So far, we’ve had bourbon balls and sausage balls, but you know what this advent season is still lacking? Some good ol’ fashioned Christmas cookies. Luckily, my maternal grandmother, Gramma, was a really good baker. I mean, as far as I can tell, she was also good at everything else, too. She once produced an entire trunk-full of homemade clothes for my sister’s doll, Lauren, including tiny knitted cardigans and the like, in the span of about a week or two. She was a high school English teacher, a community activist, and at some point the mid-nineties, mayor of her town. She was also a wonderful grandmother who taught me how to flute pie crusts and let me make forts in her back garden.
The woman was an absolute BAMF. One of my favorite stories about her is that when my uncle was a toddler, they had a run-in with a mink at their house. The mink had made a habit of terrorizing and killing all of their ducks, and my grandmother, unwilling to sit outside in the cold sandbox with my uncle but equally unwilling to leave her young toddler unsupervised with a violent mink on the loose, sat guard at the kitchen window with a bee bee gun, waiting for the mink to make an appearance while my uncle played. Eventually, my grandfather trapped the mink and rather inexpertly tanned its hide, presenting it to Gramma as a hilarious and revolting gift.
She also became an avid traveler following the death of my grandfather, often going on trips alone that would scare me even today. For instance, she took the trans-siberian railroad by herself in the late 1970s. Just a lone American woman, hanging out in the middle of the Soviet Union, not speaking a word of Russian, chatting it up with random strangers on the train. Naturally. When my sister and cousins were old enough, she took them on big trips with her, like China or France. I never got to go on one, because she died when I was just 12.
Christmas time always makes me think of her. Each year, she would bring my sister and me a new ornament for the tree, usually from her travels. We have tiny wooden clogs from Holland and bread ornaments from the Czech Republic. I have a little lamb from New Zealand, whereas my sister has a doll on a swing. There’s a straw ornament and a corn husk doll from South Africa, and my sister has a delightfully garish sequined atrocity from Greece.
After Gramma died, my mother took over the tradition, passed down from her mother as it will presumably be passed down to me and my sister in due time. Her Christmas cookies--sand tarts--are another holiday tradition that has passed down from mother to daughters over the generations. When my mom was growing up, her parents would throw a big holiday party for the entire neighborhood, including delights such as mulled cider and hundreds of cookies. My mom estimated that Gramma would bake about 100 dozen sand tarts every year, which, as you will soon see, is an apalling amount of work. Her children, then, were enslaved as part of the assembly line process, just as I was put to work from the young age of five or so. Baking sand tarts is a bitch, but it’s also a key ingredient in getting in the holiday spirit with my family. I’ve made about 8 dozen in the past week for gifts and parties, and it is a horrible thing to do alone. Still, at least I have all these cookies to eat away my lonely sorrows of spending Christmas away from home.
Three generations of sand tart bakers visit Eastgate on a trip to England.
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 T milk
½ t vanilla extract
½ t salt
1 t baking powder
1 ½ cups flour
split blanched almonds
this cookie cutter:
Now, if you do not happen to have a vintage, fluted, star-shaped cookie cutter, I would strongly suggest you head over to e-bay and find yourself one. You might think that this is an easily substitutable ingredient, but you would be WRONG. If you make these cookies in any other shape, you will have made something, but it will most certainly not be a sand tart. My entire extended family will back me up on this one. No cookie cutter, no sand tart. I will, in good time, be inheriting Gramma’s original model, but for now, I have the one pictured above, which I ordered specially. It is absolutely criminal to bake sand tarts in any other shape.
Ahem, anyway. Back to the recipe. Cream the butter, then add sugar, egg yolks, milk, and vanilla. Mix well. Add sifted dry ingredients. Divide into balls and chill for at least 3 hours, but preferably overnight.
Now here’s the fun part. Wake up at 5 in the morning. Turn off your heat and open all your windows. Put on a sweater, because it should be pretty damn cold in your kitchen by now. If you have feeling in your hands, you’re doing it wrong. You’re going to have to roll these cookies out very thin, with as little additional flour as possible. If your kitchen is just a little too warm, the butter will start to melt and everything will go to hell. Now preheat your oven to 375˚ and get out at least 2 cookie sheets. Set up whatever kind of cooling system you’re going to have going, be it racks or newspaper lined with wax paper. Pull your egg whites out of the fridge, set up your cinnamon sugar and almonds, and enlist the help of some child labor where available. I don’t care if it’s cold and early, this builds character, dammit.
On a floured surface, roll out the dough as thin as you can--about ⅛ inch. You will probably have to rotate it frequently to keep it from sticking to the counter. Carefully cut out cookies and place them on a cookie sheet. Save the scraps in an airtight container for a future second rolling.
When your first cookie sheet is full, brush each cookie with unbeaten egg white, place an almond in the center of each, and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. This is where your child labor comes in handy. Bake for 4-8 minutes; mine take about 5 here, but your mileage may vary. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
When all is said and done, you will be very tired, very cold, and have the most delicious cookies on the planet.