The pesky mushroom cookies I bake for Betsy, my late mother-in-law

Dozens of them come out of my oven each Christmas, year in and year out

By Maggie Hennessy
December 21, 2020 3:00PM (UTC)
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Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: Geri Williams. (James Ransom / Food52)

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It's mid-December somewhere on the near northwest side of Chicago. The kitchen is heady with cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and fresh citrus zest, which earlier my husband and I warmed with honey and butter into a gorgeous syrup. The counter is laden with spice jars, measuring cups, bowls, and sheet pans—creating a disorderly frame around four brown dough mounds.

A 3-by-5-inch note card, titled "Mushroom Cookies (Lithuanian Grybai)," presides over the whole chaotic affair, handwritten in slanted blue cursive and stained from decades of use. We've reached the card's second side, when the script gets smaller and more crammed as it guides us through the shaping, baking, icing, and assembly of these time-consuming little monsters.

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This is usually around the time I start getting insolent.

"These damn cookies! Cooking and kneading and baking and gluing! And look at this mess!"

I've never been much of a baker, in the same way I tell myself I'm no good at math. I could probably learn, but the structure of it all makes me antsy and self-conscious. Yet I've come to cherish the ritual of making these delicious, mushroom-shaped morsels, which my husband and I bake each year in honor of my late mother-in-law Betsy.

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Betsy was warm, bright and quick to laugh. A longtime speech therapist, she had a rich vocabulary; beautiful, curly penmanship; and a deceptively progressive core hiding beneath her turtleneck and snowman sweater-vest sets. She loved her family and loved her church, which comprised the beating heart of her wide social circle and seemingly bottomless well of recipe inspiration.

And oh, could she bake.

Burnished, lattice-topped pies bursting with cranberries and cinnamon apples; tender Hungarian coffee cakes with sweet crumble roofs; minty bricks of dense, luscious fudge. But Betsy's baking prowess shone brightest at Christmastime—her favorite season—when she embarked on her annual "cookies of the world" operation.

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For a few solid weeks starting just after Thanksgiving, she'd bake dozens of cookies amassed through generations of home bakers, choosing a slightly different mix of greatest hits and regional specialties each year—from fudgie scotch squares to airy Italian marguerites, buttery English tea dainties, and brown-sugary pecan pie bars.

Every inch of counter space in her cramped old kitchen wore a thin dusting of flour and sugar granules. She'd float among open nut bags, uncovered jars and precarious towers of baking tins in her frilly floral apron, humming as she deftly pulled one cookie tray out of the oven and slid another in its place. When it was all over, she'd pack up almost all that tasty labor and distribute it to everyone she knew.

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We all had our favorite cookies. I'd rifle shamelessly through multiple tins to retrieve a coveted pecan pie square, grateful that my father-in-law usually went for the tri-colored ribbon cookies instead. My sister-in-law waffled between the mushroom cookies and pinwheel-shaped Finnish stars.

But my husband's favorites were always the mushroom cookies, so named for their shape: tender, richly spiced sour-cream cookie caps and stems glued together with icing and sprinkled with poppyseeds. I never learned where or when Betsy's mother Harriet got the recipe, but each year I'd marvel idly at how on earth Betsy made them, internally celebrating that they were never my charge.

That changed in 2009, when we lost Betsy to ovarian cancer just before the holidays. A few weeks later, as we sifted through 60-odd years' worth of her things in grief-stricken silence, my father-in-law pressed her two, crammed-full recipe boxes into my arms. The one that held her cherished desserts couldn't even close, it so overflowed with time-worn, dough-spattered recipes. Somewhere in there, those damn mushroom cookies waited.

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The following year, we willed ourselves through our first holiday season without her and that frightening, first solo batch of mushroom cookies. I squinted through tears to make out Harriet's loopy cursive; the closeness of the grief rendered the labor and mess almost insurmountable.

But slowly, year after year, I've leaned into this process that so wholeheartedly captures Betsy's persona, and reminds me of her generosity and fearless knack for baking. The cookies commandeer our full attention and spill into every kitchen crevice, flooding it with memories of her most beloved season.

My husband and I always make mushroom cookies together, blasting the same two Christmas albums on repeat the whole way through. He measures the ingredients and sets up our assembly lines, while I take on the more physical tasks of dumping, stirring, kneading and rolling—which dually act as occasional frustration release valves. Every year I wonder aloud whether we've rolled the caps too large, even though I know Betsy's sing-songy reply by heart: "Oh, they'll be just fine!"

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While the last batch dries, my husband makes us Manhattans—which, by the way, taste superb with these cookies. We nibble on the imperfect ones while we carefully pack the rest in bags and parchment-lined tins to be handed off a few at a time as we make the rounds to friends and family.

Admittedly, we probably keep a few more for ourselves than Betsy would have, knowing we wouldn't dare make a second batch. Plus, some time during the past decade, they've become my favorite Christmas cookies, too.

***

Recipe: Lithuanian Grybai (Mushroom Cookies) From Harriet Hardy

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Prep time: 3 hours 30 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Makes: 36 to 40 cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons full-fat sour cream
  • 2 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 cup poppy seeds, plus more as needed

Directions:

  1. Heat the honey in a large pan over medium heat until it bubbles at the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat; stir in the granulated and light brown sugars, butter, egg, spices, and zest. 
  2. Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt into a mixing bowl; stir in the honey mixture alternately with sour cream. Turn onto a lightly floured board; knead until the dough is easy to handle and not sticky (firm enough to hold the impression of your finger), about 5 minutes. Allow the dough to rest for 20 minutes. 
  3. Heat oven to 350°F. Divide the dough into four equal parts. Make mushroom "stems" from one part. Shape into two rolls, each 25 inches long about ⅜ inch in diameter. Cut into 1-inch lengths, reshaping ends of each "stem" if necessary. Place 1 ½ inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until firm and light brown on bottoms, about 7 minutes. Cool on wire racks. 
  4. From the remaining dough, make the same amount of "caps" as "stems." Form the "caps" by shaping dough into 1 ½-inch balls. Make an indentation about ½-inch deep on one side of each ball with the handle of a wooden spoon. Place caps, indented side down, ½ inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until light brown on bottoms, about 12 minutes. Cool on wire racks. 
  5. Make the icing: Mix together the confectioners' sugar and 1 tablespoon water. Add another 2 tablespoons water a little at a time, beating well in between, until the icing is combined. 
  6. Line a baking sheet with foil, and fit with a wire rack. Enlarge the indentation in the cooled caps with a small pointed knife. Dip one end of each stem into the icing and insert in the cap. Dip the cap into the icing, sprinkle the top with poppyseeds, and set the cookie on the rack to dry. Repeat until you've glued together all the stems and caps, and decorated the caps. Let dry for at least 15 minutes.
  7. Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to six weeks or in the freezer for about three months, though I've never seen them hang around this long.

 


Maggie Hennessy

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