The Blue Christmas Baking Company got its start sometime in the 90s. I was a broke-as-hell new teacher with piles of student debt and very few budgeting skills, but I was determined to give everyone something for the holidays. So I baked five or six kinds of cookies, packaged them up in unused paint cans I found for a dollar at a hardware store, and made cute labels. (It’s really all about the packaging.)
I discovered a few weeks later at our usual Saturday night card game that my grandmother, not a big fan of sweets, had been rationing her cookies. So I knew I was onto something.
In subsequent years, my mom joined in the baking fun, and we resurrected a family favorite from her childhood: sand tarts. These simple shortbread cookies had been a staple at her paternal grandmother’s house during the holidays. The recipe comes from River Road Recipes, one of those plastic-comb-spiral cookbooks compiled by communities of women, in this case The Junior League of Baton Rouge. It’s first printing was in 1959, and I bet not one recipe has changed since then. Inside the front cover of my mom’s copy are promotional quotes from magazines and newspapers, including one from The New York Times proclaiming, “if there were community cookbook Academy Awards, the Oscar for best performance would go hands down to River Road Recipes.”
I’ve made exactly one recipe out of this ravely reviewed cookbook. Perhaps I should remedy that at some point.
Anyhow, Meme’s family was, as my mom always described it, the fancy part of the family, and gatherings at her house required dressing up and being on one’s best behavior. Which was rewarded with sand tarts by the plateful. They are simple: butter, powdered sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, vanilla, and finely chopped pecans. The dough is stiff and easy to overmix, and I remember the first time we used my KitchenAid to make these. My mother, hesitant at first to mess with perfection, thought the mixer was a revelation; we churned out dozens of sand tarts that year.
Over the years, we made other adjustments—buying good quality butter, which makes them just that much richer; dusting them with powdered sugar using the sifter after they’d cooled, rather than putting them in a paper bag and shaking them around. Depending on how late in the baking day it was, Mom would get going with the sifter and just dust everything in the kitchen, including me. We’d remember another powdered sugar incident, laughing over our beignets at Cafe du Monde and sending clouds of powdered sugar across the table at each other. We’d both left covered in white dust and with a new rule: Never wear black to Cafe du Monde.
The Blue Christmas Baking Company gradually expanded its repertoire, adding spicy candied pecans one year, my great-grandmother’s chocolate fudge another, my great-great grandmother’s brown sugar fudge another. We always chose an experimental recipe, only one of which was ever a contender for being “a keeper,” the term in my family for recipes that should be entered into regular rotation. They were these coffee-flavored shortbread bars with a glaze and a decorative chocolate covered espresso bean. Super fussy, but ridiculously good.
There were four requirements for the holiday baking process:
- Despite our best planning, there had to be at least three trips to the grocery store for more of something. One year, thanks to Costco butter and pecans, I think we only made two, so we went out for something we didn’t really need just to make that third trip.
- We always burned one batch of pecans. Every year we were determined not to forget a batch in the oven while we did something else, usually another round of dishes, and every year we forgot a batch in the oven. I like the too-burnt-for-gifting-but-not-quite-blackened ones, so I’d pick through the burnt batch over the course of the day and find some to snack on.
- For afternoon coffee, something my mother couldn’t do without, we’d take a break, sit at the dining room table, and sample a few sand tarts. For quality control. Mom would put them on a little plate, two for each of us, and then would get up at some point and get us each one more. Lagniappe.
- There had to be Christmas music playing. We’d usually tune in that obnoxious radio station that started playing Christmas music 24/7 the day after Thanksgiving. After my grandmother died, we’d get teary at every rendition of “O Holy Night,” and Mom would tell me stories about how beautiful her voice was when she was younger. And we’d sing along, badly and loudly, to the cheesiest songs, especially that dreadful Wham! song. Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” interrupted the whole enterprise because it required our full attention; over the years, we developed a whole routine that involved Mom imitating Elvis and me doing the background ooh-oohs. It was epic.
This year, I started The Blue Christmas Baking Company up again, on a small scale. I made only one trip to the grocery store. Every batch of pecans turned out perfectly, but I did ruin a batch of fudge (thanks to a faulty candy thermometer) and broke the KitchenAid (which has been repaired thanks to the instruction-following abilities of the Hacking brothers) while mixing cookie dough. Though I am not an afternoon coffee drinker, I sampled plenty of sand tarts. For quality control. I played 80s music and danced and sang around the kitchen.
New rule: Recreate rather than replicate.
Merry Christmas from The Blue Christmas Baking Company.