-your-mouth lightness to them. And with a distinctive, elusive flavor that had no name and no obvious origin. All I knew was that no other spritz ever tasted like Nana’s, not even the ones from the Viennese bakery around the corner from our house.

My grandmother was an Irish immigrant and a woman whose life story was punctuated with hard times. She was a good cook, but not a great cook and definitely not the type to harbor secret ingredients. In my twenties, I became a caterer and, in the process, a pretty good cook and baker, but no matter how many hundreds of dozens of holiday cookies I made over the years, I could never recapture that flavor. When I left that career behind, I morphed into what’s now called a Foodie. My horizons expanded—thankfully at a faster pace than my waistline—as I became familiar with foods from many other cultures.  For years I tried to recreate those cookies—was it mace, cardamom, white pepper?—but the flavor was never the same as the ones I loved as a child. (I did come up with some fabulous variations, though!)

Grasping at straws to find an explanation, I thought maybe it had something to do with traveling half-way across the country or being layered so carefully between sheets of waxed paper for the days it took them to travel from New York to the Midwest. About a decade ago, my mother found my grandmother’s hand-written recipe stuck in an old cookbook and sent it to me. By then, I’d located on eBay the identical type of cookie press that she used, just in case that might have some weird inexplicable magic associated with it. I recreated the recipe faithfully, scrupulously. Still no luck. They just didn’t taste the same.

It wasn’t until last year when I was wondering aloud to my mother about this odd disparity between my childhood memories of what Nana’s spritz tasted like and what was clearly the reality that it struck me. It did have something to do with the long trip—and the packing. My grandmother packed the cookies very carefully for the trip….in large, two-pound coffee cans. And that was the secret: the mystery taste in her cookies was the faintest hint of that familiar, warmly bitter smell-taste of ground coffee. Some remnants of the original occupant of the can clung to the interior despite the rigorous washing my grandmother would surely have done.

While I miss the flavor, I’m not about to start buying big tins of coffee to recreate it….I think.
Warm wishes for a happy Thanksgiving.
Photos: Flickr: Cocoa Dream, Linsey T., foodchronicles, and missbeckyfay's photostreams.


  1. Not to be a killjoy here, but as we age our taste buds change too,so even if you stored your cookies in coffee tins they still might not taste the same. What county in Ireland was your Nana from? Great yummy post!

  2. As my grandma used to say, cookies are one of those magical treats that always tastes better when made with love.

  3. Great post Marianne! Way back when, in the days when I wanted to build my recipe box with family heirlooms & favorites, I discovered that most of those treasures were tucked away in my mother's head. So, to help me out, the next time she prepared a dish, she measured & wrote down the ingredients. Quite a chore, but loving mom that she was, she did it for me.

    Spritz and Lebkuchen (a German spice cookie) are 2 of my favorite Christmas cookies. My mom would make huge batches of each kind and store them in those large popcorn cans. When we were kids, mom would make the Spritz using various colors of dough and almost all of the dies available with her press. But our favorites were the wreaths made with the plain dough & using the single star die and formed into a ring. Still love those today. I'll start baking this weekend with the Lebkuchen because those cookies need to age for about 1 month before eating. Just need to keep out of the cans until Christmas...that's the hard part! LOL

  4. Excellent post, Marianne. I enjoyed the history lesson and all the yummies! Very interesting! Happy Thanksgiving.


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