Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Christmas Cookies from the Grave!

 You just never know where you'll find a recipe.

Find A Grave

I saw this making the reposting rounds and just had to give it a go.

Mom's Christmas Cookies
Cream:1 cup sugar
½ cup oleo
Add:2 beaten eggs
1 tsp vanilla
Add:3 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

Add the flour alternately with 1 cup cream.
Chill and roll out with flour.*
Bake at 350° until golden on the bottom when you lift one up to check. Cool, then frost.

*I found it easiest to just coat the entire dough ball in flour and dust off any excess before rolling. It did not stick at all.

Maxine Menster's grave via The Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette

 I thought Maxine Menster had said she'd let others have her recipe over her dead body, but her daughter and husband said in an interview that she would readily give the recipe to whoever asked while she was alive. They thought etching the recipe on her grave was a sweet and fitting tribute to Mom. Maxine Menster is still giving out cookies and happiness even after she died.

And so, let us get to making cookies! While we keep most baking ingredients at hand, we had to do a wee bit of shopping for this. We don't have cream, nor do we have...

I was going to use actual butter since we already have it in the house, but Maxine Menster specifically tells us to use oleo. (As a side note, I would love to see a map of what places say oleo and what places say margarine.) I thought about using butter anyway, but I remember reading an article a while ago about someone who tried to make one of his late mother's signature cookies. He had the recipe in her handwriting, but it never came out as good as hers did. He made sure to only ever get the best quality ingredients. But while his various attempts were delicious, he could never quite match what Mom made. Then he remembered that Mom had always had a box of margarine in the refrigerator. After he cast aside the top-quality butter and used the cheap margarine, the cookies set off bells and flashbacks when he ate them. So, to ensure that we have the same cookies that Maxine Menster's family thought worth literally setting in stone, we have obtained margarine.


Margarine has always been so soft right out of the refrigerator that I've never had to let it un-refrigerate before. I think it's one of the many conveniences of modern chemistry-derived foods. But this stuff was so hard that no amount of spoon-bashing would make it break down and mix with the sugar. Maxine Menster directs us to cream them, but we couldn't even de-lump the oleo. Then we remembered: this kitchen has a dishwasher! We can bring out the power tools without having to handwash them later!

Because we had a dishwasher, we could also expend the bowl and tiny whisk necessary to transform our intact egg into the beaten egg that Maxine Menster tells us we should be using. Rarely do I ever beat eggs in advance; I've always figured they'll be beaten enough once they're mixed in good and hard.

I'm not sure what this tiny whisk is for, but it's perfect for these tiny little bowls of egg.

I thought that once we'd used the mixer to force the margarine and sugar to cream together as if I'd taken the former out to soften, it'd be a short road with a wooden spoon to get everything else mixed. I was quite wrong. The margarine-sugar stuff in the bowl was as hard as those artificial butter sticks had been before I ever did anything with them. This is the best I could manage after an unnecessarily long time attempting to stir them with a spoon.

Soften your oleo before baking, everybody!


Fortunately, our wonderful electric mixer was already at hand and ready to succeed where hand-stirring failed.


The curds floating in sugary soup gave me flashbacks to another unfortunate time we had a dessert recipe look like curds floating in whey. I was starting to fear that I had gone out and bought margarine and cream for a failure of a recipe and a waste of time. Had Maxine done that bit where you sabotage your ingredients when giving out the recipe so that no one else can ever make it as good as you? Was this a prank from beyond the grave? Did I forget the vanilla?

There. I remembered now.

If this recipe failed and turned into a paste-like mess like the last time my batter turned into cottage cheese, I was ready to be irked at Maxine Menster, her family who picked this gravestone, and the stonecutters who foisted it upon the world. But we gamely moved forward, thanking our friendly local drive-thru for their generous donation to Our Pantry of Cookrye.

The free salt packets (as if fast food isn't briny enough) partially made up for the cream we had to buy for today's recipe. It's been a long time since I bought cream for anything. I'd forgotten how thick it is. Check out the height of the dome it's making in the measuring cup.

It's striking how this recipe comes so close to butter. First we use imitation butter, now we're using butter in its raw, unchurned state. It coats the batter like slime before it actually mixes in.

I don't know what the cream is supposed to do in this recipe. When I tasted the dough, I was kind of expecting a massive, magical flavor change from it. After all, why use such a rarely-deployed ingredient (well, rarely-deployed in cookie dough anyway) if it's not going to make your cookies into ecstasy on a cute plate? But despite tasting anticlimactically normal, the dough did taste really good. And it finally stopped being so curdled and weird. It now looked, well, creamy.

It also fit perfectly in an old pint tub. We're halving the recipe, so if you're making Maxine Menster's original quantities, you will need two empty sour cream containers to hold it all. Well, they did say it was her Christmas cookies. And while Christmas cookie recipes are different everywhere you bake, they always crank out enough to feed your entire extended family as if you haven't been making an entire holiday feast.

Ready to refrigerate!

While the dough was having its meditation time in the refrigerator, we decided to go ahead and get the icing ready. We decided to economize and use the rest of the margarine stick that we'd put into the cookies. After all, if the margarine was so resolutely rigid, surely it would give us icing that would stand majestically rather than drooping whenever we tried to make a cute design. That did not work, and all we got out of the icing was sugar glop.

Fortunately, our icing could be saved. We still have a massive can of shortening in the pantry from when we made the Hillary Clinton cookies. A little bit of it would be just the thing to prop the icing up whenever we try to pipe it into peaks.

