It’s that time of year – our annual Christmas tree cookie making extravaganza that I oversee with the nieces and nephews. We make the cookies, decorate them, then hang them on the tree (except this year, since I feared my dog, and my mom’s, would do a tag team taking the tree down – which happened one year back in the early 70s with another dog of ours).
It’s a family tradition going back to the mid-1960s. Mom picked up the tradition, and the recipe, from a neighbor on the south side of Chicago. I did some googling and found out that it’s a German thing, hanging cookies from the tree, so considering Chicago’s ethnic diversity, it’s quite likely that’s where we got the tradition from.
Mom’s recipe (below) is pretty straightforward.
First you cream the butter and sugar, add vanilla (mom’s recipe doesn’t say how much, anywhere between a teaspoon and tablespoon works). Add the eggs, mix well. Then mix together the flour, soda and tartar – and then slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet, with the mixer on slow or it will fly everywhere. (Mom’s recipe doesn’t mention adding salt – I suspect the recipe needs a bit, but as these are more decorative than anything, they don’t need salt to taste okay, but a little might not hurt (maybe 1/4t?))
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that the recipe can require a good amount more flour – like up to a cup or two more than is in the recipe – in order to make the dough thick enough. It’s hard to describe how thick the dough should be, but it’s almost like a pie dough consistency. You then wrap it in plastic and chill it in the fridge a good hour to make it really firm. (Maybe it’s worth adding the amount of the flour the recipe recommends, let it sit covered 20 minutes, then see how thick it is – that gives the flour a chance to absorb the liquid and firm up a bit.)
Then roll out maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of the dough to about maybe a quarter of an inch thick (put the rest of the dough back in the fridge while working with this portion). You may or may not need some flour to stop it from sticking. We use these great old tin-ish cookie cutters we grew up with, but I found some additional ones on eBay, so now we have enough for the whole family.
Carefully transfer the cookies to an oiled baking sheet and decorate. We use a lot of colored sugar, chocolate chips, and what we call “chocolate covered ants.”
Make sure you use a toothpick, or something similar, to push the sugar away from the edge of the cookie (in other words, any sugar that’s fallen on the cookie tray itself while decorating – you don’t want it on the tray TOUCHING the cookie). Too much sugar will cause the cookie to stick to the pan after they get out of the oven.
You need to cut a small hole at the top of each cookie using a toothpick, maybe half an inch away from the edge of the cookie, then cut the hole again as soon as the cookies come out of the oven. Bake at 375F for maybe 8 to ten minutes, but possibly longer. Basically, as soon as the cookies start browning on the edges, they’re done. These are not cookies that brown on top.
Once they’re out of the oven, nudge each cookie a little bit to make sure it isn’t stuck to the pan. After the cookies cool, you can make little hangers with thread (just tied in a loop), or possibly even use those metal hangers for ornaments – have never tried the metal ones, but they might work.
These cookies last forever on the tree. They’re quite dry, which is why I’m sure they last. We’ve had them up for a week or two, without a problem. Again, as a dry cookie they just don’t go bad. They’re not the tastiest cookie on the planet – but they’re quite edible, and are obviously made to be durable enough to hang.
And here’s the reason this year we didn’t end up hanging the cookies. I don’t trust Sasha Claus.