Food & Drink | December 2017

By Abby & Kevin Tankersley

Christmas Cookies

Christmas traditions run deep in Nancy McNeil’s family. The arrival of the Christmas tree, delivered by Santa on Christmas Eve, was announced with the blowing of a horn. Christmas dinner always consisted of a standing rib roast. Dessert was plum pudding, just like that served in the final scene of “A Christmas Carol.”

But no tradition has endured as long as the cookies. Many varieties of cookies, baked in huge batches and then packaged and mailed to friends and relatives across the country.

“My family has a set of Christmas cookies that has been made since forever,” McNeil said. “My grandmother taught me how to make the ones I’ve been making forever when I was in high school. So I’ve been doing that for nearly 50 years.”

The one that McNeil has been making for 50 years is the Lebkuchen, a traditional German cookie.

“I have a recipe. It’s maybe my great-grandmother’s recipe, handwritten. It may be my great-great-grandmother’s. I don’t know,” she said.

Some directions and quantities have had to be changed and refined over the years. The original called for “half a glass of brandy” but didn’t specify what size glass. (Another old family recipe gave this directive: “Go to the druggist and have him prepare five cents worth of cardamom.”)

“It’s a typical German cookie, which I knew, but had no idea how traditional ours was,” McNeil said. “My paternal grandmother, who taught me how to make it, was the only one out of my lineage who wasn’t German. But her mother-in-law taught her and her three sisters-in-law how to do it. My grandmother said that hers turned out better than the other girls, so she was the one the family turned to to make those.”

McNeil grew up in St. Louis, a couple of miles from the townhome of her grandmother, Nelle Winkelmeyer.

“Most of four generations lived in St. Louis,” McNeil said. “The great-great-grandfathers came over from Germany.”

McNeil, who retired in 2016 after teaching art in the Connally Independent School District for 17 years, has been married for 33 years to Mark McNeil, a musician who started the band D’Javaheads (later The Javaheads) and has also recorded some solos CDs. Together, they opened The Coffeehouse, a coffee and music venue near the Baylor campus.

In addition to the Lebkuchen, McNeil also makes Fruit Jumbles, Rocks and traditional sugar cookies. Some of the recipes came from a 1940s edition of “The Joy of Cooking,” with changes made over the years by her family.

And once all the cookies are made, McNeil will pack them up and ship them out. Some go to her 93-year-old father, Edwin Winkelmeyer, in St. Louis, others to a sister in St. Louis and some to a brother in Colorado.

In addition to McNeil’s recipes this month, we’ve included a couple of our own. One, the Coconut Macaroons, are new to our repertoire. Our family has been on a bit of a coconut kick recently (it started with a batch of toasted coconut ice cream with a hint of rum), and this recipe fits in nicely there. But the Reindeer Sugar Cookies have been a holiday staple since our kids were much younger. They’re what we leave out each Christmas Eve. It starts with a basic sugar cookie recipe, then they’re coated with a glaze. Mini pretzel twists and M&Ms turn the heart-shaped cookies into treat that Santa enjoys (maybe with a Kahlua and cream or bourbon milk punch; Santa needs a little something to help him through the night, you see.)

The Recipes

Lebkuchen

  • 2 cups honey
  • 4 1/4 cup flour, divided
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 pound blanched almonds, finely chopped
  • 1/8 pound candied citron peel, chopped
  • 1/8 pound candied orange peel, chopped
  • 1/8 pound candied lemon peel, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 ounce dark chocolate, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup whiskey or brandy
  • Juice from 1/4 of a lemon
  • 1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

For the icing:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • Water
  • 2 egg whites
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon

Combine honey and 1/4 cup flour in a very large bowl and whisk together. Set aside for an hour or so.

In a separate bowl, beat together sugar and egg until the mixture is pale yellow. Add this mixture to the honey and flour and fold together. Then mix in the almonds, citrus peels, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.

