It seems like just yesterday that I was tearing into the envelopes of reader recipes for our first Christmas cookie issue. But it wasn't yesterday at all, not even the day before. It was early fall 2002.
Some 250 readers sent in hundreds of recipes that first year, hoping to be included in the inaugural cookie extravaganza. I was thrilled — and intimidated — by the response. The sweet stories that tumbled from those envelopes made it clear that the special ingredient in Christmas cookies has to be love. The tales of Grandma's powdered-sugar delights were only outpaced by the number of delicious-sounding recipes, most of them handwritten the first couple of years. (Now the submissions are mostly sent via email.) How would we decide which ones to run in the paper?
But decide we did and two dozen recipes made it into the section, including one for Brickle, which has turned out to be the most popular — and easiest! — recipe we've run. I am not convinced it is even a cookie, but I do know it's the first to disappear from the holiday tray.
The project snowballed from there and each subsequent year brought in plenty of recipes and many repeat submitters. I have gotten to know many of them by name and feel an even stronger connection to the recipes because some have become family traditions at my house. (Yes, wolverines, I will start soon on the Peppermint Wands and Holiday Chocolate Bon Bon Cookies.) We've published more than 215 recipes — some years we just couldn't stop at two dozen — and the cookie project has spawned two cookbooks, O Christmas Treats in 2008 and Cookielicious in 2010.
Today is the 10th Annual Christmas Cookie Issue, and it seems appropriate to gather the best of the recipes to this point. It was a highly unscientific selection process, combining reader votes with our favorites here in the newsroom. We had a blast looking through past editions and remembering which cookies tickled our taste buds most. Yes, I have sampled every one. I hope you'll agree with our choices as you look through the following pages, and then select a few to make this season.
Permit me, if you will, a walk down Memory Lane, a road lined with crushed peppermint candy and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
• The aforementioned Brickle created a stir in 2002 with one reader who called to say that she had a big mess in the oven, thanks to the recipe instructions. The recipe calls for boiled brown sugar and butter to be poured over saltine crackers lining a baking sheet. The recipe didn't specify that the sheet needed a lip. Consequently, the red-hot mixture spilled off her rimless baking sheet and onto the bottom of the oven. That taught me a lesson about overestimating readers' cooking abilities. It never occurred to me that someone would pour liquid on a baking sheet with no edges. The recipe is now explicit about using a jelly roll pan.
• In the early years of the cookie project, I doled out recipes to willing bakers in the newsroom. I had lots of volunteers, proving that just because your beat is city hall doesn't mean you can't bake, too. That worked for a while, but it wasn't efficient, and because of varying abilities, it wasn't always an adequate test of the recipes. So in 2007, Karen Pryslopski, my friend and a photo editor at the St. Petersburg Times, took on the bulk of the testing in her home kitchen. It has always been important to us that each recipe is tested using common equipment.
Karen tries to complete the testing in October to give us time to photograph the cookies and design the section, which publishes like clockwork on the first Wednesday after Thanksgiving. The real challenge has been finding candied red and green cherries that early. (Karen learned after a year or two to save some in the back of the fridge for future use. Seriously, they keep.) I remember one year, going into the back storeroom at a then-Kash n' Karry where a male employee wearing a dress, wig and lots of garish makeup climbed a ladder to find them for me. It was Halloween.
• When I judge food, I usually take one bite, and if it's really good, I'll take another. Otherwise, I don't eat anymore. At a public cooking contest, this can sometimes hurt contestants' feelings. But think of it this way, there's no way a judge will eat 10 full bowls of chili. A bite or two is all it takes.
I wish I had a photo of Karen's face when she watched me take one nibble of a cookie she had baked and toss the remainder in the trash. "Yes, that's a keeper," I said. Her pained expression didn't much look like that of a winner.
• I've learned over the years that baking Christmas cookies is a special tradition for many families that builds memories for children. Because I make so many kinds of cookies for book signings and photo shoots, my son's memories are likely to be different than those of children who don't grow up the child of a food writer. He's a good sport who knows the broken and slightly burned cookies are for him; the good ones are for the photos. Heaven help me if he grows up to write a memoir.
• And last, I would be remiss not to mention the late James Bennett of Palm Harbor. It was a phone call from him in November 2000 that planted the seed for what has become a lovely Times tradition.
He called for advice about cookie sheets, but before we got there, he emotionally explained that he was attempting some Christmas cookies by himself that he and his late wife, Helen, had made each year of their nearly 30-year marriage. It had been three years since they had made them together. He got teary and I responded likewise, realizing at that moment the power of a cookie and how butter, sugar, flour and eggs conjure the special times that mark a family.
A few weeks after that call, a handful of Christmas Rocks arrived in my newsroom mailbox. The cookies were like miniature fruitcakes, each a melange of cinnamon and cloves, studded with raisins, dates, pecans and candied cherries. I shared them with a few lucky colleagues who gave them a thumbs up.
Mr. Bennett, who died in 2007, has become a part of my holiday memories and really a part of yours if one of the recipes we've run over the years has become a tradition at your house.
His is a sweet legacy. I am grateful for how he shared his story and his friendship over the years, and also for the hundreds of readers who have taken the time to submit recipes. I think together we've inspired a new generation of bakers.
Happy 10th anniversary!
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.