Tonight, a girlfriend is coming over to help me get started with my holiday baking, a season that has its own preoccupations, and that everyone who bakes approaches in her (or his) own way.
Christmas cookies are a luxury. Having the time, money, equipment, and ability to make them is itself a blessing, all the more so if they can be given to others to enjoy. Over time, making tins for family and friends has become more a part of my gift-giving, its satisfactions linked to baking with my mother and sisters (and, come to think of it, even brother) when I was a kid.
By now, I have a substantial cache of recipes. How did they come to me? From previous generations. Old Martha Stewart holiday publications. One very old issue of Gourmet magazine. A long-time subscription to Bon Appetit. The LA Times food section on the internet. And, of course, a few favorites from the NYT.
What makes a cookie a Christmas cookie is a matter of taste, but to me they must be unusual and interesting-looking. They must feature some ingredient traditionally associated with Christmas: orange or other citrus, spices, chocolate, or other ingredients (such as nuts, coconut, or dates) that were once exotic and, being expensive, were reserved for extraordinary occasions. Failing that, the cookies must be hallowed by tradition and familiarity: like the green, almond-flavored, cookie-press cookies that were a favorite in my family for decades. A final source of appeal is seasonality: cookies with wintery ingredients like peppermint or cranberry are very much in keeping with the holidays.
What it adds up to is this: a Christmas cookie must possess novelty. It can’t be something one eats every day. It may be special because it’s someone else’s recipe, takes just minutes to concoct, or uses saltines. In looks or in taste, it’s gotta shout out, ‘Surprise!’ That’s how one knows it’s a true Christmas cookie.