I told a little of my great-grandma Ethel’s story when I shared her Half Moon Cookie recipe a few weeks ago. Her life was full of challenges, but she found joy in gathering people for small celebrations and sharing good food with them.
When Ethel was a young teenager, her father died and she was sent to live with a family in Salt Lake City who provided room and board and schooling costs in exchange for Ethel helping around the house. While living with this family, she learned to make Half Moon Cookies and Punchbowl Cookies. She always associated these cookies with happy times and made them a family tradition that endures four generations later.
Ethel’s life didn’t get easier when she moved to Salt Lake City. She was separated from her mother and her siblings and the train ride was too expensive for her to visit home often. After being in Salt Lake City for about a year, Ethel contracted appendicitis, became gravely ill, and had to be hospitalized. Her mother scraped together enough money to buy a train ticket to go visit her in the hospital. Her mother visited Ethel, walked out into the hallway, and immediately suffered from a heart attack and died. Ethel had lost both of her parents within five years of each other and she was still just a teenager.
Ethel’s story is sad, but also inspiring. This period of her life was full of loss and sorrow, and yet she took something simple that she learned during it, like these cookie recipes, and decided to make them a symbol of joy and celebration. Now, my family makes these cookies to celebrate the holidays and special occasions. For Ethel’s posterity, it’s not Christmas without Punchbowl Cookies!
These Punchbowl Cookies are very straightforward, but they have a lot of steps. The base cookie is a shortbread that is rolled into a ball. Then you make an indent to hold the jam. When this indent is filled with jam it sort of looks like a punchbowl filled with punch, hence the name! Finally, you have a whipped egg white topping that is sprinkled with chopped walnuts.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned from my grandmother and mother over the years. First be very careful and slow when using your thumb to make a well in the dough that will hold the jam. If you apply too much pressure too fast, the dough will crack on the sides. This isn’t the end of the world, but it isn’t as pretty as a cookie without cracks.
This next tip is very important. Do not beat your egg whites in a plastic bowl! If there is any fat or oil present at all, egg whites will not whisk up and get those lovely stiff peaks we’re looking for. Plastic tends to get little scratches and nicks where oil can hide waiting for a chance to ruin your egg whites. If possible, use a metal bowl. The sides of a metal bowl are less slippery than the sides of a glass bowl which will help incorporate more into your egg whites as you beat them. It also helps to use egg whites that are at room temperature.
For the Cookie Dough
- 1 cup butter
- ⅔ cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 well beaten egg yolks
- 2 cups flour
For the Cookie Toppings
- 3 egg whites
- strawberry or raspberry jam (about ½ cup)
- 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
- Preheat oven to 350° F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
- Cream together the butter and sugar.
- Add the vanilla, salt, beaten egg yolks, flour and stir until combined Set aside.
- In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Set aside.
- Shape the cookie dough into 1 inch round balls (about 1 tablespoon of dough) and place on a cookie sheet. Place half of the balls on the cookie sheet and gently press a dent in the middle with your thumb. Fill the thumb print with the jam, dab generously with the beaten egg whites, and sprinkle with the chopped nuts.
- Bake for about 15-17 minutes at 350° F or until the edges of the cookies are a light golden brown.