My grandmother was a prolific baker of Christmas cookies. She seemed to mass-produce them each year. There were tins stacked upon tins in the garage: spritz cookies with green and red maraschino cherries, magic cookie bars, mincemeat bars, bourbon balls, pecan balls, and gingerbread men—the latter two being my most favorite.
Living across the street from my grandparents was nice for a lot of reasons, and was particularly auspicious at Christmastime. I know I wasn’t the only one of my siblings who would slink into the garage and risk having a tower of cookie tins tumble down upon us in a covert effort to swipe an early taste of the coming bounty of sweets—any of Santa’s spying elf minions be damned! It was best when my siblings and I worked together to concentrate our efforts: There was a lookout, and someone to help move the heavy tins, but most importantly there was a scout—someone who had previously sussed out and could recall what each tin held, because we couldn’t waste valuable skulking time on opening a tin of mincemeat bars! I can still recall the giddiness as we ate them, hurriedly, huddled together in a small circle in the cold garage silently pleased with our teamwork.
Between my two favorites, the pecan balls would win out as my most pilfered cookie. My grandma would make about a dozen gingerbread cookies for each of us grandkids, which we’d later decorate with royal icing, cinnamon candies, sprinkles, and most importantly, her guidance. Sneaking too many of our allotted gingerbread cookies ahead of time would have been a giveaway of our nefarious activities, and we couldn’t have that.
This is her recipe for pecan balls, which I’m happy to have a copy of from her notebook of recipes, in her handwriting, complete with addendums and splatter marks on the page. I made these larger than my grandmothers, opting for a ¾ ounce scoop instead of a teaspoon. I also opted for butter instead of Oleo…
These make it feel like Christmas for me, and I will admit to gleefully nabbing one right out of the bowl of powdered sugar before it can make its way into a tin. As I stand in the kitchen acquiring a fresh dusting of powdered sugar on my fingers, all the things I have to do and places I have to go fade into the background, and for a moment everything slows down as I take a mental time warp back through a highlight real of family Christmas memories. It’s the feeling of pride and accomplishment I get while admiring the tray of snowy orb-like cookies sitting on my counter, and the familiarity of them.
I feel just as goofy saying sappy things like that as Clark Griswold looked—sitting in his attic adorned in a fur, pink evening gloves, and a vintage ladies' turban—but it’s nonetheless an important reminder of why I savor the opportunity to revisit recipes like this. It’s knowing that my hands can do what my grandma’s hands did, and the feeling of having my fingertips coated in powdered sugar just like hers would have been. I’m breathing in the same sweet, buttery and semi-toasted flour scents that she once did. And as I taste a cookie which I can now take my time enjoying in the warmth of my kitchen, I imagine her taste-testing her handiwork. I imagine she had to know what us kids were up to, and her chuckling to herself as she decided to let us get away with it, and I imagine being able to tell her how much those moments now mean to me, and how dearly I hold them in my heart.
Yield: about 40
Hello! I'm Kat.
Cooker, baker, amateur pottery maker.
I'm a CIA graduate (culinary arts & applied food studies) who previously studied anthropology.
Food obsessed. Anxiety disorder. Grief bearer.
Here you'll find recipes for what I'm currently craving and sometimes even why!