Melt chocolate and butter together in the microwave or in a small pan on the stove. Add this to the honey mixture. Then add the whiskey or brandy and lemon juice.

In a separate bowl, whisk together 4 cups flour and the baking powder. Add the flour mixture to the honey mixture, a cup at a time, until the dough begins to look dry. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Heat the oven to 350 F. Use four sheet pans for this recipe. Place one sheet pan on top of another one, and line the top pan with parchment paper. Repeat with the other two pans.

To make the cookies, lightly flour your work surface. Roll a handful of dough into a long rope about 1 inch in diameter. Cut the rope into sections about 1 1/2 inches long. Place the dough onto the prepared sheet pans about 1 inch apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes. The cookies are ready when they’re dry and just cracked on top. Let the cookies cool on the pan for about 5 minutes, then move to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the icing, Place the sugar in a saucepan and add just enough water to cover it. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Boil until the sugar mixture reaches firm-ball stage, 245 F to 250 F. It’s at the firm-ball stage if the syrup forms thick threads as it drips from a spoon.

While the sugar-water mixture is cooking, beat the egg whites until stiff. When the sugar is at the firm-ball stage, continue whipping the egg whites and add, all at one time, the sugar. Add the lemon juice and continue beating until it’s incorporated.

Working quickly, spoon some icing over the top of each cookie and smooth it out. You may have to stir the icing occasionally to keep it from separating and getting hard.

Let the cookies sit until the icing dries, which may take several hours or overnight.

Makes about 150 cookies.
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Fruit Jumbles

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1/2 pound raisins
  • 1/2 pound currants
  • 4-6 tablespoons cherry preserves
  • 1 ounce dark chocolate, melted
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 4 cups flour
  • Powdered sugar

Heat oven to 350 F.

In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar. Then mix in the eggs, milk and molasses. Then add the raisins, currants and preserves and mix well. Finally, mix in the melted chocolate, baking powder and flour until everything is well combined.

Drop batter by the spoonful onto a baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Cool on the pan for 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Makes about 80 cookies.
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Rocks

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup hot water
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 pounds raisins
  • 1 pound walnuts
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 cups flour

Heat oven to 400 F.

Mix the baking soda into the hot water.

In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter, sugar and salt. Add cloves, allspice, cinnamon, vanilla, raisins, walnuts, eggs, flour and baking soda-water mixture. Mix well.

On a baking sheet sprayed with nonstick spray, drop the mixture by the spoonful. Bake for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 375 F and bake for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on the pan for about 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack and cool completely.

Makes about 90 cookies.
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Coconut Macaroons

  • 1/2 all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 tablespoon butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups sweetened coconut flakes

Heat oven to 350 F.

Sift together flour, powdered sugar and salt. Set aside.

In a clean mixing bowl, beat egg whites with cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Add melted butter and vanilla. Then fold in the flour-sugar mixture and coconut.

Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil. Drop rounded tablespoonfuls of batter on the sheet an inch or so apart and bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from cookie sheet immediately and cool on wire rack.

Makes about 15 cookies.
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Reindeer Sugar Cookies

  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 3/4 cups flour, sifted
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

For the glaze:

  • 1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Mini pretzel twists
  • Plain M&Ms

Cream together butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Beat well.

Chill dough for 3 hours.

Heat oven to 350 F.

Roll out dough to 1/8-inch thickness, and cut out as many heart-shaped cookies as possible. Re-roll the leftover dough and repeat. Bake on ungreased baking sheets for 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on the pan for about 5 minutes, then cool on wire racks.

To make the glaze, mix together all the ingredients and whisk together. If the glaze is too thin, add a little more powdered sugar. If it’s too thick, add a little more milk.

Once the cookies are cooled, drizzle some glaze on each cookie and spread to the edges. While the glaze is still wet, add two pretzel twists on the top of the cookie for reindeer antlers, and add two M&Ms as eyes. Let the cookies set until the glaze is completely dry.

Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies.
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