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If there’s one tradition that stands out in my mind for my family, it’s decorating Christmas cookies. It’s that tradition where everyone benefits - the baker has a beautiful homemade dessert to display on the Christmas buffet, and everyone gets to enjoy the delicious cookies all during the Christmas season. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without these charming and labor-intensive sweets.
The two women who started it all. My mother, Virginia and her best friend, Evelyn. Circa 1980s.
The Merrills have been doing this for around 60 years and the whole thing started before I was born when our family lived in Wichita, Kan. My mother and her best friend, Evelyn would make their cookie dough and bake out the cutout cookies at their own homes and meet the next day for decorating. This turned into a yearly event that later included daughters, daughters-in-law, granddaughters and even young grandsons on occasion.
Bowls of extra flour and water help make rolling out the dough more successful.
Everyone brings stacks of fresh baked cookies to Decorating Day.
The cookie decorating day lasts most of the day, including an easy but delicious lunch which has now evolved into incredible quiches from Andres, a legendary Kansas City restaurant that specializes in Swiss chocolates and confections. When asked what she likes best about cookie decorating, my daughter, Chloie insists, “I keep coming back for the quiche!”
And there are always gifts….
You see, this project is not for the faint of heart, and we need to reward ourselves. The night before is a bit stressful with all the rolling out of the dough and cutting out shapes and keeping track of what’s in the oven without burning a batch. But it’s really not Christmas until you all out burn a batch that cannot be consumed.
I think the biggest tip I have when rolling out the cookies is to continually flour your rolling pin and the rolling surface. This year our dough ended up dry, so we also had a bowl of water handy to wet the dough now and then. We would knead the dough like it was play dough to get it to the right moist consistency.
Rewards also involve Baileys in our morning coffee and wine with lunch. I think the Baileys in the coffee might be what keeps me coming back each year. Ha! Ha! I’m not kidding. It’s pretty tasty and a great reward for hard, grueling work in the kitchen
Betty Crocker icing tubes are the best!
I’ve had the question of what makes the cookies so shiny, and that leads to our secret ingredient for decorating. Count yourselves lucky I am sharing with you the secret of our beautiful cookies: Karo Syrup! Each decorator has a small bowl of Karo Syrup and a pastry brush at her place when she sits down. We lay down wax paper at each place and all the hundreds of jars of sprinkles sit in the middle of the table like a free for all.
And did I mention gifts? Yes, more rewards for all the hard work. We don’t spend much, but there are always gifts. So although it can be tedious work, we make it one of the most fun days of the year! My mom says, “You know, this isn’t for people that are nervous or shaking!” And she’s right. It takes a steady hand to use the icing tubes and make special designs.
We use Betty Crocker icing tubes in all colors. Be sure to buy assorted tips for different kinds of icing looks. There are “writer” tips for skinny lines and wider tips to look like fur on the boots or wavy ribbons. We keep the tips from year to year and leftover icing can be frozen for later use. This icing is really tasty - we have tried many over the years and always go back to Betty!
And when we are done, we lay them out to let the icing harden up and layer them with wax paper in metal storage tins. The ones that hold popcorn work great. I’ll never forget Evelyn telling me to get them in the refrigerator as soon as you put them in the storage bins. That will help harden the icing so that it doesn’t get crushed.
So I guess the question is, will the next generation carry on the tradition someday? I think it’s safe to say that at least my kids will carry it on - judging from the fact that I cannot EVER skip a year without making Christmas cookies, so they say!
1 c. Butter (not margarine)
1 1/2 c. Sifted powdered sugar
1 t. Vanilla
2 1/2 c. Sifted flour
1 t. Baking soda
1 t. Cream of tartar
1/4 t. Salt
Cream butter. Add sugar gradually, cream until fluffy. Add unbeaten egg and vanilla. Beat well. Sift together dry ingredients (I don’t do this anymore). Wrap dough in parchment paper and put in large ziplock. Chill. Roll on well-floured pastry cloth or surface to 1/8” thick. Cut with floured cookie cutters. Bake about 6 minutes. Cool on cake rack. Recipe makes 6 dozen.