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A recipe box full of memories

A recipe box full of memories

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Every year when I pull out my collection of Christmas cookie recipes, it’s like shuffling through the pages of my life.

One of my all-time favorites is from what I like to call my starter collection, recipes culled from family and friends on the eve of my wedding. I hunted and pecked them onto 3-by-5 index cards on an old portable electric typewriter in my childhood bedroom and proudly tucked them into the sleeves of a Precious Moments recipe book I received as a shower gift.

The marriage and the recipe book didn’t last, but, oh, the recipes. They are my living history in the kitchen. A life well-baked.

I make the same rolled sugar cookies every year, using the same cutters my mother did, rolling them out with my grandmother’s nicked and battered rolling pin, which was handmade by her father.

But it’s the stories behind three other cookies in my collection that best conjure up Christmas in my kitchen.

The first cookie may be known to the rest of the world as Snowballs, but they are known in my family as Elephant Meat Cookies. They have made an appearance at nearly every one of my Christmas spreads except maybe in the lean years when toy buying superseded pecan buying for the delicate dough that wraps around a Hershey’s Kiss.

Why Elephant Meat? I distinctly recall the moment the name came out of my exasperated mother’s mouth when I walked in from school, spotted an unfamiliar Christmas cookie and inquired, with a pout, what exactly was inside the suspicious balls. I’m guessing that was the most outlandish thing my mother could think of to put me in my place.

In a single moment, while reading that recipe, I can be transported to Wood Dale, Ill., and my fifth-grade year.

Over the next 34 years, I collected quite a few more cookie recipes. Some were one-hit wonders, others were best not repeated, and a few were keepers. The recipes came from office parties, baby showers, Bunco group gatherings, book club meetings, Scout picnics, swim team banquets and church potlucks, a sampling of the pit stops in my life.

A handful are from my days as a young reporter in South Florida in the early ’80s. Like most South Floridians, far adrift from families and traditions, I begged and borrowed new traditions and recipes, scribbled on torn out pages of a reporter’s notebook or on the backs of envelopes.

One recipe from this era is a standout, though it has nothing to do with my tropical surroundings. It hails from Nebraska and a co-worker named Mona Z. Koppelman.

I don’t make this recipe every year, but as I contemplate my annual baking selections I linger over the page for “Fresh Snow on Plowed Ground” cookies and think about Mona.

These cookies are magical. Made with a thick, sticky dark chocolate batter and sprinkled with powdered sugar, the cookie plumps up to look like a perfect circle of plowed ground dusted with a trace of snow. As I recall, Mona said the recipe came from her farm town of Winnetoon, Neb. (population 68). That sounded especially magical to me as we cranked up the air conditioner to keep the dough from melting in her Fort Lauderdale apartment.

I haven’t seen or heard from Mona in more than 25 years. My last correspondence with her came in the form of a card sent from France, in which she wished me well as a new mother. There was mention of teaching English and no mention of plans to return to the U.S.

Funny how that recipe has kept Mona and Winnetoon, a place I’ve never been, close in my Christmas memories.

Sadly, I no longer have the originals of most of my Christmas cookie recipes. In a more grown-up, organized phase of adulthood, I typed them up on a personal computer, printed them out and placed them all neat and tidy in plastic page protectors inside a binder. I think this phase corresponded with me corralling two little boys and a baby girl. Something about carving out a sense of control from chaos.

A story about collecting Christmas cookie recipes wouldn’t be complete without one final entry. I ate these cookies as a middle school kid living in Palmyra, Pa., a buggy ride from Amish country.

But I didn’t acquire the recipe until just a few years ago at a stage in life when my group of friends began losing our parents, forcing us to, among other things, page through their most cherished possessions, things like recipe collections.

After her mom’s death, my best friend from middle school sent me the recipe for her mom’s famous Sand Tarts, written on a kitschy recipe card in her own hand. Memories of Dot Kline leapt off the yellowing card.

I tucked the card away, having long since gotten over my ideas about recipe collection perfection. Handwritten? To be treasured. Splattered or greasy? Even better.

Last year, I attempted to make them for the first time. A delicate cookie, Sand Tarts are only as good as they are thin. I’d like to think I made a reasonably good facsimile with a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar and a piece of pecan on top.

Lots of rolling went into making those Sand Tarts, lots of time to think about Mrs. Kline and the time spent at her kitchen table doing homework with my friend all those years ago. Well worth it.

Sand Tarts

  • 2-1/2 cups white granulated sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • For topping:
  • Egg white
  • Cinnamon/sugar mixture
  • Pecan pieces

Cook’s note: When rolling thin, use only as much extra flour as needed to handle. The less used the better.

Cream sugar and butter; add beaten eggs and vanilla. Add flour, soda and salt. Mix well. Chill a few hours or overnight.

Roll out very thin and use your favorite cookie cutters. Brush with egg white, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar mixture and top with pecan pieces.

Bake at 350 to 375 degrees, depending on oven, until lightly brown, about 5 minutes. Depending upon thickness, it can take about 8 minutes. Once cooled, cookies should be light and crisp.

Makes 6 to 8 dozen cookies.

Fresh Snow on Plowed Ground Cookies

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 4 squares unsweetened chocolate, melted
  • 2 cups white granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 cup powdered sugar

Mix oil, chocolate and sugar. Blend in one egg at a time until well mixed. Add vanilla. Add flour, baking powder and salt. Chill several hours or overnight.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Drop rounded tablespoon-size balls of dough into powdered sugar to coat. Place 2 inches apart on greased baking sheet.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes. Do not overbake.

Makes 4 to 6 dozen cookies.

Chocolate Snow Balls (aka Elephant Meat Cookies)

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup finely chopped pecans
  • 1 package Hershey’s Kisses, foils and papers removed
  • Powdered sugar

Use mixer at medium speed to beat butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add flour and nuts and continue mixing until well blended. Cover dough with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for several hours or overnight.

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Use about a tablespoon of dough to shape around Hershey’s Kiss. Roll to make a ball.

Bake 12 minutes. Cookie should be set, but not brown. When cool, roll in powdered sugar.

Makes 40 cookies.

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