Tag Archives: Brette Sember

Christmas Cookies: Grandma Vera’s Sugar Cookies

Traditional Christmas cookies

Traditional Christmas cookies

Finally, we get to the quintessential Christmas cookie.  Yes, there are worthwhile traditions and delicious reasons to make all those other cookies, but the cookie that really means Christmas is the cut-out, frosted, sugar cookie.

In our family, that means Grandma Vera Anderson’s Sugar Cookie recipe. It also means help from whatever youngsters are around for some creative decorating.  I love the traditional Santa Claus and Christmas tree cookies, but gather a bunch of 3 to13-year-olds around colored icing and bottles of sprinkles and you never can tell what the final product will be.   A blue Santa. A Christmas tree with tiny dinosaurs and stars?

Creative Christmas Cookies

Creative Christmas Cookies

This is  the recipe that is so similar to the sugar cookie that Brette Sember told us about — the one that originated in her family with her great-grandmother.  As Brette explained, the dough is difficult to handle and the full recipe makes way too many cookies, but the taste and texture are unique and it is all totally worth it when you bite into Grandma’s sugar cookies.

I usually make these with sour cream, but this year went back to souring milk with a little vinegar the way that Grandma did.  I also used Crisco, since that was what I remember her using in her cookies.  Although I usually use butter,  they do not taste all that different.

Christmas sugar Cookies

Cookie decorating station

Finally, don’t worry if you have to add flour. It’s a sticky dough and I probably use another two cups of flour by the time I’m through–on the cloth I roll them out on, on the rolling pin sleeve, and on the dough itself.  It is a delicate balance, because too much flour and you wind up with a cardboardy cookie instead of the crisp on the outside, soft on the inside texture you want.

Andrew decorating Christmas sugar cookies.

Andrew decorating Christmas sugar cookies.

This time around, the recipe made 8 dozen sugar cookies–and that includes some large Santas and Christmas trees as well as small bells and stars.

Although I did not include a frosting recipe, I use a simple one– two cups of confectioner sugar to 1/4 cup butter, with a couple spoonfuls of milk and a dash of vanilla. I probably made four times that much for this batch of cookies. Kids slather the frosting on more thickly than you might, so take that into consideration.

Grandchildren and Christmas Sugar Cookies

Rachael is wearing her great-great-grandmother Vera’s apron, and Andrew his grandmother’s apron.

Plus you need to have separate dishes of red, green, gold–and, yes, blue besides leaving some white. Make the cookie dough two days before decorating and store in fridge.  Bake a day before so the kids won’t have to wait impatiently for cookies to dress up. Then all hands put on their aprons and away they go.

Grandma Vera’s Sugar Cookies

Serves 8 doz.
Allergy Egg, Milk, Wheat
Meal type Dessert
Misc Child Friendly


  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup lard, Veg. shortening or butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sour milk
  • 1 teaspoon soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 3 1/2-4 cups flour


1. Sift together dry ingredients
2. Cream butter and sugars
3. Add eggs, sour milk and dry ingredients to butter/sugar. Mix. Chill
4. Roll out to 1/8" thick and cut with cookie cutters.
5. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes


Our ancestors might leave out their milk to sour, but ours is pasteurized and will spoil rather than sour, but  you have options.  I use sour cream.  You can also use buttermilk. Or, you can create sour milk by adding 1 Tbls. vinegar to 1 C. fresh whole milk and letting it sit for five minutes. (My grandmother taught me that trick.)

I use butter instead of lard or vegetable shortening because I like the buttery taste, but to be completely authentic, lard would be best.

The amount of flour I use seems to vary from year to year.  Grandma's recipe calls for 3 1/2 cups, but I seldom can get a solid dough and have to add another 1/2 cup, plus very liberally flouring the surface on which I'm rolling out the dough.  At any rate, it will be a very soft dough.

You do want the raw cookies to be as thin as 1/4 inch or less because these cookies puff up, and you'll lose sight of the shape you are trying to create if you make them any thicker.

Because they are so thin and so delicate, be sure to keep a close eye on the oven while you are baking.  I find that the first tray may take a little longer to bake than subsequent ones. Whether you are using dark or shiny pans will change the equation.  Just keep an eye on them. They need to come out when they are showing a hint of brown around the edges.  They will still feel puffy-soft when you gently touch the center, but because they are thin, they will finish baking on the cooling rack.

If you don't want to bother with frosting, you can sprinkle the tops with sugar--white or colored--before baking.

Who Doesn’t Love Christmas Cookies?

We are talking about Christmas cookies all during December, so naturally I talked to my friend, Brette Sember, the cookie expert. She shares all she knows about cookies in  Cookie: A Love Story. Great title, isn’t it?

Well, we were both astounded to learn that we had a heritage cookie in common, which made me wonder–how many ways are there to make a sugar cookie?

Brette wrote last year for the site, Living Large in Our Little House, about the traditions of Christmas Cookies. Did you know that Christmas cookies reach back to the 1500’s? And it all began with the Gingerbread man! Brette says:

Gingerbread was a sim­i­lar food [to cookies], but laws restricted its bak­ing to guilds­man. How­ever at the hol­i­days these reg­u­la­tions were relaxed and peo­ple were allowed to bake their own at home, mak­ing a very spe­cial once-a-year treat…. Eventually [gingerbread] became asso­ci­ated with Christmas when spec­u­laas (gin­ger­bread cook­ies) were made into ani­mal and peo­ple shapes and used as hol­i­day decorations.

Christmas Cookies

Frosted Sugar Cookies cut with a Gingerbread Man cookie cutter.

When I asked Brette about heritage recipes, she replied:

The book [Cookie: A Love Story]  includes a very special sugar cookie recipe. My grandmother’s recipe is made with buttermilk and produces a soft, cake-like cookie that is unlike any I’ve had anywhere else.

They are a bit of a pain to make, since the dough is very sticky, so you freeze the dough before baking. My grandmother used to keep a plastic container of the dough in her freezer (which was on the bottom of her fridge) and when I was little, I used to sneak out there and eat it with a spoon like ice cream.

When she passed away, she left me her handwritten recipe notebooks and I discovered the recipe was her mother’s. Her mother-in-law, my grandfather’s mother, also gave her a very similar recipe, which uses sour cream instead of buttermilk and creates the same type of very soft cookie.

I found it fascinating that both families had the same recipe. They both lived in the same small rural area, but my grandmother’s mother (who was a Mennonite) was from Kansas so I don’t know if it is a recipe she brought with her or was given once she got here. This cookie is a special part of our holiday traditions and learning to make it is a rite of passage in our family.

My aunt once famously had to make the recipe in a hurry with no time to freeze it, so she set up a table in the garage and rolled the dough out there where it was cold.

Christmas Cookie Assembly line

Cookie Assembly line

As Brette and I discussed this heritage recipe from her grandmother, I realized that it was nearly identical to the soft sugar cookie from my Grandmother Vera’s recipe– which is the must-have cookie at our house. My grandmother used sour milk instead of buttermilk, and sprinkled in nutmeg for the flavoring. I’ll be sharing that recipe later. If you want to try  out Brette’s version and learn a whole lot more about Christmas cookies, you can follow the link to Living Large in Our Little House.

Read more of Brette’s cooking and decorating and travel and other things at Putting It All on the Table. And of course, I recommend that you add Brette’s interesting and comprehensive book on cookies to your kitchen library.

Do you make sugar cookies for Christmas? Are they crispy or soft? Do they use sour cream or buttermilk? What flavoring do you use?