remembering aunty esther’s christmas cookies

They were simple butter cookies decorated with multi-colored sprinkles. She packed them in round plastic containers with a gift tag that read, “Merry Christmas from Uncle Keung Ho, Aunty Esther, Patti and Cindy.”

Each of my mother’s eleven siblings and their families received a batch of these lovingly baked treats every year. Their rich, velvety texture, generous kiss of vanilla, and perfect crispness made other holiday cookies pale by comparison. These cherished gems also had a way of magically disappearing within minutes of their arrival.

When we told her how much we loved her cookies, my aunt would often half apologize: “We can’t afford to buy presents, so we gave everybody cookies.”

She visited us in 2001.

I wish I had been articulate enough to properly thank her for our only homemade present. How to put a price on time, care, a gentle spirit, an open heart?

Little did she know how everyone waited and waited for her cookies, and when they finally came, what jubilation!  More than a gift, they symbolized another passing year, a sweet reminder of how lucky we were to have such a large, close-knit family.

These days, I don’t bake quite as many holiday cookies as I used to, but I usually try my hand at Aunty Esther’s butter cookies. And I say, “try,” because so far, I haven’t been able to duplicate them even using her exact recipe. Did she add a secret ingredient? Lightly tap the rims of her mixing bowls with a magic wand? Maybe it was her apron, a certain time of day, or her favorite music playing in the background.

I was a lucky child, blessed with many gifts each Christmas. Aside from a certain yellow sweater and a beloved Ruthy doll, I don’t remember most of them, but I still covet Aunty Esther’s cookies, which were flavored with her kindness, love of books and music, and appreciation for all things bright and beautiful.


1 lb. butter
2 eggs
2 cups sugar
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons vanilla

Cream the butter and sugar well. Add eggs and vanilla, beat until batter is light and fluffy.

Sift together the flour and baking powder. Add to batter gradually and mix well.

Shape into balls, flatten slightly with the back of a teaspoon and decorate with non-pareils.

Bake at 325 degrees F about 16 minutes.

*This batter can also be used to make thumbprint cookies. After rolling into balls, make an indentation in each cookie with your finger or the end of a wooden spoon. Bake 10 minutes, fill with your favorite jam, then bake 5-6 minutes longer.

TIP: Make these with someone you love, or share them with someone you love. Make a new memory. No one will ever be able to duplicate them!

“Christmas is the day that holds all time together.” ~ Alexander Smith


Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

15 thoughts on “remembering aunty esther’s christmas cookies

  1. Yum! I have all my baking supplies at hand, yet the schedule of events this year is such that I am short on blocks of time for blending, baking and decorating! If only I had made dough and frozen it a few weeks ago! Ah well, a baking marathon always make s the louse smell lovely!

    Happy holidays! Will try Auntie’s butter cookies for Valentine’s day!


    1. LOL! There’s nothing like a fragrant louse :). That’s another poem or story right there.

      Mmmm, what time does your baking marathon start? I’ll be right over . . .

      Have a great holiday, Cathy!


  2. I wish I’d gotten cookies from Aunty Esther! She sounds wonderful. My grandparents sent me cookies regularly when I was in college, and receiving those was always a happy occasion! Usually they were snowball cookies. Very delicious. My grandparents weren’t in a position to send my youngest cousin cookies when she went to college, so I sent them to her. Everybody should get cookies in the mail!


    1. Mmmm, your grandparents’ cookies sound wonderful. Can’t beat those care packages from home. How nice that you continued the tradition with your cousin :).


  3. I am ridiculously late in replying to this, but I did want to comment. The love present in those cookies shines through the computer screen. 🙂 I’m assuming your aunt is no longer around to bake you cookies, herself? Or does she still live in Hawai’i?

    Btw: Uncle Keung Ho

    Is he the model for the Uncle who eats seven Mochii in a row in Dumpling Soup? The name is so similar. 😀 We thought of your book last night, as we counted down the time to New Year’s.


    1. Aunty Esther still lives in Hawai’i, but we’ve long since discontinued gift exchanges. Of course her cookies kept giving :).

      Uncle Keung Ho is Uncle Myung Ho’s brother (the uncle featured in DS). Sadly, both have passed on. I love to recite the names of all seven Yang brothers, because their names all contain “Ho”: Myung Ho,Young Ho, In Ho, Keung Ho, Pyung Ho, Dong Ho, Nam Ho. Hey, someone should write a story about the seven Korean brothers . . .


      1. Hey, someone should write a story about the seven Korean brothers . . .

        *cough cough* How about YOU? 😀


  4. Stumbled upon this story about Mom’s butter cookies and shared with her tonight. Needless to say, she was tickled that you remembered her cookies so fondly. Sadly, she doesn’t cook or bake anymore although she said tonight, “write down the recipe — maybe I’ll bake some cookies.” Thank you, Jama, for jogging my memory of Mom’s Christmas baking. Our house always smelled so yummy during the holidays and it’s a very special memory for me! I can still see her lovingly packing each delicate cookie in between the waxed paper layers. We had containers of butter cookies, peanut butter cookies. Russian tea cookies, almond cookies, chocolate chip cookies, coconut crisp cookies, cornflake shortbread cookies, and cookie press cookies. I’m sure there were more varieties but those were my favorites. I like to bake too, but as you said, maybe Mom tapped the rim of the bowl with a magic wand because it just doesn’t taste like hers.


    1. Hi Patti,

      So nice to hear from you! I like imagining you and Cindy helping your Mom with all that Christmas baking. You got to sample everything warm from the oven :)! Thanks for reminding me of all those other cookie varieties. I’m remembering the layers of cookies now. The butter cookies stood out because it’s the only recipe I seem to have now.

      I hope she decides to bake some cookies this year after all :). I’m sure she still has the magic touch!


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