Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Reading . . .

It seems as if we went straight from cookie baking and the flu right into writing Christmas cards and wrapping gifts . . . but in those moments when we do get to sit down (usually because someone has stopped by) there's nothing as much fun as reading a book with a small visitor.

Here are some of our favorite Christmas books:

** The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston, pictures by Barbara Cooney. Ruthie's papa is going off to war, but this is the year he gives the Christmas tree to the church, so he and Ruthie go up to the highest cliff in the mountains, where they find a fine, perfect balsam tree. They mark it with a red ribbon bow right at the tip-tip-top. Papa doesn't quite make it back before it's time to get the tree, so Ruthie and her mama are responsible for getting it, and Ruthie gets to be the heavenly angel. There are enough Christmas surprises for everyone by story's end. This lovely book always makes me tear up, but our grandkids love it, especially the description of Ruthie's heavenly angel dress.

** Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck, illustrated by Mark Buehner. This story of a young boy's Christmas gift for his father illustrates what it means to give something of yourself to someone else. Perplexed about what he can do for the father he loves, the boy comes up with a unique gift, one he and his father will never forget. The illustrations in this book set the mood, evoking farm life with a quiet authority.

** The Shoe Box, by Francine Rivers, illustrated by Linda Dockey Graves. When Timmy comes to live with Mary and David, he doesn't own much; his treasures all fit into a shoe box. The story of what Timmy does with his treasures isn't a traditional Christmas story, but Christmas figures into the story as Timmy figures out what he might give baby Jesus when he is a wise man in the church Christmas pageant.

And of course, there is always Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, by Barbara Shook Hazen, adapted from the story by Robert L. May. We're partial to a Golden Book edition we have here, one from 1979, illustrated by Richard Scarry. It's a bit worn, with crayon marks on a few pages, and a torn page or two. It shows how much its readers have loved it.

The best books always do.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Notes From the First Annual Christmas Cookie Extravaganza . . .

What a week-end!

Our first annual (maybe) Christmas Cookie Baking Extravaganza was a big success, except for the ending – which I'll explain in a minute.

Three of nine grandkids spent the night with us last Friday evening. We spent the evening with popcorn and a Christmas movie, a little reading together, then to bed.

Next morning, Grandpa made some of his specialty buttermilk pancakes and bacon, feeding the original three visitors as well as the other five grandchildren who got there early – and a few stray parents, as well.

After that, we cleaned up the kitchen and got on to the first order of business: decorating the Christmas tree. John and I had put up a tall Fraser fir the day before, and strung the lights. We wanted the kids to help us with the garland and ornaments.

Every year after Christmas is over, I pack the ornaments away carefully. Every year the unwrapping is a little more hectic, and this year was no exception.

Standing five and six deep around the ornament box, the grandkids were anxious to be the next one to hang an ornament on the tree. As we went I tried to tell the stories of some of the ornaments (and this is one Uncle Ted made in kindergarten . . .) but truthfully, the kids weren't too impressed with the story part. They just wanted to hang more ornaments!

Once the box was empty (in no time flat) we took time to admire the tree – a relatively short time – then it was on to the kitchen.

The icebox cookies I'd mixed up were perfect for the middlers – the grandkids between three and six – to help slice, decorate, and bake. (You can find the recipe for these great cookies below.)

The slicing was very exciting. With a little help from me, the two six-year olds took turns slicing the rolls of chilly icebox cookies on a breadboard with a sharp knife. Using a sharp knife, even with grandma's hand over yours, is dangerously thrilling!

Then the three, four, and five-year olds sprinkled those cookies with decorative sugars, and placed them carefully on the baking sheet.

After the icebox cookies were baked (and tested with a little milk) those grandkids watched a Christmas movie while the two oldest grandkids came and rolled out the sugar cookies and used the Christmas cookie cutters to cut them out. The two big girls did a good job rolling out the dough, cutting out the cookies, and getting them onto the baking sheet. Once they were baked we set them on a rack to cool for later icing.

Next was lunch – a feast of macaroni and cheese – then, with everyone helping, we mixed up the icing for the sugar cookies. Were we ready for this?

