Mom’s Magical Christmas Cookies 2019

My mom’s cookies look like normal, boring, everybody’s-had-one frosted sugar cookies.

Then you take a bite. 

And fall off your chair.

The Kid and I discuss them each time we’re lucky enough to get our mitts on some.  We can’t figure them out.  How is it that this little, regulation baked good can pack such an extraordinary punch?  We joke that maybe she puts crack in them, or fairy dust.

When Kid was in college, Gramma baked a batch freshman year and shipped them up to our little scholar in Vermont.

Those NECI people had no idea what they were in for.

There were probably four dozen cookies in the box.  The Kid ate some and then decided to share with a few lucky souls.

Not my mother. An actual random grandmother.

Nobody was very enthused to be offered boring baked goods from some random grandmother in North Carolina.  My child didn’t try to talk anyone into a sample.  If they didn’t want one, it was just more for The Kid.

Then one person took one.  Eyes lit up, and word got around.  People came out of the woodwork wanting these miraculous confections.  Chef-instructors approached The Kid to ask when Gramma would send more.

When making them, I’ve tried to gentrify the ingredients. 


Something about the synthesis of these particular components is the secret of the amazing results.  Don’t substitute butter, or cake flour, or speak with a French accent while making them (unless you legitimately speak with a French accent).

When icing the cookies; more is better.  A fifty/fifty ratio of frosting to cookie is just about right.  Sprinkle each one right after frosting it, so the decoration sticks.

These are not the gorgeous showstoppers of the cookie platter.  In fact, they kind of look like near-sighted kindergarteners put them together.  But, that’s part of the charm.  The astonishing deliciousness is all the more special for their, shall we say…rustic countenance?

About two weeks before Christmas, Mom has a frosting party. Everyone shows up and decorates hundreds of cookies.  We have lunch, and then negotiate how many cookies we can take home.

There is one rule: you break it, you eat it.

You’d think, awesome!   You’d think we break as many as we can, and gorge on frosting cloaked shards.

Yeah, not so much.

Mom’s no dummy, and she can tell when cookies are intentionally broken.  And that woman has a mom-eye glare that can chill your very soul.

So, we usually only scarf about two per session.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at

Mom’s Christmas Cookies

Preheat oven to 400°.

1½ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ cup sugar

½ cup butter-flavored Crisco

1 egg

2 tablespoons milk (whole or 2%)

1 teaspoon vanilla

Sift dry ingredients into bowl.  With mixer, cut in shortening until it resembles coarse meal.  Blend in egg, milk, and vanilla.

Roll out to 1/8-inch and cut into shapes. 

Bake on parchment-lined cookie sheet for 6-8 minutes or until golden.  Remove to cooling rack.

Frost cookies when they’re completely cooled.  Makes about 1 ½ dozen.

Mom’s Frosting

1-pound box powdered sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 scant teaspoon cream of tartar

1/3 cup butter-flavored Crisco

1 egg white

¼ cup of water (or less)

1 tablespoon vanilla

½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice

For decorating: gel food coloring & holiday sprinkles

Dump all ingredients, except water, into mixer. Beat ingredients at low until it starts to come together.  Put water in at this point, so you can judge just how much to use. Beat until it’s creamy and fluffy. Dye in festive colors.  Let the cookies sit out overnight to set the frosting.

I’ll get you, my praline


kateys walk 2

The view near The Kid’s house in Woodstock.


After The Kid finished freshman year of college up in Vermont, an internship was landed in Woodstock, NY.  Petey and I flew up, and would rent a car to lug child and possessions to a Craigslist-rented apartment in the Empire state.

*Here’s a piece of interesting trivia that I learned up there: the famous “Summer of Love” festival was not actually in Woodstock NY, but 60 miles southwest, in Bethel NY.  And if every baby boomer that claims to have been there really was, no human under the age of thirty would have been present anywhere else on the planet that weekend.  (Actually, I did go to school with a girl who was one of those naked toddlers in attendance, but she has no memory of it; coincidentally neither do many of the adult concert-goers.)

Anyway, back to the airport…Petey uses a walking stick, and I was concerned that it would be confiscated by the TSA.  I’d done bounteous research, but the rules as written were vague, and open to wide interpretation.  I was a little nervous that a grouchy agent with a toothache or one who’d gotten a call from the IRS would nix the cane, and my husband would be physically penalized for the duration.

I’d planned to make some treats to take up for The Kid to share with friends.  So, I decided to put together goody bags full of my homemade cheese wafers and my creamy, delicious pecan pralines to hand out at security. I was hoping this good will gesture would facilitate smooth sailing through the line.

It worked.

By the time Petey, his cane, and I got through security, we were on a first-name basis with the agents.  We’d reduced one sweet woman to tears because the pralines reminded her so much of the ones her dearly departed granny used to make for holidays and special occasions.

Vanilla Bean Pecan Pralines

pralines3 cups broken pecans

2 cups light brown sugar, packed

1 cup granulated sugar

 1 1/2 cups heavy cream

 1/3 cup whole milk

 6 tablespoons butter, salted

 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 vanilla bean, scraped

Toast pecans:

Place pecan pieces in a dry skillet on medium.  Stirring constantly, cook until color deepens and they’re aromatic.  Remove from heat, and let cool.

