The Cookies That Say Christmas
WHEN I was a child growing up in the Midwestern United States, I looked forward to the weekend each December when my mother would make a batch of dough for sugar cookies.
Now I make these same cookies with my own children, cutting the chilled dough in the shapes of angels and bells, stockings and hearts, along with the odd cow, and spreading them with the same icing: a cup of confectioner's sugar and a few teaspoons of boiling water, tinted turquoise, rose, and grass green.
We also bake mandelmusslor, the almond tarts that my husband's Swedish grandmother made each Christmas. These are golden, buttery cookies with fluted edges, thick but easily broken, suffused with a delicate almond flavor.
While they can be eaten plain, they taste even better when the center is filled with whipped cream and a dollop of amber-colored cloudberry or ruby-red strawberry jam. I serve these on a platter of translucent apricot-colored glass, usually on Christmas Eve.
The first time I tasted these almond tarts was in December 1978, when my not-yet husband, Carl, and I were in Stockholm visiting his father, Arne. Few cars were on the road that Christmas Eve morning as the three of us drove across town to Reimersholm and parked on the quiet street where Arne's mother, Ingrid, lived.
Ingrid spoke no English, although she may have understood a little. I'd had only 10 weeks of Swedish classes, so our conversation was limited. But the warm welcome she extended to me, her grandson's American girlfriend, did not require translation.
I have only a few snapshots from that morning. Eight of us sat in the living room, around the dining table: Arne; Carl and I; Ingrid and her other son, Bosse; his wife, Ebba; and their two grown children, Margareta and Hans.
Although that winter was the coldest in 60 years, the sun was streaming in the window. A small Christmas tree decorated with Swedish flags, woven straw hearts, and electric candles stood in the corner. In the background was an antique Karl Johan sofa with a curved wooden frame and green striped upholstery and armchairs covered in orange and beige plaid wool.
A thermos was on the table, along with delicate china cups and saucers. I'm sure there were other sweets, perhaps a braided length of saffron bread studded with raisins or heart-shaped gingersnaps, but the only dessert I remember from that day was the piece de resistance, the almond tarts.
Ingrid offered me the recipe, which I copied down and took back to California. I eagerly purchased a dozen fluted tart pans, some diamond-shaped, others oval. But the first time I tried out Ingrid's recipe, the proportions seemed off; I had to keep adding flour to make the dough stiff.
And apparently I didn't grease the pans well enough, because the tarts stuck, only to crumble when forcefully evicted.
Perhaps the tarts would have turned out better if I had followed Ingrid's instructions more closely.
In addition to the 200 grams of peeled almonds, the recipe called for 10 to 12 bitter almonds, the fruit of the pink-blossomed almond tree. "Do not leave out the bitter almonds," Ingrid had told me. But while bitter almonds are sold in small bags and as an extract in nearly every grocery store in Sweden, I have never seen them in the US.
Eventually, I located another recipe that works better with American ingredients.
In olden times, Swedish housewives were expected to bake a minimum of seven different kinds of cookies for the holidays.
Of the many varieties of Swedish cookies, I am particularly partial to chokoladbiskvi, a macaroon cookie spread with a layer of chocolate butter cream, then topped with a thin coating of melted chocolate.
Carl's favorite is drommar, or dreams, aptly named morsels whose sweetness is cut by hjorthornssalt, or ammonium carbonate.
But only almond tarts have become synonymous with Christmas. For that Christmas in Sweden was the first and last time that we were all together.
Now the Karl Johan rococo sofa holds court in our living room, attended by the two armchairs and three side chairs that Carl inherited from his grandmother and his father's mahogany secretary.
Someday our two children, Michael Arne and Christina Ingrid, may come to own these tangible pieces of memory that once belonged to their namesakes, along with my collection of cookie cutters, fluted-edge tart pans, and Christmas recipes.