We divided up the icing into eight bowls and colored it red, green, blue, and yellow, plus one measuring cup of uncolored (white) icing. We had a good supply of decorative sugars, and down the middle of the long dining room table we put cooling racks for cookies with drippy icing. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I gave each one of the grandkids (except for the two 18-month olds, who were down for naps by now) their own batch of cookies and we began.

The kids were highly skilled at getting icing on the table, various body parts, and occasionally, the cookies. (Once we were done, it took ten minutes just to scrub the table clean.) Some cookies were artfully done with imaginative decorations; others were simply thickly spread with icing and sprinkled with decorative sugar.

All of them were delicious.

We fixed a plate of cookies for each family as parents came to collect their children before the gathering ice storm got any worse.

All too soon, it was over – or so we thought. We sighed, smiled, and agreed that we'd had a wonderful, wonderful time, and now were ready for a long winter's nap!

As it turned out, the kids took home more than cookies. Sunday afternoon our oldest daughter called with the news that our grandson had the flu.

Over the next two days, he was joined by his sister, three cousins, one uncle, and ultimately, two grandparents.

Merry Christmas to us!


This is the recipe we used for the icebox cookies we made this past week-end. I found it in the Cook's Illustrated Holiday Baking 2007 magazine, pp. 50-51. It is a simple, delicious recipe, easily adapted to baking with children. I highly recommend it!

2 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon table salt

16 Tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup confectioners' sugar

2 large egg yolks

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Whisk together flour and salt in medium bowl, set aside.

In bowl of electric mixer, beat butter and sugars at medium speed until light and fluffy, 1 to 1½ minutes. Scrape sides of bowl with rubber spatula. Add yolks and vanilla and beat until incorporated, 15 to 20 seconds. Scrape bowl with rubber spatula. Add dry ingredients and mix at low speed until dough forms and is thoroughly mixed, 25 to 30 seconds. (Dough will be soft but should not be sticky. If dough is sticky, chill for 10 to 15 minutes.)

Divide dough in half. Working with one half at a time, roll dough on clean work surface into log measuring about 6 inches long and 2 inches thick. Wrap each log in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 3 days. (Dough can be frozen up to 1 month. Wrap logs in plastic wrap and then foil before freezing.)

Adjust oven racks to upper-andlower-middle positions and heat oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or spray with nonstick cooking spray.

Unwrap dough logs one at a time and with sharp knife, cut each dough log in half, then into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Place slices on prepared baking sheets, spacing them ½ to 1 inch apart.

Bake until edges begin to brown, about 14 minutes, rotating baking sheets front to back and top to bottom halfway through baking time. Cool cookies on baking sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to wire rack with wide metal spatula.

This article includes several variations on this recipe, including chocolate icebox cookies, marble icebox cookies, and ginger icebox cookies. You should still be able to purchase this issue of the magazine on any newstand. Cook's Illustrated also has a website with other delicious recipes at

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Getting Ready . . .

Eager children – that's what we expect this week-end.

I shopped this afternoon, making sure we have enough flour, eggs, and pretty decorative sugars for our cookie baking adventures with the grandkids this week-end.

As I shopped I marveled again at what a rich experience it is to shop. What choices we have - just the baking aisle is an adventure in possibility!

Tomorrow I'll bake some sugar cookies so they will be ready for the littlest hands to decorate, and I'll mix up some icebox cookies so they'll be ready for the slightly older kids to help slice, bake and decorate.

Some of the older grandkids are able to mix and measure themselves, so I'll get recipes ready for them. We'll probably make snickerdoodles, maybe some peanut butter cookies, maybe some peppernuts.

Cookies will be the pretext (as well as the bonus) but the reward will be the time we spend together, the skills and experiences we share, and the fun we have.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Christmas Adventure . . .

Planning has begun for our first grandchild Christmas cookie extravaganza.
Next week-end we've invited all nine of our grandchildren to come and bake cookies. We might throw in tree-decorating, too, and I have a craft project in mind if the kids get bored.
I have a feeling that my ideas might be bigger than my reality, but it is fun to dream: what kinds of cookies can children from 18 months to 15 years collaborate on? How do we fit in naps, lunches, and silliness and still get the cookies baked? Who will clean up the kitchen when it's all over? And how long will it take us to recover?
Stay tuned for a report!