In medium saucepan, combine brown sugar, granulated sugar, cream, milk, butter, empty vanilla pod, and salt. Cook over medium, stirring constantly, until mixture reaches 230°. Discard pod, lower heat slightly, add toasted pecans and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until it gets to 236°. Remove from heat; let stand for 5 minutes. Add vanilla bean scrapings and stir with wooden spoon until mixture is thickened and slightly creamy, about 1-2 minutes. Using a small cookie scoop, spoon the pralines onto a sheet of parchment paper or waxed paper. If the mixture becomes stiff or grainy, return to burner and stir over medium heat until it can be easily scooped and dropped.

Makes 4 dozen.They were a hit in Montpelier, too.

Our first night in Vermont we were in a hotel, but The Kid was staying at the dorm to finish packing.  A school friend, Chase (Northerner and praline neophyte), came over to hang out with our child.  Despite dire warnings of the richness of the candy, and to his everlasting regret, he polished off the remaining 30 pralines in the time it took to watch Hot Tub Tome Machine.

You ever seen a praline hangover?

It ain’t pretty.

Representation–not The Kid’s school friend.

Thanks for your time.


Originally published in the Herald-Sun 5-7-2012

Tonight Petey and I are having chicken-fried steak for dinner. It’s one of The Kid’s favorite foods. When our scholar came home last Spring, being a highly trained culinary student, the decision was made to make it for the family–solo. No advice was asked for, and the finished dish almost made my stoic child cry. It was all wrong.
Flour had been replaced with corn starch (for crunch, I was told). And there was not enough fat in the pan to cook them. The soggy coating didn’t hold up. It fell off in big slabs. The Kid was heartbroken.
“What happened? I was trying to improve it, and it’s awful!”
What happened is the fiddling with the procedure. I did the same thing forever. My thought, when attempting to “improve” it was, “I know better.” I didn’t.
My mom has, for as long as I can remember, made awesome CFS. The meat is covered with a light, crispy coating. Inside it’s tender and juicy. And the gravy, good grief, the gravy.
It’s thick and white, flecked with pepper and bits and pieces of the stuff left in the pan after frying the steaks. Growing up, I was constantly trying to come up with compelling reasons why I couldn’t help clean up after dinner. On Chicken fried steak night, I volunteered to tidy up all by myself.
Not because I was so grateful Mom had made CFS. But because I would take the opportunity to snack on the leftover gravy (straight from a spoon). I know, gross. But this is amazing gravy.
So, when cooking it on my own, I decided to use techniques that I had started using in other dishes. I would use sherry to flavor the gravy, and add beef stock, to deepen the flavors.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Every time I made it, it was awful. Each time, I would tweak my procedure to try and fix it. I still couldn’t make a decent CFS. It was always wrong and disappointing.
One day I had an epiphany. My mom’s was awesome. At least two family members asked for it for their birthday meals. So, what the heck was I doing, trying to improve on perfection?
I started watching my mom when she made it. There was nothing fancy about the way she made it, no herbs, or fancy techniques, or liquor, or sauce reductions.
I decided to make it in this simple, straightforward way. That was the day I cracked the code. What’s the code? There is no code.
I finally had made delicious chicken fried steak.
It’s a country dish, made with inexpensive ingredients, that folks make all the time. When I got over myself, and understood that the recipe doesn’t need my adjustments, it worked.
I finally asked my mother, a Jersey girl, how she learned to make such authentic, yummy chicken fried steak.
She told me when she was first married, and living in North Carolina, money was tight, and she was having trouble putting a hearty meal on the table each night.
Mizz Chapel, her next-door neighbor, and a born and bred Southern girl, came to her rescue with a couple of simple, cheap, country recipes. One of them was for CFS. And because mom is not an improviser in the kitchen, she always made it the same way. Just the way Mizz Chapel showed her. The right way.
If you want to go nuts in the kitchen, and invent new recipes, and improve old ones, go right ahead. But if you want true, authentic chicken fried steak, don’t mess around with it. The reason why it’s been made the same way for years and years, is because this is the way that works.

Mizz Chapel’s Authentic Chicken-Fried Steak and Gravy
1 1/2 pounds beef cube steak
3 cups flour
2 eggs
2 3/4 cup whole milk
vegetable oil
salt and pepper

Double dredge the steak: in one shallow dish, put seasoned flour. In another, whisk eggs and 3/4 cup milk. First dip steak in flour, then egg wash, and then back in the flour.
Heat enough oil in a frying pan to come half to three quarters up the steak. Fry steaks until browned and flip and cook the other side. The oil will be absorbed by the breading, so you will have to keep adding a little oil to the pan. DO NOT cook in a dry pan, your meat won’t get crispy if you do. Place cooked steak in a single layer on a drying rack in a 200 degree oven. This will keep them warm and crispy until you’re ready to eat.
Gravy: Use the same pan, unwashed. Pour off the fat, leaving two or three tablespoons. Sprinkle into it a few tablespoons of the flour from the dredge. Stir together until the flour loses the uncooked flavor and aroma. Into the bubbling roux, pour two cups of whole milk. When it boils, the gravy is ready. If it’s a little thick, add a little milk until you’re satisfied. If it’s a little thin, carefully sprinkle in flour and whisk it into the gravy (if you aren’t careful, you will get lumps of uncooked flour, so be gentle).
Taste for salt and pepper, and serve on steak with mashed potatoes or buttered noodles. A fresh, simply cooked, country veg, like carrots or squash, is a nice side.

Thanks for your time.