Update December 24, 2010: The lost caramel frosting recipe has been found. Here's the recipe for Grandma Poss's caramel frosting.
A holiday gift to family, friends and fellow foodies: I'm sharing with you a German Christmas cookie recipe that has been in our family for at least four generations. The Marr, Poss and Kisker clans will certainly be familiar with these treats. We know them as Grandma Poss's sugar cookies, but my mom relates that her maternal grandmother, Grandma Kisker (nee Knopf), always made these cookies for the family Christmas Eve gathering at the Kisker farmstead in the Missouri River bottoms of Platte County.
Earlier this year, I blogged about our family foodways. I will forever associate this holiday cookie recipe with visiting my grandparents at their farm, originally part of the Kisker property. (Well, not quite originally: Native Americans were pushed out when Platte County opened to settlers in the mid-1800s.) When I was in college, Grandma made up a box of sugar cookies for me to take back to my dorm after a Thanksgiving visit. Each holiday season, our kids put these at the top of the cookie request list. No wonder these sugar cookies been handed down so many generations; they're fabulous. They taste all the more special to me, because I make them with Grandma Poss' cookie cutters that were handed down to me.
Alas, the caramel frosting portion of the recipe was not recorded, but Mom has shared her memories of the recipe. I have been experimenting with variations for years and have settled on the Joy of Cooking's caramel frosting (found in the most recent print edition as well as past editions) as the closest to my memories of the family version. In the section below, I'll mention Mom's recollections as well as my modifications.
Integral to this recipe are chopped pecans for coating the frosting. Pecan trees are indigenous to the river bottom areas of Missouri. Smaller than their southern counterparts, Native Missouri pecans are also sweeter and richer with a higher oil content. When Mom was a child, native pecans were sometimes used for these sugar cookies. Indeed, I remember picking pecans from a tree that grew in the middle of a field Grandpa Poss farmed. The distinctiveness of Missouri pecans has contributed to a growing niche market. A couple years ago, when visiting my parents in Platte County, I picked up a bag of in-the-shell Missouri pecans and brought them back to Colorado. True to the claims, they were intense, sweet nuts.
Note on the yield: As given to Mom by Grandma, the recipe yields about 60 cookies. If you like to bake cookies as gifts or for holiday gathering, make according to directions. You can halve the recipe if you want a smaller yield. I almost always make the full original recipe, because the cookies do take time to make, but also, because they go really fast!
Yield: 5 dozen cookies
Preparation Time: 30 minutes for dough mixing, 4 hours refrigeration, 2 hours for frosting
1 c unsalted butter, softened
2 c sugar
4 large eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup milk (Grandma's recipes states sweet milk...as opposed to sour milk)
1/2 t salt
4 t cream of tartar
2 t baking soda
4 1/2 c flour (Grandma's recipe states 4-5 cups)
Mix together dry ingredients; set aside. In a mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar. Beat in eggs. Add milk and beat. Add dry ingredients, mix until well blended. Do not overbeat. Turn out dough onto a plate. Wrap with plastic wrap or wax paper. Refrigerate at least 4 hours (can be made a day ahead and refrigerated overnight).
To roll and bake cookies, preheat oven to 350o F. Flour rolling surface well. Roll 1/4 of the dough at a time; leave rest of dough in the refrigerator.
Cut out shapes with cookie cutter. Place cutters as close together as possible. After cutting as many cookies as possible, roll up scrap and place back in the refrigerator. Repeat process with next quarter of refrigerated dough. The last round of rolling will be made from the scrap dough. Re-roll dough only once more. With more rollings the cookies may turn out tough.
Caramel Frosting (Adapted from Joy of Cooking)
2 c heavy cream
4 c light brown sugar (Grandma used white sugar, Mom recalls)
4 T butter, salted
1 1/2 c finely chopped pecans (native Missouri pecans)
Heat cream and brown sugar in a medium size sauce pan until well mixed.
Position candy thermometer so that the temperature probe is centered and not touching the bottom of the pan. In the next picture I'm testing the variance between my thermometers in different positions.
Let cool to 110o F. Do not stir while cooling. The mixture will look like and taste like soft caramel at this point. Pour into mixing bowl. Whip until cool in temperature and light in color. If frosting thickens too much, add a bit of cream and continue mixing.
To frost cookies, transfer frosting to a pie pan. Place chopped pecans in a 2nd pie pan. To frost, turn cookie upside down and dip surface into frosting, twisting slightly for an even coat.
Place frosted cookie right side up on a cookie sheet. Repeat.
These cookies hold well for several days and actually soften and take on a cake-like texture with time, due to the frosting.
May your holidays be filled with the delight of enjoying food with family and friends.
Per-cookie Nutritional Profile (like you really want to know):
Fat, 11 g
Saturated Fat, 6 g
Cholesterol, 40 mg
Carbs, 24 g
Dietary Fiber, 1 g
Protein, 2 g
Sodium, 75 mg
Vitamin A, 6% Daily Value
Vitamin C, 0% Daily Value
Calcium, 2% Daily Value
Iron, 4% Daily Value