Editor's note: Don Mauer is taking some time off. This column originally appeared in December 2002.
Holidays, food and families have been woven together, like braids on a challah loaf or strands of colored beads on a Christmas tree, since time now forgotten and continues to be true for me.
When I was a kid, the parade of holidays always stepped-off with Thanksgiving and since my folks couldn't decide whether we should be with Mom's family or dad's folks we settled on being with both. This didn't happen just once, but for many years. If you ever wondered how I got to be more than 300 pounds, knowing just that bit of holiday history should be enlightening.
I don't know when Grandmother Mauer began making Christmas cookies for gifts. Today, it's hard to conceive of the thousands of cookies she made, baked and stacked in tins up her back stairs during the weeks and days leading up to Christmas.
The baking gene was strong on my mother's side too. My grandmother, Nana, made what most folks now know as "the dreaded" fruitcake for Christmas gifts. I am told rows of them were wrapped tightly in waxed paper, mellowing with time and alcoholic spirits until just the right moment when they could be given away.
Both my grandmothers believed in gifts from the heart, a tradition that I have continued. It has been a long time since I bought anyone an expensive holiday gift. For years following Grandmother Mauer's passing, my wife and I made cookies and candy from her recipes and gave them as gifts to family and close friends.
For years my family faced the same seasonal dilemma at Christmas as it did at Thanksgiving: with which side of the family would we spend Christmas Day? Until one side of the family accepted Christmas Eve as their holiday of choice we, once again, tramped to both sides, consuming two meals.
Even though getting together was sometimes problematic, I miss those family holiday times. Making a batch of Grandmother Mauer's cookies refreshes those memories in a warm way and gives a pinch of substance to ghosts of seasons past.
Over the years I've played with Grandmother Mauer's cookie recipes doing my best to lower the fat and calorie count. It may seem obvious, but after all that experimentation, I don't believe it's possible to cut all the fat out of Christmas cookies and end up with anything that tastes better than the proverbial "lump of coal."
However, I've found great success with many cookies by using half the fat and substituting an equal amount of drained, unsweetened applesauce. This technique alone makes significant amounts of fat and calories vanish into thin air. Holiday cookies frequently require the addition of nuts. I've learned that lightly toasting half of the nuts a cookie recipe might require can also reduce the fat and calories while minimally decreasing an important flavor note.
Finally, if your cookie recipe calls for more than one whole egg, I suggest using one of the whole eggs and replacing each of the remaining whole eggs with one egg white.
This year, I wish to share Grandmother Mauer's "Frosted Oatmeal Cookies." This cookie may seem a tad plain for a holiday cookie, but it's fairly easy to make, looks nice when it's frosted and tastes better than any oatmeal cookie I've ever tasted.
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org