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Cookies and Christmas: A Match Made in the Heart With PM-Defense of Fruitcake; PM-Cookie

December 19, 1990

Cookies and Christmas: A Match Made in the Heart With PM-Defense of Fruitcake; PM-Cookie Sampler

NEW YORK (AP) _ There are December nights when Beverly Nyberg, who works all day, looks up from frosting ginger cookies and finds it’s 3 a.m.

″It’s a mad rush. That’s the essence of Christmas cookies,″ said Nyberg, a commercial artist at a New York advertising agency.

Why do it, then? ″For tradition, for love,″ she said. Her mother, now nearly 80, used to make at least 30 kinds of Christmas cookies. Nyberg’s 20- year-old son already is asking what kinds mom is making this year.

Her favorites are thumbprints, a sugar cookie covered with nuts and rolled in a ball. A thumb stuck in the middle before baking leaves a depression just right for frosting or jam.

Throughout December, cooks everywhere take out traditional and new-found recipes, baking nights and weekends to fill old shoe boxes or tins with cookies, carefully layered with wax paper, to freeze until Christmas.

″Yeah, your body complains″ from the effort, Nyberg said. But the payoff is ″the enjoyment that everyone is walking by and grabbing cookies off the plate when it comes to the D-day of Christmas.″

Food historian William Woys Weaver of Devon, Pa., said he tries new cookies each year, but always returns to old favorites such as a German cookie called chocolate apeas.

″I made some for some children last week and a little girl said, ‘These even taste like Christmas.’ I said, ‘Good, good, that’s just what I want to hear,’ ″ Weaver said.

″Nothing represents the spirit of loving, nurturing and giving more than a homemade cookie,″ Rose Levy Beranbaum writes in her new book, ″Rose’s Christmas Cookies.″

″They’re always exactly the right size, they look so appealing, they taste so delicious; they’re satisfying but not too filling,″ Judy Knipe and Barbara Marks write in ″The Christmas Cookie Book.″

In many homes, the morning before Christmas, the shoe boxes and cookie tins come out and gift baskets are arranged for delivery later that day. Little hands take delight in decorating cut-out sugar cookies with sprinkles and red hots, some to be left that night for Santa Claus.

Marks will make eight or 10 kinds of cookies this year, including ginger pecan slices, chocolate orange chunk cookies and lemon drops, carrying on a tradition learned at the elbow of her mother and other relatives. Especially her dad’s Aunt Marie.

″I would get so exicted, and a month before Christmas I would go over on Saturdays and bake with her,″ Marks said. ″Getting to go somewhere all by yourself at 7 or 8 was really something.″

Much of the year, home baking is something of a lost art. The Nestle Toll House Kitchen in Purchase, N.Y., cites studies showing that only 35 percent of the baked goods eaten last year were made at home. But nearly all the people surveyed said they bake for the holidays, Nestle said.

″Cookie″ comes from the Dutch, koekje, the diminutive for cake. But cookies are easier to make and more forgiving of the novice’s mistakes than cakes, Beranbaum said.

Americans have always loved Christmas cookies, Weaver said. Colonists could afford sweets only for special occasions. And while Christmas cookies in the shapes of animals and people were made for children, they appealed to everyone, he said.

″It was a release, a fantasy food in a sense. ... The adult who’s making camels and what have you, I think they’re going back to childhood a little, don’t you?″ Weaver said. ″Of course, they taste very good, too.″

Among the earliest cookies were gingerbread, which came both from Germany and from England and Scotland, Weaver writes in ″The Christmas Cook.″

By the late 19th century, refined sugar, eggs and flour were available to most people, and the cast-iron stove gave homemakers more control over baking than they had at the hearth, he said.

That, combined with a wave of immigration, broadened the home cook’s repertoire, which now includes cookies from much of the world, he said.

In her Greenwich Village apartment, Beranbaum shows off what look like stained glass windows: sugar cookies with intricate cutouts, filled with crushed sour balls that become translucent when baked. She also bakes exquisite, delicate snowflakes that sparkle when hung from the branches of a lighted tree.

Beranbaum’s book has traditional, elegant cookies; down-home green wreaths made with marshmallows and cornflakes; even brownies. In ″The Christmas Cookie Book,″ the sharing is evident from the many recipes with a name attached: Amy’s molasses puffs, Renata’s vanilla crescents, Holly’s ginger crisps.

When Beranbaum worked in the test kitchen of the Ladies Home Journal, her first story was on cookies, for the Christmas of 1975. But Christmas has long been part of this Jewish New Yorker’s life.

″I grew up with the feeling that in New York, Chistmas was a joyous cultural celebration belonging to everyone and not restricted only to those who observed it as a religious holiday,″ she writes.

Because of her book, Beranbaum doesn’t have time to bake cookies for family and friends this year, but she likes one way of considering her situation:

Give a gift of Christmas cookies and you spruce up one holiday. Give a book that teaches how to bake them and you feed Christmases forever.

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