I love getting a gift of Christmas cookies, especially in a quantity large enough to exempt me from making my own batch. But, nevertheless, I usually find myself compelled to pull out my recipe box, cookbook, or my grandmother’s notes to find at least one recipe to make just so that I can say I baked for Christmas. It’s a badge of honor as a sometimes homemaker, sometimes writer, and all-the-time grandmother to adhere to the expectation that you will participate in the tradition of cookie making. And for some reason, this year, I am feeling the urge a little more than usual to bake a batch or two of an old family stand-by, the pressed cookie.
When I was young, my grandmother, Nonnie, would make a few types of cookies for the holidays. One of her favorite creations was the struffoli, a pile of ball shaped nuggets that were deep fried and drenched in a thick coat of honey and then sprinkled with multicolored round jimmies or, to the rest of the world of non-Bostonians, sprinkles. The cookie was gooey and over sweet, in my opinion, and I avoided them. I preferred the “angel wings” cookie, a piece of dough pinched in the middle like a bow, deep fried (do you see a pattern here?) and sprinkled with powdered sugar. It was less obnoxiously sweet and less tasty overall. In the end, it was the multicolored trees, stars, hearts, and wreaths, each one carefully extracted from the cookie press, that won out for me every time.
Maybe it is the different colors or the cute shapes but I believe that the pressed cookie, or spritz cookie, has a unique allure. The most versatile of the homemade holiday cookie, the pressed cookie is crafted from a simple butter cookie dough. The dough is squeezed into a cylindrical gadget and extruded by twisting a handle that will eventually and hopefully produce, based on the consistency of the batter, a shaped cookie, as dictated by the disk inserted at the front of the tool. Some of the disks lend themselves to various seasonal demands: with a shift in the introduction of food coloring, the green wreath can be a pink flower in the spring, the dog/reindeer are interchangeable since who is thinking reindeer in July, or the heart can double as a Valentine. Lightly sprinkled with some colored sugary crystals, the cookie can be dressed up and classed up enough for any occasion. In any case, the pressed cookie is a winner in my book.
I don’t remember just when or how it happened but Nonnie’s aluminum old-style cookie press migrated to my kitchen. I knew what the contraption was since I had watched my mother make the cookies throughout my childhood and I absorbed some of the technique. Over the years, I have made cookies, generated by the press combined with my brute force, for all sorts of events and parties. Some batches come out better than others, mostly due to over baking, or too little or too much food coloring. I still like pressed cookies, no matter what the complication.
In a moment of weakness, I made the leap to a what I thought would take my cookie pressing to a whole new level, a newfangled cookie press. It was a modern plastic design of Pampered Chef origin. In truth, the style is identical to my original press so it wasn’t a huge improvement in its physical appearance or its operation. It did have a few more disks than I still had, that is, haven’t been lost or misplaced. Excited about the prospect of a new and hopefully improved experience in cookie pressing, I embarked on my inaugural, and only, cookie press adventure with my new toy. I was left wanting more, or less. In truth, I wanted Nonnie’s cookie press. Not only was the new version not an improvement; it just felt wrong.
This afternoon, I will make up a batch of dough in anticipation of my grandchildren’s return from school. They love projects and it is a thrill to share with them not just the tradition and my love of pressed cookies but my respect for Nonnie’s cookie press. I am pretty sure that the press itself will be around for generations to come, unlike my plastic, modern, unused version. It’s one of those cases where older is truly better and tradition is the best thing of all.