The winter holidays seem to bring out our nostalgia for the warmth of home, family, and friends. Whether the celebration is in the light of one small candle during a war, the seven lamps of Hanukkah, or the glory of a candlelit Christmas tree, we all yearn for peace and connections to loved ones past and present. This year has made it more difficult for everyone, but we still strive with those feelings in our socially distanced lives.
As cooks, we look at recipes from past and present to fill the house with holiday fragrance and thus continue traditions that have personal meaning and recollections. One of my personal favorites are Latvian butter cookies made from my mother’s recipe. She insisted on baking them for us and the children in her church until the ripe age of 93, even when she had to make the stiff dough one day and bake them the next, because it had become too tiring. Most cookie doughs are very stiff and require a strong arm and a sturdy wooden spoon. Here is an update, using a bit of technology to facilitate the process.
Zenta’s Latvian butter cookies
In a Cuisinart, pulse together a few times: 3 scant cups of freshly sifted flour, 2/3 tsp baking powder, and 1 cup sugar. Cut in tablespoon-size pieces 1 cup (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter; toss to mix in the flour mixture; and pulse again 20 times until the butter is well mixed in.
In a small bowl, separate 4 egg yolks (reserve the whites for another use) and lightly beat together with 1 tsp vanilla. Add the egg yolks to the flour mixture and blend until the mixture sticks together.
Remove the dough to a small bowl and, using your hand, knead about 10 times until the dough becomes a smooth ball. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roll out pieces of the dough on a floured board in 1/4- to 1/3-inch thickness. Cut out desired shapes and arrange on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.
Separate out 2 more egg yolks, reserving the whites with the rest. Beat the egg yolks together with 1 tbsp water and use this glaze to brush the tops of the cookies.
Bake 10-12 minutes, watching carefully because the cookies are very thin and they will quickly burn. Cool the golden-colored cookies on the pan for a few minutes and finish cooling on a rack. Store in a tightly covered container.
This leaves you with 6 egg whites, which can be used for making angel food cake or coconut macaroons and meringue kisses, both cookies that require only egg whites.
These amazingly light and crisp cookies are easy to make, have no fat, and are even gluten-free. The flavor is delicately tempting.
Lay smooth brown paper (as from a shopping bag) on a baking sheet — do not grease. Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
Beat 3 egg whites at room temperature to peaks curved at tips with an electric mixer.
Beat in the egg whites 1 cup sugar in 6 portions until peaks stand straight. Beat in 2 teaspoons lemon juice.
Drop heaping teaspoon portions of the egg mix on paper-lined pan. Bake 25-30 minutes or until pale cream in color. Remove from paper to cake rack to cool.
Biscotti or cantucci are Italian twice-baked oblong almond cookies that originated in Tuscany. They keep well and are best eaten while dipped in wine or some other tasty liquid. My favorite recipe dates back to the now-defunct Gourmet food magazine from December 1992 and comes with the colors of Christmas.
Soak 1 1/3 cups dried cranberries in boiling hot water for 10 minutes. Drain and pat dry and toss with 1/2 cup flour.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a large baking sheet.
In a Cuisinart, pulse together: 2 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and baking powder each, 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add 3 eggs and 1 teaspoon vanilla and pulse until a dough forms.
Turn dough in a bowl and, with a spoon or fingers, work in the cranberries and 1 cup shelled, salted pistachios. The dough will be very firm.
Halve the dough and form each half in a 13-by-2-inch, slightly flattened log on the baking sheet, separated by several inches.
Beat 1 egg with 1 teaspoon cold water and brush the logs with the egg wash.
Bake in middle of oven 30 minutes. Cool logs on baking sheet for 10 minutes, transfer to a board, and slice diagonally in 1/2-inch slices with a serrated knife.
Arrange flat slices on a baking sheet and bake, turning once, for 20-25 minutes total. Store in an airtight container and enjoy dipping!
May we enjoy the lights of this holiday season, savor its delightful fragrances in our homes, cherish the memories of the past, and look forward to the new year!
(I. Winicov Harrington, of Waldoboro, is the author of “How to Eat Healthy and Well for Less Than $5.00 a Day: The Smart-Frugal Food Plan.” For more information, go to winicov-harrington.com.)