Monday, December 3, 2012

Is this Really a Christmas Cookie?

The other day, while looking for Christmas cookie recipes,
 I ran across a re-issue of the 1963 publication of
"Betty Crocker's Cooky Book."
I had forgotten I had it, so I sat down and looked through it.

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One thing I found interesting about this cookie book,
besides its section on cookies made with cereal,
was a section in the back devoted to "fashions in cookies."
These are cookie recipes from over seventy years of baking 
in Betty Crocker's Kitchens; i.e. the General Mills food corporation.
The historic recipes start in 1880, 
which coincidentally is the year my great-grandmother
 arrived in the USA from Bavaria. 
The section ends with the top cookie of 1963.

I mention my great-grandmother Margaret, called "Gretel,"
because for years my mother made her Christmas cookie recipe: Hermits.
And Hermits just happen to be the most popular cookie for Betty Crocker's 
 "Best Cooky of 1880 - 1890."
There are some minor differences between Grandma Hofmann's Hermit cookies
and Betty's; for example, my grandmother's called for sour cream,
Betty's calls for 1/2 cup of coffee. 
Yet, the basics of raisins, nuts, nutmeg, and cinnamon are the same.
Our recipe emphasized, with a double underline,
 the nuts had to be black walnuts.

This is one hearty cookie and they keep a very long time,
which was probably their attraction in the late 19th century.
The Cooky Book says that Hermits originated  in Cape Cod 
in "Clipper Ship days," which were the earliest decades of the 1800s.
The cookies were popular because  they could be "packed in cannisters" 
and "tucked in sea chests." 

I can attest to their durability and longevity,
for when I was a kid,
 these always seemed to outlast the sugar cookies I preferred.
Puffed with raisins, heavy on spices, 
flavored by high-powered black walnuts,
sticky topped, full bodied, and cake-like--
these cookies pulled out all the stops.

Ingredients of dried fruits, nuts, sugar, and spices were more precious then,
which is why cooks reserved them for special occasions like Christmas.
So I can understand why my hard-working German family 
counted "Grandma Hofmann's Hermits" 
among one of the best cookies for the season.
But they are definitely not on my list of the best Christmas cookies.

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