Our family originates from so many places around the globe that during the holidays, there invariably comes together an amazing array of dishes on the table. England, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia and Ireland on my side mix with France, Germany and Poland on my husband’s. It is business-as-usual for our Christmas table to include beef Wellington, Yorkshire “puds,” perogies, cabbage salad, veggie soufflé and a kugel-like mash.
Dessert revolves around a cookie that is anticipated with bated breaths and watery mouths (and usually a doubled recipe): the Brown Sugar Cookie. The story of how this Christmas cookie came to be is as unusual as the recipe itself, and revolves around the adaptation of an Old World pastry and the adaptation of an immigrant family to this country.
The Brown Sugar Cookie, as we now call it, was created by my maternal great-great grandmother who came from Amsterdam to Manhattan, via London, in the 1860s. Grandma Lopez, as she was known, was of Jewish Portuguese-Spanish decent. Because her ancestors settled in the Netherlands in the 1500s, our family surname was all that was retained of that southern European culture. She considered herself and whatever she cooked Dutch, but with her own unique twist. Enter the Hollandsche Cake.
Now, Hollandsche Cake (or Boterkoek), is a traditional Dutch cake that is a lot like a pound cake—buttery, sugary, it’s glazed and often made with sliced apples. But for Grandma Lopez, Hollandsche meant “What I Brought With Me From Holland.” Follow me here, as I describe Grandma Lopez’s Hollandsche Cake, and how it factors into the Brown Sugar Cookie’s evolution.
Lopez Hollansche Cake is based on a lesser-known Boterkoek, the baked consistency of which—depending on the maker and the measurement of the ingredients—turns out anywhere between a marzipan-like tart and a shortbread. Lopez Hollandsche Cake is on the cement-like shortbread scale (it’s delicious, I swear!), the dough so dense that it takes multiple hands to knead it. One year I was enlisted to help my great-aunt and mother make the cake. Exhausted, hands red and weak, we ended up waiting for my great-uncle to came home from work to help us finish. Four pairs of hands to make two sheets of shortbread!
The reason for this density and clay slab-like work? There is no leavening in the recipe. None. And no white sugar. Nothing fluffy, airy, or delicate.
After adapting Boterkoek into this non-cake “cake,” Grandma Lopez’s daughter-in-law (my great-grandmother Gussy Lopez) further adapted it into the Brown Sugar Cookie. She added to the recipe more eggs and vanilla, and removed some flour, to loosen the dough and make it manageable and thus easier to roll and cut, but it still retains its amazing density and rich flavor.
In addition to marrying a few Catholics over the centuries, the Spanish-decent Jews in my family, once they settled in New York, became assimilated into American culture. The women went to college and worked (Grandma Lopez was famous for leaving a pot of soup on the stove and telling the kids, “Be good and eat,” before stepping out onto Rivington Street in her finery and heading for the Opera in a horse-drawn cab); and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of this amazing woman came to celebrate Christmas (church, like batteries, not included).
Baking mounds of cookies might have actually been the impetuous for this cross-cultural, interfaith December 25th gathering. My childhood Christmases were spent at my great-Aunt Selma Lopez’s house with the whole family (including the new Conservative Jewish in-laws who, if not totally on-board, did a banner job of going with the flow).
And through the decades, no matter where and with whom my own family has celebrated Christmas Dinner, there are Brown Sugar Cookies. Always craved, always delicious, always the reminder of our family’s unique history.
Dutch Brown Sugar Cookies
- 2 eight-ounce sticks of lightly salted butter, softened
- 1 ½ cups brown sugar, packed
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 3 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Mix all ingredients except flour, then gradually add flour to the mix, until everything is well integrated. The batter will be thick.
- Form two dough balls, wrapping each tightly in wax or parchment paper, and refrigerate overnight (or up to a week).
- Preheat oven to 350. Roll out each ball separately, keeping the other in the fridge, to ¼ inch, and cut cookie shapes.
- Place cookies on sheet pan lined with parchment paper and bake at 350 degrees for 14 minutes (up to 16 minutes for darker, crunchier cookies). You may also brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with colored sugar crystals before baking.
Note: Brown Sugar Cookies don’t expand, so you can cram them onto the sheet pan—great for making loads of cookies at once.