One of the things that I like to think that I inherited from my mother, and her mother, is the understanding that “Christmas magic,” as intangible as the concept may seem, really comes from someone going out of their way to make something a little extra special. This doesn’t have to be incredibly time-consuming or expensive. It can be as simple as cutting out store-bought cookie dough with seasonal cookie cutters and tossing them in a cookie tin to share with friends.
As trite as it may seem, it really is the thought that counts, and that’s where holiday baking really comes into play. I know it’s officially Christmas time when my mom and grandmother’s refrigerators are filled with said cookie tins, each of those filled with a different candy or treat, ranging from chocolate-covered cherries to gingerbread. They seem to pop up overnight (like magic!) though I logically know that lots of work went into that illusion.
Over the last week, our staff writers and freelancers have all been hard at work on some holiday baking-themed stories that can, hopefully, help you swing your own version of homemade magic. This collection of stories was first featured in Salon’s weekly food newsletter, The Bite. Stay in the loop and get special recipes, essays and how-to’s from the archives straight to your inbox by subscribing.
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A brief history of the Christmas cookie
Before jumping into holiday baking, check out this very quick history of the Christmas cookie as we know them today. It’s quite a journey from ancient winter solstice feasts to suburban holiday cookie swap parties. As The Los Angeles TImes reported in 1960 of the “rising trend” of cookie parties: “From coast to coast, cooks are trading cookies and recipes to make gift boxes for Christmas. It provides a glamorous array of cookies for gifting, plus a hatful of leisure hours to enjoy in the last mad holiday rush.”
Nothing beats my Mom’s carrot cake, which is as simple to make as it is sublimely delicious
Maggie Hennessy has had other delicious carrot cakes in her life — but none stack up to her mom’s.
Of the other carrot cakes out there, she asks: “Are they as sweet, moist and tender (thanks to over a cup of oil and four whole eggs) with just the right hit of spice? Are they excessively frosted with the tangiest, richest cream cheese icing of all time? Are they blissfully free of nuts and raisins or currants, exactly as I think carrot cake should be?”
The answer? No. But with Hennessy’s recipe, you can make this perfect — though as she acknowledges, “perfect” is incredibly subjective — version at home.
If you’ve never had fresh panettone — you’ve never really had panettone
Speaking of perfection, as a child of the Midwest suburbs, my first introduction to panettone, a traditional Italian holiday bread, was definitely within the aisles of a T.J. Maxx. Starting in early November, tall boxes, often in jewel or metallic tones with a little ribbon affixed to the top as a sort of handle, begin to pop up on the …….