Mema's Christmas Cookies

Anise-Almond Sprinkle Cookies

Anise-Almond Sprinkle Cookies

A Pernod-accented glaze gives these cookies their trademark anise flavor.Helen Rosner

Like any kid, the thing I looked forward to the most about Christmas was the presents. But my favorite gift was never found under the tree; rather, it was on the kitchen table. Growing up in a household where neither of my parents cooked, food was never the focus of our holidays—except for one thing: the Christmas cookies made by my grandmother, who we called Mema. These soft, tender, Italian-style vanilla cookies were doused in a glaze spiked with so much liquor that if you ate too many you risked getting a little tipsy, then showered in rainbow ball sprinkles. The result was so colorful and festive that it was hard to look at a platter without smiling. Some years the cookies were large, other years they were small, sometimes they were burnt slightly or undercooked; they were never technically perfect, but to me, they spoke of Christmas in a way nothing else could.

Even in the last few months of her life, when she was in the late stages of cancer, Mema's cookies were still waiting for me on the kitchen table come Christmas. “Thats what I wanted to do,” she would say to me, firmly defending the time she spent in the kitchen making them. Now, almost a year after her death, I find myself in the kitchen making my Mema’s cookies this holiday season, carefully following her handwritten recipe. I know her version—ever-changing, always perfect—won’t ever be waiting for me again, but every time I taste one it’s almost like she's there with me.