When I think back to my early Christmases, I hear a roar of laughter and voices that reach a sonic level one can only describe as a din. My father’s birthday fell on Christmas Eve, forever entwining his birthday party in the celebration of Christmas.
Each Christmas Eve, our house overflowed with family, friends and neighbors. Our family was large on its own with my six brothers and two sisters, but when the guests arrived, our house was bursting at the seams. The adults embraced and began their endless conversations while the little ones ran around and got away with things they could do on only such a night. Who could hear them over the party noise?
The boom of the men’s voices were cut through by high-pitched, joyous shrieks followed by laughter. I swear people just aren’t as animated as they were back then. No one has a voice like Mary Carol! The musicality of my aunts’ and uncles’ voices and laughs are etched in my memory.
The laughter! It came in waves; it erupted suddenly from nothing. We children would come running into the room to see what was happening or laugh along even when the joke was way over our heads.
There was an amazing spread of food: shrimp, smoked oysters, stuffed cabbage, stuffed shells, pickles, olives, salmon and cheese spreads, punch, chocolates, cookies and potica (a Slovenian nut roll). I’m sure my siblings have their own memories of the food. I was a good eater and loved the salmon log, so I was surprised to hear my brother John refer to it with disdain.
Now that I live many miles from most of my family and in a household of two, I crave the craziness of those Christmas Eve parties. That might be part of the reason that I recreate so much of the food that my grandmothers and mother made.
I try to make at least one heirloom cookie recipe during the holidays. My Grandma Williams made these almond cookies, which I thought were bland as a child, but I now appreciate. They are made with a yeasted dough, but you don’t have to wait for it to rise. When I take a bite of the first cooled cookie, it comes with an earful of memories.
• 1 package compressed yeast (or 1 package dry yeast)
• 2 1/2 cups flour (plus about 1/2 cup or more, as needed)
• 1/2 cup salted butter
• 1/2 cup shortening
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 2 egg yolks, beaten
• 1/2 cup sour cream
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
• Powdered sugar, for serving
• 2 egg whites, beaten until stiff
• 2 cups almonds, finely chopped or finely ground with a cheese grater
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 3 tablespoons sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 3 tablespoons cream
Soften compressed yeast in 2 tablespoons warm water (or let dry yeast bubble in 1/2 cup warm water).
Combine flour, butter, salt and shortening as pie crust, until it resembles coarse cornmeal.
Combine eggs, sour cream and vanilla; stir into flour mixture along with the yeast. Add more flour as needed to form a breadlike dough.
When mixed and kneaded smooth, place into a clean bowl, cover and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.
Make the filling by folding the remaining ingredients into the beaten egg whites.
Working with 1/4 of the dough at a time, roll thinly on a floured surface. Cut into 2-inch squares and place 1/2 teaspoon filling in the center of each square.
Roll diagonally, or fold opposite corners over the filling, to cover the middle. Dab the last corner with ice water before sealing.
Place 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet.
Bake at 350 F for 15 minutes.
Sift powdered sugar onto completely cooled cookies.
• Grandma said you can use any baker’s filling (apricot, raspberry or poppyseed), but she made it with this almond filling, as do I.