Christmas cookies: memories in every last bite

By Janet K. Keeler, Times Travel and Food Editor
Published November 28, 2007

Just like you, I look forward to our annual Christmas cookie issue. And not just because I get to sample so many wonderful treats.

Many of the readers who submit recipes - this year there were more than 400 - also send along remembrances of the homemade treats that delighted them as kids. Even in beastly August, when the recipes start coming in, I'm moved by warm and fuzzy stories rolled in sugar and dipped in love.

Christmas cookies have the special power to transport us back to mother's kitchen or grandma's house. The adults may have been frazzled but we don't much remember anything but the smell of gingerbread.

Take for instance Sue E. Conrad's Yuletide Cookie Bars, printed in today's sixth annual cookie issue.

"Prior to moving to Florida in 1993, our four daughters told me I couldn't leave without giving them copies of the recipe," the South Pasadena resident wrote.

After tasting them, we can see why. They are a gooey delight.

There are plenty more treats, too. Mary Maskal of St. Pete Beach made the cut with her Raspberry Fudge Ecstasies, a favorite of her 89-year-old father. We had a difficult time finding raspberry chocolate pieces and resorted to breaking up a raspberry chocolate bar. The cookies were worth the effort.

We sometimes run across recipes that we like but the ingredients aren't readily available anymore. That was the case with Anna Hager's Date Whirl Cookies. The old family recipe called for a can of date filling, which we couldn't find in four grocery stores.

Anna says she hasn't made them in ages and doesn't see the date filling anymore either. We checked for similar recipes online and adapted one.

The more than 2 cups of hazelnuts in Kim Bauman's Hazelnut Crinkle Cookies cost $10, but the sophisticated flavor made us forget the bill. The recipe from the Orlando woman was one of our favorites. If you've never used the chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella, you're in for a treat.

It's difficult to winnow the recipes to the 30 we test. From those, we pick 24 to publish. As you go through this year's recipes you won't find sugar cookies, gingerbread or snowballs. These recipes are widely available. We offer something different.

Joining me in the quest are colleagues Linda Cole, Karen Pryslopski and Patty Yablonski. They all have other jobs in the Times' newsroom but are cookie lovers and good sports.

They are the Keeler Elves and I so appreciate their moral support and guidance. Barbara Moch puts the recipes into our computer system and alerts me when things don't look quite right. Only a good cook - and she is one - would catch these problems.

Karen is the unsung hero of the group. This year she tested all the recipes in her home kitchen. After two weeks of intense baking, she oozes butter, sugar, flour and eggs. Check out a photo of her workhorse kitchen at dining.tampabay.com.

Her favorites this year are the Choco-Coco Pecan Crisps submitted by Laura Peterson of Homosassa. Karen loves anything with coconut.

For sheer novelty, Karen recommends the Lemon Snowflakes from Janice Chandler of St. Petersburg. Three ingredients and one of them is a tub of Cool Whip. They are stupid-silly but so delicious.

Patty voted the Yuletide Bars and Raspberry Fudge Ecstasies as best. When Linda bit into a crispy-chewy Sugar 'N Spice cookie, she could have sworn her late grandmother had come back to bake. Thanks to Fran Culbertson of South Charleston, Ohio, for bringing back that memory.

Me? I'll take a pan of Oatmeal Carmelita Bars, submitted by both Mary-Ann Janssen of Dunedin and Gayle Hackbarth of Summerfield. And I'll follow you anywhere for Elaine Patenaude's Iced Cranberry-White Chocolate Drop Cookies.

But mostly I'm just happy that people are still baking up memories. And sharing them with us.