This will be a rather scattered post about the beauty of the Christmas cookie, both past and present. It started as a post simply about Christmas Cherry Bells, an old-fashioned cookie that holds special memories for my Mark because his mother made them for him. But then Emily Nance got a hold of my camera and the whole focus of this thing changed.
We are in the “big kitchen” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church early on a Sunday morning baking cookies for the Christmas Pageant. I am the cookie materials provider. The youth of St. Paul’s are the decorators and bakers. I usually snap the same predictable photos every year. But this year, Emily, who is in eighth grade, asks if she can shoot a few pictures. Of course, I say. I am humbled by the results. All of the photos in this post are taken by Emily and it goes to show that talent knows no age boundaries.
Emily chose to focus her artistic talents on the beauty of the unbaked decorated cookie. Look at the shimmering sugars! The symmetry of the compositions. The glory that is Red Dye No. 2. And the rest of the festive, if unnatural, colors of the season. I must confess that every year I get pre-made cookie dough (thank you, Mrs. Pillsbury, wherever you are) a few jars of sprinkles and just hope for the best. Some years, the bakers are eager and creative. Some years, well, not.
This year, the bakers were exceptional. As the aroma of warm sugar cookies wafted from the kitchen into Otey Hall, what should appear but a shepherd. He was not abiding in the field, keeping watch over his flock by night, as the pageant suggests. He had snuck out of rehearsal for a cookie. The shepherd was followed closely by a Wise Man and a sheep. Emily handed out cookies. It is not wise to cross the pint-sized Actors Guild. I believe the withholding of Christmas cookies is a major violation.
So back to the Cherry Bells. I had never heard of them. I imagine they appeared in the mid 1950s on some Kraft or Pillsbury commercial. Mark’s mother did not often have time to cook. She was a single mother raising three children. But she did make Cherry Bells, with a merry maraschino cherry half as the clapper. I made a test batch for Mark. He melted into a seven-year-old child within seconds. As most of you know, I am not a baker and I used a sugar cookie mix instead of making homemade dough. The recipe I used came from allrecipes.com. Here is the link. And here is the recipe from Robin J., with thanks from a 59-year-old little boy named Mark.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon instant coffee granules
- 1 cup butter
- 1 1/4 cups packed brown sugar
- 1/4 cup dark corn syrup
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 tablespoon cream
- 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 3 tablespoons cherry juice
- 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
- 60 maraschino cherries, halved
- Sift together: 3 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon ginger and 1/2 teaspoon instant coffee. Put aside.
- Cream 1 cup butter or margarine. Add 1 1/4 cups brown sugar. Cream well. Blend in dark corn syrup, egg, and cream. Add dry ingredients and mix well.
- Roll out dough, 1/3 at a time on floured board to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut cookies into 2 1/2 inch rounds. Place on ungreased cookie sheet.
- To Make Filling: Combine 1/3 firmly packed brown sugar, 1 tablespoon butter, 3 tablespoons cherry juice. Stir in 1 1/2 cups chopped nuts, chopped fine.
- Place 1/2 teaspoon filling in center of each round. Shape into a bell by folding sides of dough to meet over the filling using spatula to fold over sides. Make top of bell narrower than at the clapper end. Place 1/2 of a maraschino cherry (cut side down) at open end of each bell for clapper. Bake at 350 degrees F for 12-15 minutes.