Mom’s magical Christmas cookies

Dec. 11, 2012 @ 10:59 AM

My mother’s Christmas cookies are like the TARDIS on the BBC sci-fi series “Dr. Who.” The doctor travels both time and space in a contraption that from the outside looks like an old-fashioned British police box.
It’s a blue wooden cubicle the size and shape of a classic phone booth.
But, it’s bigger on the inside. Way bigger. The entire Southpoint mall could fit in there, along with Brightleaf Square and a Kroger or two.
You can’t judge a book by its cover.
My mom’s cookies look like normal, boring, everybody’s-had-one frosted sugar cookies.
Then you take a bite.
And fall off your chair.
The Kid and I discuss them each time we’re lucky enough to get our mitts on some. We can’t figure them out. How is it that this little, regulation baked good can pack such an extraordinary punch? We joke that maybe she puts crack in them, or fairy dust.
Gramma baked a batch freshman year, and shipped them up to our little scholar in Vermont.
Them NECI people had no idea what they were in for.
There were probably four dozen cookies in the box. The Kid ate some, and then decided to share with a few lucky souls.
Nobody was very enthused to be offered baked goods from some random grandmother in North Carolina. These folks are culinary students and pastry chefs. Frosted sugar cookies are the bologna sandwiches of the baking world. Ubiquitous and dull.
My child didn’t try to talk anyone into a sample. If they didn’t want one, it was just more for The Kid.
Then one person took one. Eyes lit up, and word got around. People came out of the woodwork wanting these miraculous confections.
Chef-instructors come up to The Kid and ask when Gramma is sending more. Nobody can figure it out, but these are the best cookies ever, and everybody wants in.

Mom’s Christmas Cookies

1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup sugar
½ cup butter flavored Crisco
1 egg
2 tablespoons milk (whole or 2%)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Sift dry ingredients into bowl. With mixer, cut in shortening until it resembles coarse meal. Blend in egg, milk and vanilla.
Roll out to 1/8 inch, and cut into shapes.
Bake on parchment lined cookie sheet for 6-8 minutes or until golden. Remove to cooling rack.
Frost cookies when they are completely cooled. Makes about 1½ dozen.

Back in the 1970s, when we lived in Puerto Rico, Mom took cake decorating lessons. The frosting for her cookies comes from that class.

Mom’s Frosting
1 box powdered sugar (equal to 3¾ cups), unsifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 scant teaspoon cream of tartar
1/3 cup butter-flavored Crisco
1 egg white
1/4 cup of water (or less)
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
For decorating: colored sugars and jimmies

Dump all ingredients, except water, into mixer. Beat ingredients at low until it starts to come together. Put the water in at this point, so you can judge just how much to use. Beat until it is creamy and fluffy. We usually dye the frosting festive colors.

I’ve tried to gentrify the ingredients.
Don’t do it.
Something about the synthesis of these particular components are the secret of the amazing results. Don’t substitute butter, or cake flour, or speak with a French accent while making them (unless you legitimately speak with a French accent).
When icing the cookies; the more the better. A fifty/fifty ratio of frosting to cookie is just about right. Sprinkle with colored sugar or jimmies right after frosting each one, so they adhere.
My mom lets them sit out overnight, uncovered, to let the frosting set. The top of the icing dries, but inside it still has soft, creamy, frosting goodness. Then they can be stored in an air-tight container with parchment or wax paper between each layer.
Each holiday season, my mother practically bakes herself into a coma.
She makes raisin oatmeal cookies for Dad, white chocolate chip for my brother, and peanut butter for Petey.
But hands down, the hit of the collection is her sugar cookies.
About two weeks before Christmas, she has a frosting party. Any available pair of hands shows up and decorates literally hundreds of cookies. Lunch is served, and then we negotiate how many cookies with which we can abscond.
There is one rule: you break it, you eat it.
You’d think, awesome! That we break as many as we can, and gorge on frosting cloaked shards.
Yeah, not so much.
Mom’s no dummy, and she can tell when a cookie is broken on purpose. And that woman has a mom-eye glare that could stop a drunken, raging, under-dressed celebutante dead in her tracks.
So, we usually only get to scarf about two per session.
When Petey and I were dating in Elizabeth City, we had a giant, bearlike, man-child of a friend named Pig. He adored my mother, her cookies, and her icing party lunch of spaghetti and meatballs. Mom loved him right back.
Each holiday he would be the first one to belly up to the decorating table.
When he learned the broken cookie rule, he lit up like a neon sign. That first year, he broke almost all the cookies he laid his paws on.
We watched this dance with sideways glances and hushed breath. It was only a matter of time before mom turned her furry eyeball on him, and he would melt into a puddle of contrition.
It never occurred.
The next year, and every year after, my mom made a batch just for her buddy to frost, break, and eat. It was, and remains, her sole exception.
She never makes a batch like that for me.
I guess I’m not as charming as the Pig.
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is