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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.

December 14, 2020
Photo by James Ransom. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: Geri Williams.

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.

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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Top Comment:
“I am looking forward to making mushroom cookies! I have so many favorite Christmas baking memories! My Croatian grandma sent a shoe box of her homemade goodies every Christmas. We could not wait to open it on Christamas Eve. Many of those recipes I have continued....too delicious to be forgotten! My favorite memory is my mom making Poteca every Christmas. A beautiful snail shaped Croatian nutbread it disappeared as soon as it was cool enough to eat! She had the patience and expertize to get the yeast dough paper thin. Heavenly!”
— JoanV
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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.

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.

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.

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.

Photo by Maggie Hennessy
Photo by Maggie Hennessy

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!”

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.

What holiday tradition do you keep to remind you of a loved one? Let us know in the comments.

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13 Comments

Eileen O. December 23, 2020
What a sweet, moving story. It almost makes me want to bake ... almost. That said, I've shared your article with a friend who bakes; perhaps she'll make some for me.
 
katharine K. December 18, 2020
I found, via The Culinary Cellar, the recipe was published in Sphere., Dec. 1972. https://theculinarycellar.com/the-mushroom-cookie-master/
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. December 18, 2020
Oh wow, this looks really close! Thank you for this!
 
katharine K. December 23, 2020
I love culinary history. Thanks for introducing me to the mushroom cookies!
 
Lisa U. December 17, 2020
My mother made these and they are a family tradition.

She found the recipe in the Betty Crocker magazine December 1972.

It had a lot of cookies from different parts of the world.

Fun to find another family having the same tradition.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. December 18, 2020
Oh, how cool! Do you still have the original recipe somewhere? I think my mother-in-law got a lot of inspiration from Betty Crocker, Parade, the Bisquick box, you name it! Thanks for sharing this, love to know others share this tradition. ❤️
 
Lisa U. December 18, 2020
I looked for the magazine but it must be in the basement boxed.

I do have a copy of it but has stains and writing.
 
GeekKnitter December 16, 2020
And just like that I'm all sniffly at my desk. Her handwriting looks SO MUCH like my grandmothers I had to squint to make sure. What lovely memories.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. December 17, 2020
It is quintessentially grandmothery cursive, isn't it?! Thank you for reading and for the kind words. ❤️
 
Nancy L. December 16, 2020
Great holiday cookie, learned from “Honey Feast” cookbook (Opton/Hughes). I use white glaze for stems and chocolate for the tops. As the cookbook says “ a whimsical addition to a holiday tray”.
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. December 16, 2020
LOVE the idea of chocolate tops! Can't wait to try.
 
JoanV December 14, 2020
I am looking forward to making mushroom cookies!
I have so many favorite Christmas baking memories! My Croatian grandma sent a shoe box of her homemade goodies every Christmas. We could not wait to open it on Christamas Eve. Many of those recipes I have continued....too delicious to be forgotten! My favorite memory is my mom making Poteca every Christmas. A beautiful snail shaped Croatian nutbread it disappeared as soon as it was cool enough to eat! She had the patience and expertize to get the yeast dough paper thin. Heavenly!
 
Author Comment
Maggie H. December 14, 2020
Poteca sounds absolutely wonderful! And oh what I would give for a little more patience. :) Thank you for sharing these lovely memories. ❤️