Cookies, and the traditions that come with them, are at the heart of many family holiday celebrations.
Whenever December rolls around, I crave our family favorites: Swirls of dates rolled in between layers of buttery dough, tri‑colored Neapolitan cookies with chocolate drizzles, savory-sweet almond crescents.
And I'm not alone. Many of the recipes submitted for The World Herald's annual 12 Days of Cookies competition, sponsored by Roberts Dairy Foods, come not just with a list of ingredients but with a story.
We asked some of the readers who submitted recipes, and some who didn't, to share their stories of holiday cookie baking through the years. Some are sweet, some are funny. All are filled with holiday memories.
Jeanna Stavas owns Whispering Pines Bed and Breakfast in Nebraska City and she serves her guests the same cookies she made with her mom as a child.
“My mom had me in the kitchen baking as soon as I can remember,” Stavas said. “It was never Christmas until we made sugar cookies.”
Stavas said the cookies are the classic sugar cookie, mixed by hand, cut into holiday shapes and sometimes frosted and decorated with sprinkles.
The cookies are shortbread-like in flavor. Stavas said some people like them thin and crispy and others, her brother included, like them thicker and chewier. Over the years, she's made batches of the cookies for friends and co-workers, has taken them to parties and has baked and decorated batches with those she mentors.
“When my mom died a couple of years ago, I got back the cookie cutters I used as a kid,” she said. “It's kind of like they have gone full circle.”
Omahan Audra Cavanaugh makes cookies with her two children, their grandmother and Cavanaugh's aunt each year. Some years, Cavanaugh's grandmother joins in, too. The four generations don't get fancy with the cookies — they're just plain sugar — but they do get fancy with the shapes.
“We always try to find odd cookie cutters, and we decorate the cookies very detailed,” Cavanaugh said. “We put scarves on squirrels and polar bears with sprinkle fringe.”
This year, the family plans to donate some of the cookies to a school drive that will donate the homemade treats to a local shelter.
Even after Omahan Karen LaCroix's family left Minnesota, where she was born, her family's Scandanavian traditions continued. After they moved away, her mom would send her and her siblings boxes of krumkake, which are sweet, thin, crispy cookies made by rolling the dough around a form. When LaCroix was a child, her mother made the cookies with a cut broomstick handle and an old iron that fit over a gas burner on her stove.
She stopped making them as she got older, and LaCroix missed the tradition.
“I was elated when I found a VillaWare electric krumkake iron online,” she said.
The device allows her mother to sit at a table and make two of the cookies at a time. LaCroix's niece and nephew had eaten krumkake but had never seen anyone make it before. Last year, the family visited LaCroix's mother and made krumkake for the Santa Lucia Festival in Sioux City, Iowa.
“We had a little krumkake factory happening at her kitchen table,” LaCroix said.
The cookies can be eaten plain, though LaCroix said her family has been known to fill the cones with whipped cream before serving.
Darlene Menard and her husband spent Christmas in 1956 in Paris. The holiday arrived after they'd been in France for just two months — Menard's husband was in the Air Force — and he missed his grandmother's cookies. So Menard wrote his grandmother and asked for her peanut butter cookie recipe. She made the treats that year and has continued the tradition every year since.
“I still treasure the letter with the recipe in her handwriting,” she said.
Glenwood, Iowa, resident Carolyn Demory's grandmother brought the recipe for “S&O Cookies” with her to the United States when she emigrated from Denmark.
“She always told me that it was a gift to be able to make someone something to eat,” Demory said in her 12 Days of Cookies entry. “And if it was something sweet, it was a blessing.”
When Demory was a kid, she and her cousins would ask their grandmother to make the letter-shaped cookies in different letters, but she always made them in the same “S” and “O” shapes every year.
“This was a family tradition she would never change,” Demory said.
The “S” stood for the first letter of her grandmother's maiden name.
“You will just have to imagine what the O stands for, the same way I did as a kid in her kitchen in Phillips, Nebraska.”
Omahan Lynn Lewis remembers her husband's grandmother, Grandma Gen, welcoming people into her home with an offer of coffee and cookies.
“These sugar cookies were like a drug,” she said. “Once you ate one, you craved them.”
When Gen died a year ago, the first thing Lewis did was make a batch of her cookies.
“Genevieve was one of those ladies that made you feel lucky to know,” she said. “She had a wicked sense of humor, loved her family passionately and was the personification of the cooking grandma.”
After she died, Lewis said, eating the cookies made the time bearable for the family, and they talked over her cookies and coffee.
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