Molly O'Neill on Christmas Cookies
People ask me which all-American dish I got the most recipes for in the decade that I traveled across the United States gathering recipes and food stories for One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking. Meatloaf? Fried chicken? Macaroni and cheese? Nope. In fact, if I gathered all the recipes for all other American icons together in a single pile, it wouldn’t be half as high as the stack of Christmas cookie recipes that I was given.
There were, of course, dozens of variations on butter cookies and cookie press cookies, dozens of secrets to the making and baking of perfect ginger bread people, candy canes, trees and wreathes. But the majority of Christmas cookie recipes are simply special cookies, cookies that take time and a certain touch, cookies whose recipe is passed from generation to generation, cookies that express all that we wish we brought to the holiday kitchen--warmth, generosity and enough white picket fence fantasy to stretch from sea-to-shining-sea.
My mother’s French almond cookies are perfect example. There is no reason NOT to make the perfectly crisp almond cookies any time of the year. But my mother who, like many Christmas cookie maniacs, began baking a different batch of cookies the day after Thanksgiving and continued until she ran of storage room in the cold attic, baked these cookies only once a year. They keep well, so were always her first batch. To her six children and 14 grandchildren and great-grandchild, the smells of these confections is as much of the season as Frankincense, pine and myrrh.
When it comes to cookies, Christmas means "special," and "family" and "eat it while you can!" --Molly O'Neill Featured Recipe: Virginia’s French Almond Cookies (Columbus, Ohio) from Molly O'Neill’s One Big Table
Virginia O’Neill began making Christmas cookies the day after Thanksgiving and continued making a batch a day until the twentieth of December. "I’d grown up as a single child, raised by a wealthy aunt and uncle who were older and quiet. They had cooks and servants and everything was always perfect. I distinguished myself by preparing dinner on the cook’s night off and by baking cookies and pies. I started collecting Christmas cookie recipes in grade school, and even after I married into a different life—my husband was a dashing working man and I had six children—my aunt and uncle expected me to bake. I used to love doing it. Hundreds of intricate, delicate cookies. It was a way of reconciling where I’d come from and what I’d become, I guess. Always use a little less butter than is called for, that is the secret. The French Almond cookies last for a month, if you store them in a tin, with wax paper between the layers."
1/2 pound (2 sticks) lightly salted butter, cut into chunks
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon honey
2 large eggs, well beaten
2 cups ground almonds
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup slivered almonds
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cream the butter and sugars until smooth. Stir in the honey, eggs, and ground almonds. Combine the flour and baking soda, then add to the butter mixture. Mix well.
Pinch off a piece of dough the size of a walnut (about 2 tablespoons). Roll it between your palms to form a cigar shape. Place on the baking sheet.
Repeat, placing the cookies 2 inches apart. Push a slivered almond into the center of each cookie.
Bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes.
Immediately transfer to a wire rack to cool. Let the baking sheet cool and reline with parchment before shaping and baking more cookies. Makes about 11 dozen cookies
Featured Recipe: LaVerne’s Black Raspberry Bars (Arlington, Virginia) from Molly O'Neill’s One Big Table
LaVerne Yost has always been an obsessed home cook, but since retiring, she has had more time to cook, talk about cooking, and eat other people’s cooking. She figures that she has traveled about fifty thousand miles in pursuit of fabulous food in the past decade and, sounding a little like Dorothy in Oz, she said that she has yet to find a sweet that can compete with these simple bars that her sister taught her to make "many, many years ago." They are delicious by themselves, or served warm with vanilla ice cream, Greek-style strained yogurt, whipped cream, or custard.
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
One 12-ounce jar seedless black raspberry preserves
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Grease a 9 X 13-inch baking pan.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with a fork. Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt and add to the butter mixture. Stir in the rolled oats.
Press half the batter into the prepared pan. Spread the preserves on top. Crumble the other half of the flour-and-butter mixture over the preserves and bake for 25 minutes.
Allow to cool slightly, then cut into bars. Makes about 24 bars
From One Big Table
by Molly O’Neill. Copyright © 2010 by Molly O’Neill. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. O'Neill, former New York Times Magazine food writer and author (New York Cookbook), has compiled an informative and heartwarming refutation of the demise of American home cooking. Ten years and many miles in the making, this collection celebrates the nation's culinary diversity, both ethnically and agriculturally, and offers a uniquely intimate look at what home cooking in America is truly like today. O'Neill crossed the country, interviewing home cooks and spending time in the kitchens of recent immigrants. The results are enticing recipes that intertwine family stories, personal histories, and food. From stuffed Danish pancakes in Utah to tamales in Santa Fe and Vietnamese shrimp pancakes in Mississippi, this eclectic collection showcases the best this country has to offer. O'Neill also includes old-style American fare, including black-eyed pea and mustard greens soup, corn chowder, campfire trout, and bluegrass bass with Kentucky caviar. Sidebars abound on everything from black sea bass to Johnny Appleseed, Elvis to shrimp. As engaging in the armchair as it is in the kitchen, this book is an enduring testament to our historic traditions and the new culinary forays being made by American home cooks. (Nov.) (c)
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