Christmas is a grapple. We love the theory (feasting, giving, friends and family), even as we worry over the practice of cooking the food, choosing the gifts, and actually being with our families. We long to make the rites something more than rote, even as we wonder if it's better to be more practical and less traditional. And right there in that grappling, right there between desire and duty, is the literal sweet spot where spritz cookies gnaw at me.
Like a lot of people who eat up memories of these stylized butter cookies, I was initiated into the ancient mysteries of the cookie press in my grandmother's kitchen at Christmas. When I was old enough, I also took up the dough-filled torch to carry on the tradition. My vintage press came from a garage sale (where they often end up). Christmases came and went. I made snickerdoodles and gingerbread and French bûche de Noël and Norwegian julekake — but no spritz. Ever optimistic, every time I moved, I carried the press with me, determined to reform my Christmas present by summoning the spirit of my Christmas past. But I never did. I feared the investment of time and energy. I didn't want to wrestle an old-fashioned gadget, and I was anxious about squandering precious free time on something that lacked the brightness of peppermint, the dependable warmth of chocolate, or even the Old World eccentricity of dried fruits.
And then four years ago, I finally came to terms with my lack of faith. I passed the cookie press on to someone eager to convert to the old-time religion. But now, after the instability that has been 2016, I find myself yearning for a little security in an odd Christmas ritual like spritz making.
A Rich Cookie for Cold Climates
Spritz is the cookie that unites northern Europe. Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands all celebrate with some version of this plain-spoken cookie with a Viking-strength crunch and high fat content to keep you insulated through long winters. Peter Rose, an expert in Dutch-American foodways, gave me the backstory on one branch of the cookie's family tree. Rose was born in Utretch, the hometown of Utrechtse Botersprits, which are made by filling a pastry bag with dough and using a star tip to pipe it on a baking sheet in zigzag form, forming bars. "There is a particular density to the dough of spritz that other cookies don't have," she says. "Very dense, very buttery."
Like any luxury made more common and less expensive by industrialization, their status has fallen. Butter cookies sold in big-box stores at Christmas come to be valued more for the decorative tin container than the cookie. Their talent for longevity, their willingness to patiently wait months to be devoured, once prized, is now part of spritz's undoing. When fresh and local reigns, who can love a cookie like that?
But even in my earliest memories, delicious was never really the point of spritz — not even the homemade ones. They were fun, they were colorful, and some might even say they were beautiful. Like a jello mold or a lamb cake, they remind us of another era when furniture was modern and minimal, but food compensated by being bold and busy. Like many American children, I twisted out pale green and vaguely red dough with my grandmother's Mirro press, and then added red hots, jimmies, or a rainbow of sugar. They were the very definition of culinary kitsch, which is exactly what made them lovable.
A Cookie Press for All
If you're still holding on to one of those mid-century cookie presses, it was also probably made by Mirro at their aluminum factory in Manitowac, Wisconsin. "Mirro and its predecessor, Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Co., made pretty much every imaginable sort of cookware or utensil," explained David Driscoll of the Wisconsin Historical Society. "Pans, molds, ladles, mess kits, muffin tins, coffee makers, teapots, cookie cutters, ricers, bun warmers. It's hard to overstate the volume and diversity of cookware that came out of Manitowoc and Two Rivers [the company's second location] for almost a century."
From product catalogues, Driscoll estimates that the Mirro cookie press was introduced between 1930 and 1935, about the same time that Wisconsin was producing more than 50 percent of American-made aluminum cookware. It's a special kind of kismet that the top aluminum manufacturer whose name became synonymous with spritz cookies would set up shop in the same Midwestern region where Dutch, Scandinavian, and German immigrants (including the founders of Mirro) settled.
Today, the cookie guns made by Wilton and Kuhn Rikon descend from the Mirro press, and that press was a twist on the kinds of pastry bags and tips used to make Utretch-style cookies. "Using a cylinder and a screw-driven piston instead of hand pressure on a flexible bag must have seemed like a welcome improvement," said Driscoll, "especially in the Depression-driven frenzy of industrial design efforts to punch up sales in the 1930s." Plus, it allowed for making all those Christmas shapes like trees, stars, and snowflakes rather than just long, rippling strands.
With my renewed desire for spritz making and a longing to cocoon at home and revive a tradition with my daughter, I will leave the mid-century press to vintage-kitchenware enthusiasts. I'll be starting a new ritual with a new press in a new place with new people.
Sometimes we reject rituals precisely because they become nothing more than a gesture without meaning, a motion without emotion. They feel restrictive rather than freeing, and we feel more bound by duty than desire. But when we come back to them out of an organic longing, especially in a time of need, we can feel the comfort of that ritual even more than before.