Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas at Aunt Dot's, and Cherry Walnut Cookies

This was one of the longest unbroken holiday traditions in my family: up until her death about 5 years ago, we would go to visit my aunt (actually my great-aunt) Dottie (short for Dorothy - her middle name was Clarissa, isn't that a pretty name?) in her old farmhouse on the outskirts of Sackville, Nova Scotia every Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). Aunt Dottie always greeted us with big smile, a "hello dear!", a hug and a kiss. She was very short, even shorter than me, so that by the time I reached full adult height, I was always stooping over her to hug her. She was the sweetest old lady, truly out of a storybook.

I loved her farmhouse too--it was over 100 years old, and had tons of character. It used to actually be a farm, but that was long before I was born, when Aunt Dottie was a young wife and mother.

The farmhouse was always chilly, so she had a space heater in the living room, but what you'd be struck by first when you entered the house from the cold closed-in porch, through to the kitchen (as most old houses in Nova Scotia do - the kitchen was the heart of the home, for meeting, greeting, and often entertaining) was the wonderful heat coming from the old wood stove that was used to both help heat the house, and to keep the perpetual tea kettle warm (another Nova Scotia tradition: you always have a tea kettle on in case company comes over). :)

There would always be a lot of snow outside, covering the nearby fields--really picturesque. This visit was our family's time to catch up on a branch of the family that we (not on purpose) just didn't get to see very much. She would tell us all the news of relatives we hadn't seen in years, and she would get news about us to transmit to the rest of the family. When I was small, I would bring coloring books and stuff to keep me occupied, but as I got older, I found the family talk more interesting, and paid more attention to it. :) Aunt Dottie's daughter and her husband, who lived next door, would come over after a few hours, and we'd get to talk to them, too. :)

To go with the aforementioned tea, she always had a huge array of snacks and sweets to serve company. Cheese and crackers, chips with dip (which was a rare treat for me), and cookies (more on that below), and chocolates! Tons and tons! When she was younger (in her 70s!) she'd make an elaborate beef roast dinner for us as well, and serve it on this gorgeous set of Apple Blossom china dishes she had. But when she was in her 80s, we felt bad about her going through all that effort, so we wouldn't announce we were coming until the morning of our trip, so she couldn't have time to prepare. :) The sweet old bird lived to her early 90s.

For a Christmas present, she always gave me a box of After Eights, because I enjoyed them best from the collection of chocolates she'd offer guests. As a kid, to get a whole box of chocolates, just for me, was incredible!

We'd stay the whole day, and leave once it got dark. As we drove back to the city, we could see all the pretty Christmas lights on the houses, and the beautiful lights of the city in the distance. A very quiet, peaceful way to spend a day. :)

As I mentioned above, Christmas cookies were a big part of the spread that Aunt Dottie laid out for us. It's always fun to go to other people's houses, and see what different kinds of cookies they have, compared to your own home. Even a standard like shortbreads can be made several different ways, and they all taste a little bit different. :) My favorite cookie that Aunt Dottie used to make was a shortbread type cookie, with cherries and nuts in it. I had forgotten about them, until I saw a recipe that was almost identical to them in the December 2005 issue of Canadian Living Magazine (recipe by Chef Anna Olsen). I was so happy to find it! I baked them last year, and really enjoyed them - I think I'll make them every year to honour Aunt Dottie's memory.

Cherry Walnut Cookies Recipe

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup icing sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups candied red cherries, cut in half or thirds
1 cup walnuts, chopped

In bowl, beat butter with sugar until fluffy; beat in egg and vanilla. (Or use a food processor - spin the butter around, then add sugar and mix at medium setting until fluffy. You may have to scrape down the sides a couple of times. Then add egg and vanilla, mix again, and scrape down sides. Scoop out contents into bowl, and continue). Add flour and salt; stir until blended. Stir in cherries and walnuts. Divide into thirds; shape each into 10" (25 cm) long log. Wrap and chill until firm, at least 3 hours. You can use a glass on it's side to hold the cookies in, this will help keep their rounded shape, instead of getting squashed flat on one side.

Cut logs into 1/8th" or 3 mm thick rounds (I cut them about 1/4"), and place about 1 inch (2.5 cm) apart, on parchment lined baking sheets. Bake in top and bottom thirds of 325 deg F oven, rotating and switching pans halfway through, just until edges begin to colour, 8-10 minutes. Or you can do one sheet at a time, on a rack in the top third of the oven. These cookies brown even faster than shortbreads, so keep a close eye on them! I start checking early, and they're usually done around the 8 minute mark. You can see a proper amount of browning in my photo above, on the overturned cookie.

Let cool on pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack and let cool completely (you have to let them completely cool before storing them, otherwise they'll get soggy). Store layered with waxed paper in airtight container for up to 2 weeks, or freeze for up to one month. Makes about 12 dozen cookies (less, of course, if you cut them a little thicker). :)

These are really delicious cookies, well worth the time it takes to make them!

Love you, Aunt Dottie!