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One Family's Christmas Cookies Mix Spice, Spite And Love

Amy Ta

The holiday season is about spending time with families. For a lot of families, it comes with conflict as well as cheer.

For Diana Abu-Jaber, author of a memoir on food and family called The Language of Baklava, her grandmother's annual arrival for a Christmastime visit meant lots of cookies and a boatload of bickering between her German-American Gram and her Jordanian immigrant father.

Grace Belford, pictured here at Easter in 1941 with Patricia, Diana Abu-Jaber's mother.
/ Courtesy of Diana Abu-Jaber
Courtesy of Diana Abu-Jaber
Grace Belford, pictured here at Easter in 1941 with Patricia, Diana Abu-Jaber's mother.

The cookie it all boils down to, Abu-Jaber says, is the wurstcake – a not-too-sweet slice'n'bake cookie her grandmother made with lots of spice – and perhaps a hint of spite. Grandmother Grace Belford just didn't approve of her Jordanian son-in-law.

"She saw him as an interloper. He was this Muslim menace, you know, who was coming to steal her only daughter," Diana says. "And so this manifested itself in their conversations whenever they would get together on the holidays."

It would start slowly, Diana recalls, but would come to a boil.

"She would pick at him and peck at him and talk about Jordanians and Muslims and eventually he would break down and jump into the fray," she says.

Gram would insult his Jordanian heritage, imply Muslims were savages. "And my father would say 'Actually the Muslims invented civilization,' and he would go away into these long disquisitions about the nature of reality the history of the world as seen by Gus Abu-Jaber," she says.

Diana says her grandmother found the fights upsetting, and they left her agitated and exhausted. To her father, she says, they were merely a more exciting form of conversation.

"Dad would kind of sigh contentedly and say, 'Ahh, do you have any more of those Catholic cookies? (That's what he called the wurstcakes — Catholic cookies)," she says. "And my grandmother would be furious and storm off."

From the sharpness of their battles, Diana and her sisters always assumed their father and Gram really couldn't stand each other. But when their grandmother died, they watched their father kneel by her coffin and weep.

"He missed her, he missed his old adversary," Diana says. "It was a great lesson to us because it taught us that enemies can come to rely on each other, and even to love each other. ... I think of it as the lesson of the wurstcake, because you realize from something like the wurstcake that cookies don't have to be too sweet — that all things find their balance and need their balance. And for my father, my grandmother was his balance."

Grace Belford's Wurstcakes

Amy Ta / NPR

Makes about 12 dozen

3 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tablespoon water, plus additional if necessary
2 large eggs, beaten
8 tablespoons butter, softened
2 cups confectioners' sugar
Sliced blanched almonds, for decorating (optional)
Red and green sanding sugar, for decorating (optional)

In large bowl, mix flour, sugar, brown cinnamon, allspice, and clove. In small bowl, dissolve baking soda in 1 1/2 teaspoons water. Stir into flour mixture, along with eggs and butter. With hands, knead well until dough forms smooth ball.

Divide dough into 3 even pieces. Shape each into 2-inch-diameter "wurst" or sausage shape. Wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight or up to 1 week.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease cookie sheets.

With sharp knife, cut dough into 1/8-inch slices. Place on prepared cookie sheets, spacing 1 inch apart.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly browned. Transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough.

In small bowl, combine confectioners' sugar and 1 tablespoon water. Stir until smooth, adding small amounts of additional water if needed to achieve creamy consistency. Spread icing on cookies. If desired, press almond slices into icing or sprinkle sanding sugar onto icing. Let harden.

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