Hillary Clinton made this moment possible.

Sure enough, our icing now had the strength to stay wherever we put it. It did not drip, nor did it ooze. Now that we had succeeded at the making of icing, we could see that it was sadly colorless. Sadly for my magenta dreams, we only found one stray bottle of yellow.

 In an inadvertent tribute to the margarine Maxine Menster led us to, the icing was precisely the same shade of artificial yellow. 


To prevent the icing from drying out, I put it in an old margarine tub. It really does look like we still have imitation butter in there. I was a bit worried someone would get out the tub of margarine, see a margarine-looking substance in there, and get an undesired sweet surprise after putting it on toast.

Well that's the icing done. Let's have a look at the cookie dough, which by now was chilled out enough to roll without it oozing everywhere. It held itself together well enough once we had it out, but it first put up a surprisingly strong effort to stay stuck to the tub.

This next step is apparently controversial among bakers: the dough was so sticky that I plopped it onto the mound of flour, getting all sides good and coated. I've done this every time a dough turns out hopelessly sticky. 

Some baking teachers will say it's a great way to actually get your cookies and rolls to be the shape you want. Without getting your cookie dough thoroughly covered in flour to barricade the stickiness, your fingers and your spatula would pull and stretch your unbaked creations out of their cute shapes whenever you  when you try to move them. But contrary to my successful experience, others will say it makes everything ruinously floury and glutenous. As for me, I started doing it long before I ever took a baking class. It always works in my hands, and it spares me many hours of scouring stuck-on dough from the rolling pin and countertop.

We don't have a baking Drawer Of Dreams in this kitchen. There is no magical stash of fifty kinds of colored sprinkles and every cookie cutter you could ever wish for. So we had to fall back to that old standby: a cup. I could have been even lazier and just cut the dough into squares, but you don't botch and butcher recipes from beyond the grave. 

While cups are of course perfect for cookie cutting, it's annoying when the dough sticks in there and you can't just gently push it out from above. You end up awkwardly shaking it until your cookie falls free, trying not to shake it too hard lest you fling it across the kitchen.

I knew these cookies were going to expand a bit because we put baking powder in them. But I was not prepared for their dramatic expansion. They entered the oven looking like crackers...

...and emerged shortly thereafter looking like rolls!

Now I usually don't ice cookies because my baking urge is usually sated by the time the first things come out of the oven. But Maxine Menster said they should be iced. The instructions are literally set in stone. But with that said, I think every iced cookie should be good without icing. If it's a lousy cookie hiding its lameness under icing, all you're doing is shoveling icing into your cake hole. Therefore, I made sure to try one before icing any of them. 

When I started this recipe, I was worried what to say if they were bad. I don't believe you should sanctimoniously speak no ill of the dead, but I didn't want to say that Maxine Menster made lousy cookies all her life. As soon as I tasted one of these, all my worries about tact in the face of disappointment melted just like the cookies do in your mouth. They are amazing. They're light, yet at the same time wonderfully dense. They're exactly sweet enough to be lovely, but not enough to overload you.

I piped the icing on because I figured it'd be easier and faster to just squirt it on top than to try to spread it. It's weird icing Christmas cookies by myself. It was always a ritual growing up: everyone got two or three of the cookies Mom had made earlier that day, and we could spend as long as we want putting as many colors of icing and different cake decorations on them. Icing all the cookies yourself is like when one year someone offhandedly asks you to stuff the stockings since you were going to be up at 3AM anyway. It's not so much that the "magic of Christmas" (read: those years before you realize the labor involved) is ending, it's just yet another confirmation that you're not nine anymore.

If we look from left to right, we can see how I was first a bit shaky-handed, then I got the knack of it, then I got overconfident and sloppy. Let's  instead look at after I got them on an actual tray because you can't stack iced cookies on a plate.

At first I thought they were cute spirals, but then I realized that I just made an entire batch of cookies look like car cigarette lighters.

In conclusion, these cookies are amazing. I would definitely keep the recipe at hand.  They're delicious uniced, but a bit of icing only makes them better. These cookies disappeared at a fast rate once they were cooled and iced. If I hadn't cut the recipe in half, we'd all be worried about the fit of our clothes from these marvels of cream and oleo.

Have a wonderful holiday, everyone! Remember to stay at home, and tell your nearest and dearest to visit another time after this disaster is over. It's better to cancel Christmas this year than to end up putting your own beloved recipes on your tombstone lest they get buried with you.


  1. I never thought the word oleo was a regional thing. I always assumed it was a time marker: a sign that a recipe was from the 1970s. Maybe that's because all my mom's handwritten recipes from when she was newly married said "oleo," but she always said "margarine." I'd never heard the word and had to ask her what it meant when I copied the recipes as a teenager.

    1. That makes more sense. I haven't seen many recipes past the early 80s use the word.

  2. When I made english muffins, I used a washed tuna can as a cookie cutter. It worked way better after I used a nail to punch some holes in the bottom of it to break the vacuum. Just a thought if you wanted to upgrade your no cost cookie cutters. Think of all the different size cans you can wash and punch holes in.

    1. I never thought it might be a vaccuum causing this. I'll save and punch our next tomato paste can.

  3. Is it weird to call a gravestone cute? Because "cute" is undeniably what this is.

    1. I think it's really charming, and a wonderful epitaph.

  4. Wow! I read this whole thing! What an adventure. I'm asking my husband to bake these for me ASAP.

    1. Thank you for thinking it was worth the read! If he makes the cookies, I hope you both like them.