As a place to celebrate Christmas Gananoque was ideal. We had a Christmas tree to outdo all Christmas trees, our friends skied over from the island, the turkey was cooked just right; all in all a perfect day. Carl made me cookie cutters for Christmas cookies; I had every known animal, almost, and I made them with a little ring of dough at the top, through which we ran fine wire, and they hung all over the tree. Ducks, reindeer (those took some care in the baking), pigs, elephants, cats, chickens, geese, I could go on indefinitely. Those on the lower branches were the sole property of our cat, Peter. It was funny to see him nonchalantly reach up with his paw and knock one down, then lie under the tree and eat it. His Christmas package was always the same; a box of puffed rice wrapped as any other Christmas gift and tied with a red ribbon. He attended to the unwrapping with perfect ease. I can’t say he cleared up the mess afterward, but neither did the children.
Madonna Ahrens on Christmas in
When I first read these lines written by my great-grandmother, I could smell a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg in the air. I remembered those cookies; my dad made them a few times in my own childhood, always lamenting that he did not have his grandfather’s animal cutters. He stopped making them around the time his mother passed away. Perhaps the memory of her rolling out the dough grieved him, though he never spoke of it.
It was Christmas time when I began researching for my book on Carl and Madonna Ahrens. I had a small child of my own by then and desired a way to bring the past alive for her in a way a three-year-old would appreciate. Aunt Siegie happily supplied me with the Imperial cookie recipe, and mentioned that she had some of Granddaddy Carl’s handmade cookie cutters. She sent me tracings of them so I could see what they looked like, and my Dad used the pattern to make a copy of the rooster. I’ve made the cookies every year since.
Christmas is a season of nostalgia, so perhaps it’s not so unusual that I’d feel especially close to the ghosts of Christmas past at this time of year. Making Granny Madonna’s cookies allows me a connection to family I never had the chance to know in life. My kitchen smells the same as Madonna’s would have when she made them. Like my grandmother, I think they taste best after being dipped into hot chocolate. This year, in memory of my aunt Siegie, who passed away this past April after a four year battle with cancer, the first cookie I reached for was the pig. Among the things I received after her death was a box containing cookie cutters in the shape of a goose, rooster, squirrel, camel and pig. The first time I used them I saw a flash of Siegie seated at a table flanked by her mother and Granddaddy Carl. Madonna stood behind Carl, her hands on his shoulders, cheek resting on the top of his head. All were young, healthy, and laughing. While I miss Siegie very much, I couldn’t bring myself to feel sad.
In honor of the memories of Carl, Madonna, Tutu, and Siegie, I share this recipe with all of you and hope you have a wonderful holiday.
Imperial Cookies (From the kitchen of Madonna Ahrens)
1/3 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg (well beaten)
¼ cup milk
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon
Cream shortening (with fork or pastry cutter)
Add sugar, egg, milk and vanilla and cream again
Sift together remaining (dry) ingredients
Add dry ingredients to butter mixture ½ cup at a time
Cover and chill in refrigerator for 24 hours. [Madonna must have put it in the snow before they had electricity.]
When ready to bake, take some dough and roll out on a floured board as you would a pie crust. [Kim leaves it a bit thicker for softer cookies.]
Use cookie cutters to cut out cookies. You can re-roll the dough, but try to place the cutters as close together as possible. The dough can get tough if you reuse too much. [Kim adds fresh dough in each time she re-rolls.]
Lay cookies out on a cookie sheet. Cook at 360 degrees until they are lightly browned on the bottom. [Eight minutes works for Kim.]
Let cool and enjoy – especially with hot chocolate!