Cut-out sugar cookies aside, there are a few holiday cookies & confections from the 1950s-60s that make my mouth water just thinking of them. They’re not complicated recipes featuring unusual ingredients – in fact they’re all simple to make. They’re pretty much just deliciousness with warm memories attached.
No matter how many cool new cookie or candy recipes I may discover, when the holidays roll around, there are four must-haves that will always be at the top of my list – Spritz cookies, Hello Dolly bars (“Hello Dollies”), Russian Tea Cakes (or Mexican Wedding Cakes, if you prefer), and Flo’s Famous Fudge. And I have my Mom, my grandmother, and my Aunt Jane to thank for making them so special to me.
This is the cookie I remember most about my Mom in the 1950s. She had a Mirro cookie press – and LOTS of cookie shape discs – that she used every Christmas. I recall her favorite shapes as the tree and the wreath. Funny – those are MY favorite shapes! She wasn’t a big fan of sprinkles (“too messy”), but she was keen on the green food coloring for the trees. Personally, I prefer untinted dough and sprinkles. To each his own.
When Mom decided she was over making “complicated” Christmas cookies, the Mirro press came to me. YAY! I got to press out a few cookies as a child, but inheriting The Press was a big deal. I wore that thing into the ground! When the rivets securing the handle gave out, I moved on to the Kuhn Rikon press. Liberating. Dough didn’t stick to the press and require “knifing off.” The clear cylinder showed just how much dough remained during the pressing process. Clean up was a breeze!
My Mom used the recipe from her original Mirro booklet, marking her preferences or substitutions. I still have the booklet, but use a slightly different recipe. I attended a fundraising Pampered Chef party a few years ago and tasted sample pressed cookies that were terrific. The hostess shared the recipe which was apparently the recipe that accompanied their original cookie press. It turns out perfect for me every time, so I hope you have luck with it also.
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp almond extract
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 2 1/2 c all purpose flour
- food coloring optional
- colored sugar or sprinkles optional
- Mix first 5 ingredients. Blend in dry ingredients. Add food coloring if desired. DO NOT CHILL. Place in cookie press and press desired shapes. Sprinkle with colored sugar (or other spinkles) if desired. Bake 8-9 minutes at 375 degrees. Cool on wire rack. May be frozen.
Russian Tea Cakes
LOVE this cookie – amazing with hot tea or coffee. My Aunt Jane (Dad’s sister) was an excellent cook, and the Russian Tea Cakes recipe is hers. It was always my favorite treat when we’d visit during holidays from the 1950s on. My Mom made Mexican Wedding Cakes, and her recipe was slightly different. She thought Aunt Jane was “gilding the lily” with the fancy name. Aunt Jane would roll her eyes and tell me her recipe name was accurate. Ha! If they’d have had access to Wikipedia, they’d have known they were making the SAME COOKIE! And – gasp – some even call it a Snowball Cookie!
Whatever the name, this meltaway cookie is my favorite. And DO NOT skip the second roll in the powdered sugar!
Aunt Jane’s Russian Tea Cakes
- 1 cup butter or margarine (I use butter)
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup pecans, chopped
- additional powdered sugar for dusting
- Cream the butter and powdered sugar.
- Combine flour and salt and add to creamed mixture.
- Add vanilla and pecans, mixing well with hands. Form into 1-inch balls. Place 2 1/2 inches apart on greased baking sheet.
- Bale at 400 degrees for approximately 8 minutes.
- While warm, roll in powdered sugar. Once cooled, roll again in powdered sugar.
In the 1960s I had a good friend named Laura that lived a couple houses down on the next street over. (In Indianapolis terms, I lived on Chester Avenue, and she lived on Sherman Drive.) Her mom sent home some bar cookies with me one day during the holidays, and my Mom went crazy for them. “Hello Dollies.” Some say Seven Layer Bars, but who knows. The Broadway Show “Hello Dolly” was super popular at the time, and they say the cookie gets it’s name from the show.
These are probably THE Favorite cookie of my extended family. My Mom would make them and hide them in the freezer in the garage so my Dad wouldn’t devour them. He was hypoglycemic as he got older, and she was attempting to save his life… Time to time he was known to escape to the garage and steal a cookie in solitude. We lovingly refer to this act as “cheating on Mom.” LOL
- 1/2 cup butter or margarine (I use butter)
- 1 cup graham cracker crumbs
- 1 cup sweetened flaked or shredded coconut
- 6 ounces chocolate chip pieces
- 6 ounces butterscotch chip pieces
- 1 cup chopped pecans
- 1 can sweetened condensed milk
- powdered sugar for dusting
- Melt butter in the bottom of the 9×13 pan. ADD BY LAYERS: cracker crumbs, coconut, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, pecans and condensed milk.
- Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar. Cut into squares. May be frozen.
Flo’s Famous Fudge
In the 1950s when I would spend the night with my Mom’s parents in Woodruff Place in Indianapolis, my grandmother Flo would often make fudge for me. She made it “old school“, testing the mix for the “soft ball stage”, trying to keep the sugar from crystallizing. It was always delicious, but quite a tedious undertaking.
Having moved to California in the 1960s, my grandmother Flo (known to all family as “Pooie”) began experimenting with her fudge recipe. Carnation (with Nestle chips) and Pet milk (with Hershey’s chips) had published fudge recipes using marshmallows that achieved the desired creamy consistency without the hassle of potentially crystallizing sugar. Recipes from both were similar, calling for more marshmallows (or marshmallow creme) than my grandmother’s. Flo wasn’t looking for a light and fluffy fudge, just a creamy foolproof version of old school. Her approach was to reduce the marshmallows to “just the right amount” for perfect texture.
This was a lifetime pursuit, and perfection was redefined over time, accounting for variation in required marshmallow quantities in family members’ recipes. The recipe she gave me calls for 1 cup (packed) mini marshmallows PLUS 12-15 additional. My cousin Julie’s recipe calls for the cup plus 20 additional. My daughter is canvasing her cousins in an attempt to find the perfect marshmallow ratio using gram weight as a uniform solution. This is serious business, folks! Regardless, my grandmother’s “Flo’s Famous Fudge” is beloved, and warrants multiple batches per family at holiday time.
Flo’s Famous Fudge
- 1 stick butter
- 1 large Tbsp margarine
- 6 ounces evaporated milk ("Carnation or Pet… I like Pet he best")
- 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 6 ounces Nestle's Chocolate Morsels (semi-sweet)
- 1 cup (packed) mini marshmallows
- 12-15 additional mini marshmallows
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Take the wrapper off the butter and use it to grease the dish. Measure and set aside all ingredients. Be sure to use a measuring cup. Use a heavy pan with a handle to hold onto.
- Put butter and margarine and milk on slow fire until all is melted. Then start adding sugar until all is dissolved. I do like a wooden spoon to stir. Put on rather slow fire and keep stirring as it burns easy. You sure have to watch it close.
- After it comes to a full boil, cook for about 9 minutes. Then take from the fire and add chocolate morsels, and keep stirring, then add marshmallows. When all is dissolved, quickly add vanilla and as it starts to thicken, pour at once into dish or pan. Use a glass or Pyrex or any dish you like. I try to use a dish about 6 or 7 inches wide and about 10 inches long. Square dish you can use also.
- I usually put it in the ice box until cool but not cold.
Wondering about the name or history of your favorite cookies?
Check out this Redbook article from 2018, History Behind Your Favorite Holiday Cookies. Lots of folks like the same cookies I like!
Although I don’t put cut-out sugar cookies on the must-have list, my vintage cutters are a treasure to me. My favorites are my Mom’s tin Christmas tree and the HRM red plastic cutters I gave to to her for Christmas in the early 1960s.
Those red cutters were my personal version of Ralphie’s Red Ryder BB Gun from The Christmas Story. I was mesmerized by those red plastic wonders. I was a kid, but I knew if I were a housewife with a kitchen, I’d want those cutters! Pretty sure I liked Mom’s Christmas gift a whole lot more than she did! Bad Sally…
This year Pinterest inspired me to add a tabletop cookie cutter tree in the kitchen. I’ve covered it with popcorn and cranberry garlands and my tin and red plastic cutters. My Mom’s Santa Claus cookie jar (filled with those must-have Spritz cookies, Russian Tea Cakes and Hello Dollies) sits at the other end of the table. This vignette of my early Christmas memories has brought me a lovely sense of calm this year.
As you reminisce about holidays gone by, I hope you find sweet nostalgia in those memories. Whether or not the past brings that to you, I hope you’ll consider creating the sweetest of memories today for the ones you love. It might be an ornament, or a photo or a card, or the simplest of lovingly made cookies meant to share. Enjoy this holiday season!