Memories of Christmas Cookies Past

(Please note: We have updated the caption on a photo in last week’s story, Working for Food to correct an error. The photo shows author Jean Alicia Elster’s grandmother, ‘May’ Ford, with her oldest grandchild in her grandfather’s wood yard.)

Intergenerational baking at Congregation Beth Shalom

Intergenerational baking at Congregation Beth Shalom

As a Jewish girl, I never celebrated Christmas, but when I was around 11, my best friend Carol and I started a new Christmas ritual. Every year on the day after Christmas I would go over to Carol’s house to look at her gifts and eat her mother’s Christmas cookies.

I always asked her mother how she got her money that year. Carol’s father had a Christmas tradition of giving his wife a couple hundred dollars every year for Christmas, but he would do it in a different creative way each year. One year he rolled up $10 or $20 bills into tubes and used them to spell “I love you” on a piece of cardboard, which he then framed. Another year, he bought a child’s top and plastered the bottom with bills; he gave them to his wife with a note that read, “You’re tops with me!”

My own mother sniffed at this. She didn’t think much of men who gave their wives spending money. Maybe this was because, although my dad was the sole breadwinner in the family, my mother was the one who managed the family finances. In fact, it was she who gave him an allowance!

Scrumptious cookies

But I was charmed by Carol’s dad’s money gifts, almost as much as I was by her mom’s Christmas cookies, which were truly scrumptious. There were pecan-studded butterballs; little green Christmas trees with colored sprinkles; Rice Krispies wreaths, also tinted green, with little red cinnamon berries; jam thumbprints; red-and-white striped candy cane cookies; meringues with chocolate chips; and more. I think I envied Carol’s Christmas cookies more than the gifts.

As a child I thought there was something inherently wonderful about these “Christmas” cookies. That notion was dispelled many years later when the people I worked with decided to have a Christmas cookie exchange. Each participant would bake one kind of cookie and create packages containing a half-dozen cookies each. They’d all be laid out on a table, and then everyone would go around and collect one package of each cookie.

I was excited to be part of the exchange, but if I was expecting to be transported back to Carol’s mom’s kitchen, I was sorely disappointed. Most of the cookies were terrible!

A circle of friends who bake

In an effort to help you avoid that fate, I wanted to offer a good recipe for Christmas cookies.

But while the recipe below is terrific, I can’t say it’s for Christmas cookies, because it was developed by a little Russian Jewish lady named Klara who is a member of my synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park, Michigan.

Klara Shapiro instructs Nicole Rothenberg in the art of Russian baking, and demonstrates how to roll and place the cookies for baking.

Klara Shapiro instructs Nicole Rothenberg in the art of Russian baking, and demonstrates how to roll and place the cookies for baking.

Klara's handwritten cookie recipe

Klara’s handwritten cookie recipe

Klara belongs to a synagogue group of refugees from the former Soviet Union called Circle of Friends. The group was started in 1998 to help the newcomers acculturate to life in America and learn about Judaism, which they had been unable to practice in the USSR.

Fifteen years later, the group still meets weekly. We usually call the Circle of Friends members “Russian” just because it’s easier. Klara, 84, actually comes from Moldova, which was part of the Soviet Union but is now independent. She arrived in Michigan in 1991.

Circle of Friends members have become famous in our congregation for their baking skills. A few years ago, several of the women got together and baked a tray of rugelach, cookies similar to today’s recipe in taste if not in shape, for a silent auction. It sold for more than $100.

Intergenerational baking

Recently, some of the younger women said they wanted to learn to bake from the older women.

So a few weeks ago, on a chilly Sunday morning, Klara and some of her Circle of Friends buddies gathered in the synagogue kitchen with a half-dozen women in their 30s and 40s. They rolled up their sleeves and churned out a few hundred of these Russian Rose Cookies.

While there’s nothing “Christmas” about them, they will work well as a holiday dessert, as part of a cookie tray or cookie exchange or even as a gift. I think Carol’s mom would love them.

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