Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with times gone by, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman combs Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
Every year, my mom goes over to her “best-girlfriend-since-age-sixteen’s” house to bake Christmas cookies. When I was little, I would tag along to watch the endless procession of cookie sheets slide in and out of the oven, revealing hot batches of M&M cookies, jelly thumbprints, nut horns, peanut butter Christmas trees, and brownie bites. These cookies still appear in our household every year, although every once and a while a new recipe gets added to the canon.
Christmas cookies have a long tradition in the United States. The New Amsterdam Dutch who settled along the Hudson River had an annual tradition of passing out New Year’s “koekje,” which means “little cake.” The first of the year was a time to visit your neighbors and share good tidings, and it would have been unthinkable to leave without taking a caraway and orange-flavored koekje for the road. Their Anglo neighbors repeated the word as “cookie,” and an American treat was born.
I write about American history on this blog, but recipes for Christmas cookies are about something much more personal: family history. These recipes are the way that we preserve the recollections of our loved ones and pass down memories through flavor. And like a sort of international cookie swap, Etsy can be a wonderful place to share family recipes, as well as stumble upon a few new ideas for holiday baking.
Anita Fusco of Mountainside Crafts shares her family recipe for Pepparkakar in her Etsy shop. Her grandmother was an immigrant from Scandanavia in 1910. “[She] always had a plate of cookies at Christmas that included this crisp, spiced sugar cookie,” Anita says. “When I make these now and the house fills with the scent of cinnamon and ginger, cloves and nutmeg, I think of family and become just a little homesick.”
Genie Patterson is better known as Genie the Spice Goddess, and her shop is stocked with traditional Greek recipes. Her Greek pastry recipes are her big sellers, like Melomakarona, a spiced orange and bourbon cookie dipped in honey. They’re an important addition to her family’s Christmas tradition and remind her of her grandmother.
“My yia yia lived in her kitchen and always wore a house dress with her apron all day and all night until she changed at bedtime,” Genie recalled. “The best part of her outfit were her support hose that were rolled down to her ankles by the end of the morning!”
Genie’s yia yia passed her passion for food down to her granddaughter in more ways than one: “The actual wooden spoon I use to mold the cookie into its shape is from my yia yia.”
Stacey Lavender of Knit and Whimsy says her recipe for Butterscotch Brownies was created by a mother who loved to bake for a father who didn’t like chocolate. The buttery, chewy bar cookies were the perfect compromise. “Mom loved the Etsy concept and was amused by the sales and favorites on the recipe,” Stacey told me. “I lost my mom somewhat unexpectedly last January. She was my best friend, and I miss her everyday.”
While cleaning out her mom’s home, she came across three recipe boxes: her grandmother’s, her mother’s, and a third her mom had been organizing to pass down to Stacey. Stacey plans to cook and bake her way through the box, and publish all the finished recipes on Etsy. “I vowed I would make them all as my way of honoring her,” she says.
If you want to commemorate a beloved family recipe, Etsy artists can lay them out in stunning graphic designs to frame and hang in your kitchen, or burn an exact copy of the handwritten recipe into a cutting board. These artful recipes make heartfelt gifts and keep family tradition alive.
This year, I’m starting my own family tradition based on the first American “Christmas Cookey,” originally published in 1796. These holiday delights are sugar cookies flavored with coriander (the seeds of cilantro), which is bright and lemony. You can find my recipe here.
So in the spirit of a holiday cookie swap, please share your favorite cookie recipes — and the family stories behind them — in the comments below!