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Isn’t it neat how holiday traditions are formed? It’s rarely intentional; for me, the things that stick are not the things I’ve tried to contrive and force but the ones that just simply fall into place every year. Sometimes this is frustrating for me, because I’m a planner. But when I’m busy complaining or fretting about how things didn’t go as I’d imagined, I’m missing the beauty and the blessing of how they are. Maybe you know what I mean. As a mom, I want things a certain way, I want my family to have good experiences that they’ll remember fondly. But God is good, and he wants to do the same for me.

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I had the idea to get each of my kids a Christmas ornament each year that represented them and their current loves, hobbies, etc. so that each year decorating the tree would be a nostalgic, meaningful experience. But Titus doesn’t even have a “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament, as I was far too busy and tired from actually taking care of a baby last year to make or shop for one. Doesn’t that represent “Baby’s First Christmas” better than any ornament ever could? Such were not my thoughts at the time, but someday I’m sure I’ll cherish the memories of those moments I spent with him that I came so close to wasting stressfully trying to adhere to my self-imposed tradition.

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Our first little snowfall of the winter yielded very little actual snow, but I was still delighted. Saturday morning, by the time all of us got bundled up and outside, the light layer of snow was all but melted, a wet layer of slush scarcely covering the dead grass. I was initially disappointed, but when I put my frustration away, I was able to see that William was completely unaware that this was not ideal snowman-making weather. He and Sam had a “snowball” fight with what unmelted snow Sam salvaged from the top of our car, Titus waddled around in his coat that made him two or three times as plump as normal, and our time ended quintessentially with tears from both boys. Titus finally got fed up with his hat covering half his face and falling down every two steps (adorable), and William was wailing after getting a slush-ball to the ear. We all came in and left a big pile of wet, dirty snowclothes and a row of muddy boots outside our door. It was perfect.

Then there’s the baking. I have an ever-growing list of sweets I want to make so badly each year at Christmas time. Never mind who’s going to eat fifty dozen cookies (we don’t even have that many friends and acquaintances, though I think I know a few people in this house who would happily volunteer). Starting in late November I just have this urge to turn on some Christmas music and fill our home with the scent of sugar and spice. And chocolate. And nuts. And cherries, coconut, dates, espresso, almond, lemon, caramel, and mint, with an overarching aroma of butter. The bigger problem is not who is going to eat them, but when all of this baking is going to take place. Even with my plan of making a batch or two per week, and the help of my trusty freezer, making enough cookies to share with every neighbor in our building is not going to happen.

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So I narrow it down to about five different cookies instead of an infinite variety. These Date Balls and Chocolate Cherry Cookies have made the cut every year. The Date Balls are an old family recipe from my dad’s side of the family, but I never paid them any mind until my my first Christmas as a newlywed. There I was in my own little kitchen in Germany, a clean slate before me of what would be “our traditions” as a family, and it was as if it just wouldn’t be Christmas without these cookies. I made some small adjustments to the original recipe, and they were adored at every Christmas gathering we brought them to. One friend thought he tasted chocolate in them; nope, just dates, rice krispies, and chopped pecans, but these three ingredients give them a similarly delicious, toasty, rich flavor that makes us come back to them every year. As a bonus, I believe they can easily become gluten-free. I’m no expert on the matter, but you’ll want to make sure you use gluten-free rice krispies (some have malt extract or are processed on equipment that comes in contact with wheat or barley). And I’m not sure about the corn syrup, but be very cautious when dealing with someone who is severely gluten-intolerant, and when in doubt, always check with them first on every ingredient.

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The Chocolate Cherry Cookies also date back to our time in Germany. A friend gave me the recipe one Christmas and I have made them every year since. Sam goes crazy over them, and has already eaten a good portion of my give-away stash under the guise that he will make another batch for me. They are so easy to eat. A perfect little chocolate cookie gets topped with a maraschino cherry, which is then hidden under a cap of creamy, decadent chocolate-cherry ganache. I’m thinking a double batch would definitely be a good idea next year. UPDATE: He is indeed in the kitchen making another batch as I type! What a good man.

I hope your Christmas is filled with unexpected blessings and joy. If you find the time to work these into your holiday baking, I’d love to hear about it. If not, that’s wonderful too. Have a lovely, peaceful Christmas enjoying the traditions your family has grown to love.

