We don’t have grand plans for the holidays this year. I sprained my ankle and can’t go skiing. So we are spending this Mundane Monday making cookies. I’ve already made one batch and they disappeared fast. So my teenage kids made some again this afternoon, without my help.
They’re officially called “Kisses:” meringues with chocolate chips made from a recipe passed down by my great-grandmother Allendoerfer. These Christmas cookies were always my favorite growing up. They were gluten-free long before I knew or cared about such things. My grandfather suffered from celiac disease when much less was known about it than today, and these may have been the only Christmas cookies he could eat. No wonder his wife made this recipe a centerpiece of her Christmas preparations.
The recipe my mother had–printed on a 3×5 card in Nana’s tiny, neat handwriting, smudged and stained almost beyond recognition–only made about 12 cookies, if you followed it exactly. So we always doubled it, or even tripled it.
There has always been other lore surrounding Nana’s Kisses: they had a reputation for being hard to make and there was a knack to it getting them right. Kisses were baked on oiled brown paper, which in practice means cutting up a grocery bag and rubbing it with butter as a liner to the cookie sheet. Unlike any other cookies I had ever seen, it took an entire hour to bake them at 200 degrees Fahrenheit. And indeed some batches had cracks, or were crumbly. Others were more rubbery and stretchy.
When I was in high school I played the role of Essie Carmichael in the play You Can’t Take it With You, by Kaufman and Hart. Essie is a wannabee ballerina who makes sweet confections called “Love Dreams” that her husband Ed distributes around the neighborhood with communist slogans tucked inside the boxes. For the Love Dreams, I made these Kisses without the red and green Christmas food coloring. They were eagerly devoured by most of the cast, communist slogans notwithstanding.
I suspected then that the most important ingredient to getting it right was the sugar. If the brown sugar you used was too hard or too soft, the cookies just wouldn’t work.
I confirmed that observation the hard way several years later when, as a newlywed in a Brooklyn apartment kitchen, I broke a cheap electric mixer trying to mix in some extra-hard sugar. One can also add too much food coloring. My husband looked at the results and said “hmm, they look like something an alien dropped. Yes, alien droppings!” That observation hasn’t kept him from eating them or anything like that.
The kids have the use of a KitchenAid stand mixer which makes whipping the egg whites and mixing in the brown sugar easier. The food coloring on theirs tends toward the “alien” rather than the “tasteful pastel” end of the spectrum. But they taste as sweet as ever!
Photo credits: 1. Nana’s kisses, by the author; 2. Essie Carmichael (Linsday Tornquist) and Grandpa Vanderhof (David S. Howard) in You Can’t Take It With You at Asolo Rep. Photo by Barbara Banks; 3. Little green alien holding red heart, dreamstime.com stock photography