I had been feeling distinctly Grinch-like towards Christmas this year. After all, no one in the whole entire world seems to be getting along or the least big joyful and I am in the phase of life where non-descript “stuff” doesn’t fundamentally add to my happiness (other than shoes. Shoes make me very happy). So, in an attempt to bring back my normal jingle bells self, I did what any good elf would do: bake cookies. Not just any cookies; Presidential cookies. By the end of the evening, I was tipsy off Presidential punch, high on sugar, and getting that real Christmas buzz. Nothing is better than reading historical text whilst tipsy, things become much funnier than ever anticipated and I began my research on how the Presidents enjoyed the holidays.
I am sure Santa has brought lots of gifts to the White House but also copious amounts of coal (depending on the year of course) and they all went under the stunning White House Christmas tree. Well, after the first one, that is. There is some debate whether the first tree was put up during the Pierce Presidency and just wasn’t pretty enough to be truly remembered or the first “official” one, or the first was put up by the Harrison Presidency in 1889. It will come as no surprise to anyone that the lovely Jacqueline Kennedy was the first to begin the tradition of having a themed tree in 1961. She selected an absolutely gorgeous nutcracker theme and we would expect nothing less. President Roosevelt was the only one who didn’t have a tree, as he was unconvinced that cutting down the forst for decoration was completely unnecessary. For the non-VIPs, President C Coolidge took the party outside and was the first President to light the National Christmas Tree in 1923 so the public join in the fun. The lightening of the National Tree has been a tradition since.
In terms of parties and food, Presidents throughout the years seem to go whole hog—pun intended. A lot of early menus cite whole roasted pigs and the standard turkey, which surfaces in almost every Christmas menu on the books. In fact, most of the menus looked decidedly similar to Thanksgiving. So what gives Christmas that edge? The cookies of course. Below is a cookie sandwich with Martha Washington’s orange zest, my mascarpone cream cheese frosting and two crisp cookies from the Wilson era.
There is also the classic gingerbread man, an absolute favorite of Lincoln, and the heart of one of Lincoln’s best foodie stories. On the campaign trail he used his love of the cookie to appeal to folks and show his softer side. The story goes:
"When we lived in Indiana, once in a while my mother used to get some sorghum and ginger and make some gingerbread. It wasn't often and it was our biggest treat. One day I smelled the gingerbread and came into the house to get my share while it was still hot. My mother had baked me three gingerbread men. I took them out under a hickory tree to eat them. There was a family near us poorer than we were and their boy came along as I sat down. 'Abe,' he said, 'gimme a man.' I gave him one. He crammed it into his mouth in two bites and looked at me while I was biting the legs off my first one. 'Abe, gimme that other'n'. I wanted it myself, but I gave it to him and as it followed the first, I said to him, 'You seem to like gingerbread.' "Abe', he said, 'I don't s'pose anybody on earth likes gingerbread better'n I do-and gets less'n I do.."
And that folks, is the spirit of Christmas. Sharing is caring; thanks Abe for the reminder. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas full of shared stories and full cups.
Christmas Cookie Sandwiches
Step 1: Crisp Cookies – The Wilsons
“The White House cook book; a comprehensive cyclopedia of information for the home” -1913
One cup butter, two cups of sugar, three eggs well beaten, a teaspoon of soda and two of cream of tartar, spoonful of milk, one teaspoon of nutmeg, and one of cinnamon. Flour enough to make soft dough just stiff enough to roll out. Try a pint of sifted flour to begin with, working it in gradually. Spread a little sweet milk over each and sprinkle with sugar. Bake in a quick oven to light brown.
I ended up adding 3 ½ cups flour (far more than a pint) to the dough. Make sure to flour your rolling pin and surface as you roll out. This dough is sticky.
Bake on a nonstick tray at 375F oven for 10-12 minutes or until a golden brown.
I skipped the sweet milk in lieu of a sugar glaze that I brushed over the top after baking. If you would like to glaze, mix 1 cup confectioners’ sugar with 3 Tbsp milk. Brush on cookies after they are cool. It should be thin.
Step 2: Simple Mascarpone and Cream Cheese Orange Frosting – My mom’s recipe
Use a hand mixer to combine one small pack of cream cheese (room temperature) with one stick unsalted butter (cut into pieces) until smooth.
Add ¾ cups of mascarpone cheese (room temperature). Combine until smooth.
Add 4 cups powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time to mixture.
Add 3 Tbsp orange juice (no pulp) or Cointreau (for the big kids) to the mix.
Step 3: Candied Orange Peel – Martha Washington “Martha Washington’s Rules for Cooking: Used Everyday at Mount Vernon”
Rinds of three fairly large oranges, one and one-half cups sugar, one half cup of water. Boil rinds for an hour and a half, changing water twice, drain and dry slightly. Cut in strips and boil in syrup, stirring constantly until it crystallizes. Turn out onto buttered tins and straighten pieces with a fork.
This recipe works perfectly if you are in search of thicker pieces of orange peel to top your cookies.
For my orange zest dust, simply remove the zest of one orange (with a zester.. obvi).
Put in a small pan and sprinkle 3 Tbsp granulated sugar over the zest.
Put on high heat and stir constantly until sugar starts to caramelize. Remove zest from heat and place on wax paper and into the fridge.
When cold, you can smash into “dust” or break apart with your fingers for bigger clumps.
Common Gingerbread- Mary Todd Lincoln’s Favorite Recipe
Sarah Hale 1841 "The Good Housekeeper" 1841
Take a pound and half of flour, and rub it into half a pound of butter, add half a pound of brown sugar and half a pint of molasses, two tablespoons of cream, a teaspoon of pearlash [potassium carbonate], and ginger to the taste. Make it into a stiff paste, and roll it out thin. Put it on buttered tins, and bake in moderate oven.
I wrapped my dough and put in the fridge for a couple of hours (you can also leave it overnight)
Instead of the pearlash, you can use ½ tsp baking soda.
Bake the gingerbread men in a 350F oven for 10-12 minutes
Decorate to your heart’s content.
To Sip On: Franklin Pierce’s Hot Rum Punch
Mix together 1 cup lemon juice, 2 cups dark rum, 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 ounces boiling water until sugar has dissolved. Top with freshly grated nutmeg and, a cinnamon stick and a slice of clove studded orange.