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Date Balls
Yield: 50-60 1-inch balls

  • 8 ounces fresh dates*
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon corn syrup
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 heaping cup pecans
  • 2 1/2 cup rice krispies
  • 14 ounces shredded, sweetened coconut
  1. Toast pecans: heat oven to 350 degrees, spread pecans in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and bake until fragrant and slightly crisp, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  2. Meanwhile, split dates, remove the pits, and chop finely (roughly 1/8 to 1/4-inch pieces). Place in a medium-sized saucepan along with the butter, sugar, corn syrup, and egg white.
  3. Chop pecans finely and add to a big mixing bowl. Add rice krispies, and mix to combine.
  4. Spread some coconut on a plate for rolling the date balls in later. Prepare a workspace and a place to set warm date balls once rolled; I use a baking sheet lined with parchment. You’ll also want some softened butter for your hands.
  5. Heat date mixture to boiling, boil 3 minutes.
  6. Pour date mixture over rice krispies and pecans, stir gently to combine.
  7. With buttered palms, make balls about 1-inch in diameter, rolling each one to coat with coconut as you go and placing them on your cookie sheet. No need to space them very far apart. The size is about 2 teaspoonfuls. The key is to keep them on the small side; 1-1/4 inch is okay, but you’ll be tempted to make them bigger and bigger as you go along. Try to avoid ending up with golf-ball sized date balls. Trust me, you’ll only come to regret it.
  8. Let them cool and enjoy!

*Are you very familiar with fresh dates? They’re worth seeking out; when made with them, these cookies are far superior than when made with dried ones. But, okay, I cringe to tell you this: examine fresh dates and remove any moldy-looking ones before using. There is no excuse for this even being an issue, but let’s face it, fresh dates are not the most popular item in the produce section, and it happens. I hope that all your dates are perfect and you don’t have to deal with this at all, but I’ve run across it a couple of times and feel it my responsibility to warn you. (I have never gotten sick from dates.) If it freaks you out, use dried ones.

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Chocolate Cherry Cookies
Yield: 48 small cookies

  • 6 ounces semisweet chocolate (Don’t skimp and use the cheap stuff here! The success of the ganache depends upon good chocolate. Trust me. It doesn’t have to be super high end, I use Baker’s Bittersweet Chocolate, the purple box, which is exactly 6 ounces. Just not the cheap-o Aldi chocolate chips, though their Moser Roth chocolate bars will work in a pinch, if you, like me, insist on learning the hard way.)
  • 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 Tablespoons maraschino cherry juice from the jar
  • 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 10-ounce jar of maraschino cherries, juice reserved for ganache (see above), cherries halved and set on paper-towel-lined plate; you should have about 48 cherry halves
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Make ganache: place chocolate, sweetened condensed milk, and cherry juice in a bowl and microwave about 30 seconds at a time, stirring well, until just melted and creamy. Don’t overcook. Alternately, you could use a double-boiler or a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, stir together flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking powder with a whisk until combined. Set aside.
  4. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy.
  5. Add egg and vanilla, beat well, scraping bowl as needed.
  6. Gradually add the flour mixture and mix until blended. This will be thick. I like to give it one final stir by hand to make sure everything is fully incorporated.
  7. Shape dough into 1-inch balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet about 1-2 inches apart.
  8. Make a small indentation with your thumb in the center of each cookie, then place a cherry half into each hole and press gently.
  9. Spoon 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of ganache on top of each cookie. If it has thickened a bit, just use the tip of your spoon to give it a little swirl to cover the cherry and make it pretty.
  10. Bake for 10 minutes. Cookies are done when the edges are firm and cracked a little, but the rest of the cookie should still be soft. Let them cool on the cookie sheet for a couple minutes before moving to a cooling rack.

Sam’s Notes: He made a slight change to the cookie dough when he made them and I had to guess what it was. He doubled the salt. It was good.

Also, I heard a despairing, “My thumbs are too big!” from the kitchen as he was making the indentations for the cherries. If you have this problem, just use a smaller digit. :) Silly as it sounds, it does help to make the hole a little smaller than the cherry itself, because then when you press the cherry in, it will stick a little, which will help it stay in place when you’re spooning on the topping.

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