That’s not to say I don’t have traditions that I look forward to, especially at holiday time. I do make it a point to watch “Nestor the Long Eared Christmas Donkey” every year. And every year I cry when his Mom dies (my apologies if I've ruined it for you). Sappy, I know. I’d rather listen to Frank, Dean and Ella sing the classics than hear Justin Bieber’s version of Winter Wonderland. And really, wouldn’t you too?? But my favorite, it-just-wouldn’t-be-Christmas-without-it tradition is baking up several batches of a particular cookie I’ve been eating as long as I can remember...
The Swedish Cookie.
It’s my absolute, hands-down favorite holiday cookie and I look forward to the tradition of making them every year because it signifies the real start of the Christmas season for me. No matter where I’ve lived or how busy my life has been, even in the lean years when I couldn’t afford to decorate for Christmas, I always found a way to bake these cookies, because they feel like home.
Now, I must confess that I have no idea if these cookies are actually Swedish. I have no idea why they’re called Swedish cookies. I’ve Googled, I’ve searched, I’ve asked around. No one seems to know. And really, if Google doesn’t know, who does?! Evidently, even my choice of Christmas cookie is non-traditional traditionalist. Or, something like that. I’ve never given these cookies to anyone outside my family, who’s ever had them before. I’ve never seen them anywhere else and they don’t sell them at Ikea. My Grandma made them, my Mom made them, all of my Aunts made them, I just always remember them being there, but no one can remember exactly where these cookies came from - though my Aunt Harriett credits my Aunt Mona with finding the recipe somewhere.
What I do know for sure is these cookies are special. They’ve always wielded some brilliant power over me and everyone I share them with, which is interesting, because they’re quite humble at first glance. They don’t contain any fancy extracts or exotic, rare ingredients. Certainly nothing that screams “Swedish!” In fact they’re made simply from butter, cream cheese, flour, sugar, egg whites and walnuts. You could easily overlook them on a plate at a holiday party and dismiss them as not that interesting. Perhaps even a bit boring. But that’s where you’d be wrong. True, they’re not as glamorous-looking as those fancy cut-out, frosted confections all sprinkled and dragéed. They may not be formed into the shape of a reindeer or a snowman, but those meager ingredients come together magically into a cookie that is bigger than the sum of its parts and when you taste them, well, that’s where the real magic happens. They’re crispy and buttery and nutty and have just the right amount of crumble. The filling gets crackly and the pastry is flaky. They’re delectable, and dare I say, almost transcendent.
Nowadays, one of my favorite holiday traditions has become introducing these magnificent gems to new friends each year. I admit that secretly I hope they’ll love the cookies as much as I do, and perhaps, they’ll become a tradition for them as well. That, and I figure the more people who know about the humble Swedish Cookie, the better the chances of finding it on Google next year.
Swedish CookiesFOR THE DOUGH
1 pound unsalted butter, room temperature
1 pound cream cheese, room temperature
4 cups all-purpose flour
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting the board
FOR THE FILLING
3 large egg whites, lightly beaten
3 cups sugar
3 cups walnuts, finely chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
For the dough, cream together the butter and cream cheese in the bowl of a free-standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Slowly add the flour, a little at a time and mix on low speed until incorporated and just starting to come together. Turn dough out onto a board dusted with confectioners’ sugar and knead a few times, forming into a ball. Divide the dough into four equal parts, flatten into disks and wrap in plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator to chill for 1 hour.
While the dough is chilling, set to work on the filling. Whip the egg whites until foamy and able to hold a soft peak. Gently fold in the sugar and the walnuts. The mixture will be thick and dense.
Generously dust a board with confectioners’ sugar. Roll dough into a thin rectangle. I say thin, but not obnoxiously thin. It should be roughly under a quarter of an inch. After all, you are making cookies, not crepes. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into approximately 2 1/2 inch squares. I do this freehand. In other words, don’t worry about making them perfect. Place a teaspoon sized dollop of the filling in the center of each square and pinch the two opposite corners together. The scraps of dough can be gathered up, chilled and re-rolled. Transfer the cookies to a parchment lined sheet pan and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown and crisp
Note: The dough is very soft, so work quickly. I’ve found that chilling the cookies on the cookie sheet for about 10 minutes before baking will help keep the corners together.