Three women were very influential in my development as an accomplished baker: my mother (Gertrude Kertscher) and my two friends, Rita Earle and Sue Elam.
I baked with my mother before I could even see over the top of the kitchen table. I would stand on a chair, by her side, with my little apron tied up around me, watching, learning and tasting, right next to her while she worked. My father, Horst, would pitch in peeling apples, pitting plums or grinding the hazelnuts that we needed for the recipes.
Baking, unlike cooking, was not something we did every day. We baked for special occasions: company coming for a visit, a family birthday party or for Christmas. Special equipment, sugar and chocolate came out of the cupboards and drawers. It was heavenly.
My friend, Rita Earle, of Syracuse, N.Y., is a curious cook like me. Rita grew up in a household with five girls and baking was inexpensive entertainment and something she could do on her own.
She started entering the New York state fair — which was huge in Syracuse — at a young age and won many ribbons for her baked goods. Back in the 80s, Rita gave me my first “trendy” cookbook: “The Frog Commissary Cookbook” (Doubleday & Co. NY 1985).
Together we would experiment and try recipes from that cookbook and from our beloved Gourmet magazine (R.I.P. 2009) that we treasured and read from cover to cover. Rita is one of those intuitive cooks that has the ability to go into a corner of her kitchen and — shazam! — in under five minutes, produce an apple pie from scratch, ready to go into the oven.
Sue Elam is one of the most hardworking, capable, positive-spirited, and generous people I have ever met. To me, she is the original pioneer woman.
Originally from Richmond, Mich., Sue grew up on a dairy farm and was never a stranger to hard work. Sue has said to me, on more than one occasion, “If women baked more bread and men split more wood, there’d be fewer divorces in this country.”
Not only can Sue also produce a pie in under five minutes from scratch without blinking an eye, she can roll two balls of cookie dough between her hands — at the same time!
Rita started baking with my mom and me in 1989. Gertrude took this photo of us with my daughter, Erika, during our 1990 cookie-baking day. I was pregnant with my son, Francis.
I got to know Sue after Fran was born. Sue watched Fran and Erika for me when I went back to work part-time at Dover Photo Supply. In early December of Fran’s first year, I asked Sue to join my mom, Rita and me at my house to bake Christmas cookies. The day was a huge success; we produced enough cookies for everyone to take home, share, mail out, and eat during the two weeks prior to Christmas.
As the kids grew, our husbands would get the kids out of our hair and take them all out for pizza so we could have a few hours of peace and quiet to work.
We’ve become better organized since we started many years ago. When it is close to cookie baking time, we decide on a cookie menu.
We then assign several recipes to each contributor a few days before we get together to bake. We each arrive with three or four double and sometimes triple recipes of cookie dough that we proceed to roll, cut out, form, bake, and decorate until there are literally hundreds of cookies for all of us to share. Sue, an expert in large number estimation, is always in charge of portioning out the batches and sending us home with even shares of the cookies we have baked together.
Since 1991, Sue, Rita and I have gotten together around December 12 to bake cookies. We have welcomed any helpers that have offered to lend a hand and our ranks of cookie baking regulars have grown.
Each person who has joined us has contributed recipes of her own, enriching our repertoire and helping to make our cookie trays even more appealing and varied.
Our tins of coveted cookies have been shipped all over the world: Iraq, Afghanistan, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Japan, Korea. They’ve also been shipped throughout the U.S.: New Hampshire, California, Maryland, Virginia, Texas, Michigan, and New York.
I always give cookies to the janitors, secretaries, administrators, and my colleagues at school where I teach to ensure a peaceful and cooperative new year.
Here are a few things we’ve discovered that have made baking easier for us:
- Don’t skimp on ingredients. Cookies have to be worth the calories. Use real butter, not margarine, real vanilla extract, fresh nuts and high quality chocolate. Otherwise, why bother? All of that work for a second-rate cookie? Come on!
- Take all of the ingredients you will be using out of the pantry and refrigerator and put them on the counter before you start baking. This will save you a trip to the supermarket in the middle of your cookie-baking session.
- Use parchment paper. From lining the baking sheets to packing the cookies, parchment paper is invaluable!
- Measure accurately. Baking is a science. Cooking is an art.
- Scoops of all sizes are great for evenly portioning out balls of cookie dough. We use tiny ones (2 teaspoons) up to big ones (1/4 cup – ice cream scoop sized) for making many varieties of cookies.
Here is our oldest recipe, Hazelnut Crescents from my oma, Emma Makowski. I’m sure this recipe came from my oma’s oma, so it probably pre-dates World War 1.
Every German I know is familiar with these cookies. They couldn’t be any simpler, but it does take some work tracking down either whole hazelnuts or hazelnut flour. My cousin, Jürgen, always brings several bags of ground hazelnuts from Germany when he comes to visit us over Thanksgiving.
Ground hazelnuts are available here in some grocery and health food stores, but are a bit expensive. Ironically the ones Jürgen brings come from California.
If you have a kitchen scale, it is easiest to weigh out these ingredients. I’ve supplied equivalent measurements if you don’t have a scale.
Oma Makowski’s Hazelnut Crescents Hazelnuss Plätzchen
1 pound ground hazelnuts (5 cups – they are lighter than the other dry ingredients)
1 pound butter (4 sticks)
1 pound sugar (2 1/3 cups)
1 pound flour (3 2/3 cups)
Preheat the oven to 350° and line four cookie tins with parchment paper.
Put all of the ingredients into a very large bowl and knead until the dough comes together.
Take about 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) of dough and form it into a crescent.
Place the crescents on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet about an inch and a half apart. They tend to spread a bit.
Bake for 15-20minutes until just browned on the bottoms.
Let cool for 5 minutes on a cooling rack on the cookie sheets, then slide the cookies off of the cookie sheets on the parchment paper onto the cooling rack.
When completely cool, pack the cookies into tins, separating the layers with parchment paper. These keep for at least a month and actually taste better as they age, but you will probably have to hide some, because they disappear quickly.
Yield: 64 cookies