If a quick and dirty poll were conducted about one thing you remembered about food around the holiday season, most of us would come up with at least one favorite recipe, a beloved dish that was served every year.
And then many of us would also recall something that may have occurred during that meal.
Granted, not all people have entirely positive feelings when they recall certain holidays. Whatever your experience, try to recall some traditions around holiday season that were enjoyable. It doesn’t matter what or how you celebrate, there will always be some memory — a feeling, a smell — something that jars a pleasant memory.
I was thinking about that, and considering how food-oriented (some might say food-obsessed) we are here in the Greater New Orleans area, and really all of Louisiana as well. I searched my own memory, from childhood on, and made a list of what seemed like favorite foods, with a focus on desserts. And the most important part of the exercise was the memories that emerged, many of which I hadn’t thought about in years. Food is traditional for many, especially around holidays. You could make some new traditions, while still loving the old.
I searched for 30 minutes for the cherished small wooden file box that held the most important recipes from my family; I’ve had it for many years. Each recipe has its own white 3 x 5 card, all handwritten, some yellowing from age. I pulled the cards filed in “C” and “D”, cookies and desserts. It took a long time to read every one of them, and choose just a few to share.
Please keep in mind that these are non-Louisiana-based recipes. Although food around here is sacred, with anchored traditions, I think there are some different creations we can consider. And so we begin with…
Italian Sesame Seeds Cookies, AKA Anisette Cookies
Preheat oven to 400. Here’s what you’ll need: 2 cups of flour; 2.5 teaspoons baking powder; 2 eggs; ½ teaspoon salt; ½ cup sugar; ½ butter; 2 tablespoons vanilla extract; ¼ cup Anisette liqueur; sesame seeds (untoasted). Mix all ingredients together, by hand is best. Roll by hand into long logs, then cut into 1.5 inch pieces. Put sesame seeds on a flat surface or board, roll each cookie thoroughly in sesame seeds, covering the entire cookie. Place on cookie sheet, bake for about 10-12 minutes, or until well browned.
Why this recipe? My grandmother made these cookies every year, and allowed me to ‘help’ at a very young age. The best part was rolling the cookies in the sesame seeds, and placing them on the cookie sheet, where I always made some kind of pattern on the pan. Those were wonderful times with my paternal grandmother, who was a fantastic cook, and an outstanding baker. I always got to sample the very first cookies, since I was the very first grandchild.
Aunt Ann’s Sour Cream Spice Cake
Preheat oven to 350. Here’s what you’ll need: 2 cups flour; 1.5 cups brown sugar; 1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda; 1 teaspoon baking powder; ½ teaspoon salt; 2 teaspoons cinnamon; ¾ teaspoon cloves; ¼ cup softened butter; ¼ cup shortening; 2 large eggs; I cup sour cream; ½ cup water. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl, blend one minute on medium speed. Pour into 2 small pans, or one larger pan, greased. Bake for 40-50 minutes. Check for a bit of a golden top. Make it festive by placing a few cherries or two quartered strawberries on top, and either parsley or green icing next to the red. Instant holly!
Why this recipe? My Aunt Ann taught me to make this in high school, and I loved to bake with her, even as a child. She and my mother would make a long list of all the things they needed for the cakes and cookies they were to make for the holidays, and we would all go shopping. I loved all the pretty spices, the cookie decorations and food colors, but mostly I loved being with the two of them as they talked and laughed. My Aunt Ann loved this spice cake, so we named it for her.
Easy-Peezy Almond Cookies
Preheat oven to 300. Here’s what you’ll need: 1 cup rice flour; ½ cup light brown sugar; 2 cups very finely ground almonds; 6 tablespoons softened butter; 1 tablespoon ice water; 30 whole almonds. Put rice flour and sugar in a bowl, mix in ground almonds, and fold in butter by hand. Stir in ice water, mix. Break off tablespoon-sized dough and shape into balls. Arrange on greased cookie sheet about an inch apart, and flatten slightly with spoon. Then place one whole almond in center of each cookie, bake about 12 minutes, until golden on top. Makes 30 cookies. For a variation, lightly sprinkle either cinnamon or powdered sugar on top, according to taste.
Why this recipe? Only reason is that I love them the best!
Figure out how to make something in a food group that you love, and do it. As you’re setting up, shopping for ingredients, assessing your bakeware (love that), plan what you want to make by thinking of a story that may go with it, a memory or two that comes up.
Holidays can be difficult. I know there have been some holidays that were not all that great for me. We move on, we reframe, and we create our own traditions. Food is something vital here. It has a life of its own and we have the ability to create something fun, tasty and meaningful, like cookies that connect you to a happy past.
I don’t bake much, and certainly don’t cook anything fancy except vegetarian dishes with lots of protein, but I dearly love holiday cookies and cakes, and the memories that they generate.
Food is always a way to connect, and sharing food, bringing food to others, trading recipes or new restaurant ideas, can be a powerful link to one or more individuals. What an excellent time to connect around food, planning meals, deciding where to have brunch in an area of the city that is traditionally decorated for holiday time. They say once you find good people, never let them go. I say once you find good food, and good connections over food, never let that go.
I wish all of you a season filled with peace, quiet, joy and reflection. Throw in a cup of gratitude, a big pinch of fun, and a tablespoon of wonder. Let it bake a while in your heart, and serve. That’s a recipe to hold onto all year long.