A taste of the Old World at Christmas, these cookies will dress up anybody’s holiday sweets tray, but for me, they are a rich memory of my mother.
Cookie baking was quite the production in the Reinhardt household, but I don’t have vivid memories of it being a particularly joyful process. It could be my memory is beginning to dull (actually, that’s likely the reason), however, Mom and Grandma tackled the cookie task as a general planned a military strike with planning, precise execution, and a thorough clean up.
There’s a woman with whom I worked who, along with her sisters, would set aside a weekend, crank up the Christmas music, pull down bottles of wine, and crank out hundreds of cookies for them to split up and give as gifts or to enjoy with their respective families. We didn’t do that. The old KitchenAid standing mixer held vigil in our kitchen for a solid three weeks, with the brunt of the work beginning the day after Thanksgiving and continuing until a week before Christmas.
As batches were baked, Dad (I helped as I got older) packed them in unused tin ink “kits” he’d bring home from his work and lug them downstairs for storage. You see, we couldn’t eat the cookies until Christmas. That may seem harsh, but cookies often were packed for gifts to bring to Mom and Dad’s work, and the mail carrier, the pastor, family and friends; the quantities couldn’t be messed with so that each platter got the exact amount of and variety of cookies.
And the offerings, for the most part, stayed the same each year: chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin, apricot bars, lemon drops, thumbprint cookies, buttery spritz, cut-out sugar cookies, pecan balls (snowballs are another name), and Hungarian butterhorns. This was the go-to list, and as inspiration moved them, one or two new varietals would be added.
The butterhorns were baked each year because my maternal grandparents were immigrants from Austria-Hungary coming to the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, probably before World War I. Growing up, I thought my family was the only one with those weirdly shaped nutty crescent cookies; I accepted Mom baked them each year because her mother probably did. Of course, I later learned that these cookies are quite common in U.S. states with central European immigration history, including Missouri. The German name for these cookies is Schnecken, which means “snail.”
In fact, one of the best Hungarian butterhorn cookies is made by my friend, Randy Cosby. Randy is a great cook and a wonderful baker. And like my mother, he’s a frank, honest, and good person. We worked together in the 1980s at a community newspaper.
Randy treats his close circle of friends to a tin of amazing Christmas cookies each year, and the first time I was lucky enough to be blessed with this gift, I remember calling in my thank you. “Randy,” I said, “these are beautiful cookies. Please thank Jane for baking them.” To which he replied (and I’m paraphrasing) “What the hell! I baked the (blank) cookies!”
Laughing as I wiped egg off my face, I had confessed to Randy I had no idea after these many years of knowing him and his wife, Jane, that he had a passion for baking. Don’t you love discovering something new about your friends? Nowadays, Randy’s slowing down the holiday baking to better enjoy retirement with Jane and a new granddaughter.
Hungarian butterhorns have a wonderful chew to them, and they are not overly sweet. In fact, there’s no sugar at all in the dough, and the filling is just sweet enough. Tip: keep dough chilled when you’re not rolling it. And you'll have a greater chance of success with the egg whites if you beat them in a metal or glass bowl.
I didn’t have much of a relationship with my material grandparents, so my mother was the main connection to my Austrian-Hungarian roots, and she made that connection through food. Now, when I bake these cookies for our holidays, I think about Mom as well as my good buddy, Randy. Happy holidays, Catman!