When I think of Christmas, I think of many things, including sand tarts. My grandmother and my mom made sand tarts every Christmas without fail up until a certain point. They would make them in early December, filling an empty tin of Hammond’s Pretzels with dozens and dozens of paper-thin, crunchy cookies cut in the shapes of angels, Christmas trees, stars, and bells, among others. They were topped with a combination of red and green colored sugar. According to my dad, the best ones were so thin and browned that they were almost burnt.
My grandmother is gone and my mom no longer makes them; however, I have taken up the mantle, but as a horse of a somewhat different color. I have never been able to duplicate the fragile dimension of those cookies that were rolled to a point where they were almost impossible to peel from the rolling surface in one piece. I tried, but I just didn’t have the patience, not even using my grandmother’s old marble slab and marble rolling pin. So my sand tarts are a bit thicker and chewy, not crisp. We have also added a nontraditional shape–a dog–and nontraditional colored sugar–blue, purple, yellow, and pink.
I say we because it is now our family tradition to make sand tarts on Christmas day (my kids and I make them; my husband eats them). Since we celebrate with our extended families during the days before and after Christmas, we have the big day to ourselves and making sand tarts has become part of the festivities. I make the dough the day before (as per explicit instructions from prior generations), chill it, and then let it soften just a bit before rolling and cutting. Using Wondra flour is also essential, according to the recipe (it provides a more “sandy” consistency to the dough).
They are mostly gone by the end of the day. We don’t make dozens and dozens, more like a few dozen. And I do save some for my mom and dad to enjoy, but I suspect they can tell the difference between our cookies and the ones from days gone by. But they never complain. (On occasion, I have tried to burn a few just for my dad. My dad likes his sweet potatoes cooked in an electric skillet and burned to a crisp, too.)
I’ve always thought of sand tarts as part of my Pennsylvania Dutch, Lancaster County heritage, but I’m fairly sure they originated elsewhere (even the librarian in me couldn’t bring myself to research the history of sand tarts for this blog post). I know there must be many recipes out there, too. (I have a friend who has veganized his family recipe.) But the best thing about making sand tarts is that it is an event–an undertaking worth some time and effort (just not the amount of time and effort required to produce the paper-thin, browned-to-a-crisp version).
I think this year we will return to the tradition of red and green sugar only (maybe eliminate the dog, too). We can’t duplicate the measure of the cookie itself, but we can create the best imitation possible. Which reminds me…
I never, ever appreciated sand tarts as a kid. I never appreciated the time and effort (and patience!) that went into making them the way that my mom and grandmother made them. I preferred the thick, chewy sugar cakes and the chocolate chip cookies they made closer to Christmas over those in the tin that lasted for weeks without ever getting stale.
Now I can’t imagine Christmas without them.