Sunday, December 18, 2011

Home Alone With Nana Mitchell's Christmas Cakes

'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the house, the stockings hung, the trees festooned, the halls bedecked, the greeting cards...well, the greeting cards will get done sooner or later.  'Twas the week before Christmas and it was time to make the doughnuts--er--the Christmas cookies and suddenly all those who eat them here at Blooming Hill became as extinct as a Yule Tomte (Swedish Christmas Elv) vacationing in the Caribbean.  They dashed away, dashed away, dashed away all.  Except for the one who was hoping  to get his fair share of the cookie dough.

Me in my Christmas apron that the prodigal son made when he was 4-years old.
Anyway, I had been putting off this annual Christmas joy long enough--for these particular cookies, known as "Nana Mitchell's Christmas Cakes", a Rinek family favorite as well as a secret family recipe handed down through my mother-in law, Lynn's Scottish side the the family, the Mitchell's, makes 12 dozen cookies from one recipe alone.  They were calling my name as they do every year about this time. I had to give in to the strong pull of this family tradition and resigned myself to the two-day (at least for me) chore of Christmas Cake cookies baking. (Honestly, to me, this Christmas cookie making business rivals harvesting lavender under the sweltering late June sun with 75% humidity, all the while gnats and other bugs are stinging my eyes!)

My trusty Kitchen Aid Mixer--a gift from my mother-in-law, long ago.
I first tasted these very chewy Christmas Cake cookies long ago, when I was but a young lass in the late 1970's while dating Peter.  It was Christmastime and I was at his house watching Lynn and one of my future sisters-in-law at that time, Linda, all happy and flitting around the kitchen as if baking these things were easy...ohhh, how they had me fooled all aproned up and smiling as if they were in an episode of "Bewtiched."  You get the picture, right? I was told then that this was a secret family recipe and I was only dating Peter so, sorry, I couldn't help. Our engagement would not be for another few years, but I was drawn into the romance of it all, hook, line and sinker! 

When the engagement and then the marriage came in 1980, I was finally enlightened in the ways of Nana Mitchell's Christmas Cakes and for the first 10 years or so of my marriage, I dutifully made these things that took hours and hours of grinding and mixing of ingredients then combining this mixture with even more ingredients that still shall remain nameless to the general public before spending hours baking 12 dozen of these babies.  If my sisters-in-law and nieces on the Rinek side of the family are reading this, I hope they are nodding their heads in agreement as to the intensive labor that goes into these things.  Yes, I know for our childrens' sakes, who all seem to have been born with the same specific Rinek/Mitchell gene that programs them to come out of the womb begging for these things to be made at Christmas, I know the effort is entirely worth it.

However, here I am, thirty-one years into the marriage with the lingering memory of Lynn and Linda, looking pretty and happy with cookies filling every available space of my mother-in-law's kitchen those thirty-five years ago and I'm all alone making these blasted things in my own kitchen...sigh.  Peter, off to his monthly poker game, as if that takes precedence over family tradition, and the prodigal son deciding to stay at college to "just hang out for another day after grueling finals"--his words, not mine--I'll show him grueling alright!  Still it could be worse, the dog could be out carousing with the devil deer, yet he chose to stay for his own reasons.  Again it has something to do with licking one of the batter bowls...hope springs eternal!

Back to Nana Mitchell's Christmas Cake cookies that I have made at least every other year for the last twenty or so years, sometimes with help from Peter and the prodigal son and sometimes all on my own with an audience of at least one trusty dog or cat close by, not missing a trick.  I will admit to playing "hookie" from these cookies now and then, but not very often. They are a much loved cookie here at Blooming Hill so, I persevere in honor of Lynn and all of the Mitchell women who came before her that made these cookies for their beloved families.

As I stand here thanking God that I have the blessings of a Cuisinart and Kitchen Aid Mixer to get me through this arduous task, I try to imagine how Lynn's mother, the Nana Mitchell that Peter and his siblings always refer to, was able to make these things without the benefit of modern appliances to do the heavy work of these meaty, chewy, cakey cookies?   Oh yea...that's right...Nana Mitchell had two little Irish maids that cooked as well!  And now, back to the cookies...where was I?

So, this year, I'm home alone on day two, determined to accomplish this Christmas Cake cookie-making crusade and wondering why this recipe is so special as to be secret?  I pull the recipe out carefully and look it over for the hundredth time and then pull another recipe out from Peter's other grandmother, Gammy Rinek.  It's an old Quaker recipe.  I must say...these vintage recipes call for only the hardiest of Christmas cookie baking souls to attempt, much less survive making them altogether.  This one called Orange Bread, involves candied orange peel, and currant jelly along with six cups of flour and lots and lots of butter!  I remember these as being just delicious, as well as even harder to make and almost like a hard candy of sorts--can be a bit rough on the teeth and gums!  I carefully fold the paper back up and stash that one away in my recipe files under the category of  "Don't Even Think About It!"

I reach for the glass of wine accompanying me through this lonely Christmas chore of rolling and cutting and sprinkling of cookie cake shapes and decide to add a Swedish spin to this Scottish recipe and dunk a star shaped morsel into the wine, let it soak up a good bit of it and then bite off that portion to savor.  Ahhhh, now this is where the secret begins!  Delicious--maybe not part of the recipe, but definitely worth adding to the instructions.  I'm not so home alone anymore but enjoying the fruits of my labor and many happy memories of Christmas's past.

A little lavender mulled wine makes everything taste good!
'Twas the week before Christmas and I'm finally done with the cookies, all the dough is finally rolled, baked and stored away and the kitchen is back in order. "Nana Mitchell's Christmas Cakes" will probably be polished off in almost the same time it took me to prepare them.  But, isn't that what makes Christmas cookies, no matter if they are old family recipes or not, worth the work?  I think so.  Next up...Christmas cards!...Hey, where did everybody go?


  1. Christmas CAKES! I love the homey feel of this post--right up to the mulled wine at the end. Happy holidays!

  2. I'd love to sto by and have some lavender-mulled wine and some of those Christmas cakes!
    I'm often left alone to do the baking and cutting and cleaning up... and then they want to eat everything! Sheesh. Merry Christmas, Cyndie! :)