This recipe has truly been kept a "Secret" for 30 years but now is the time to release it. It was given to me by an elderly lady who had been given it by an even more elderly Swedish lady. The proviso: "After I'm 'gone,' you may give out the recipe." The same proviso was given to me...so, here it is.
When my mother posted this cookie recipe on Food52 ten years ago, she wrote: "This recipe has truly been kept a 'secret' for 30 years...It was given to me by an elderly lady who had been given it by an even more elderly Swedish lady. The proviso: 'After I'm "gone," you may give out the recipe. The same proviso was given to me...so, here it is.' "
Cookies are the first thing that comes to mind when I think of holiday tradition. When my sister and I were in elementary school we were only allowed to give our teachers handmade gifts, which for us meant food—aside from the occasional pomander in the form of an orange studded with cloves. Every December, we spent several hours in the kitchen with my mother, measuring and mixing, shaping and decorating dozens of cookies of all types: crunchy oatmeal, chewy molasses, crisp meringue, sandy pecan, and always a batch or two of Secret Cookies.
With their rich, sweet crunch and enough salt that you just noticed it, they were the family favorite. Any that we didn't tuck between sheets of wax paper and layer into colorful tins for our teachers went into the gray stoneware cookie jar my mother kept on the kitchen counter, along with the rest of the leftovers from our baking session. Those Secret Cookies were always the first to disappear.
To make them, we pinched lumps of soft, buttery dough and rolled them into balls, which we lined up on baking sheets in neat rows like soldiers. We filled shallow bowls with green, red, and multicolored sanding sugar, then dipped the bottom of a juice glass (ours had sunburst indentations cut into them) into the sanding sugar and gently pressed each ball into a flat(tish) disc. The pattern on the underside of the glass was transferred to the cookies, so that they resembled colorful, sparkling ornaments.
I remember peering into the oven impatiently as we waited for the first sheets to bake, watching intently for the first blush of gold to begin creeping up the sides of the cookies—the sign that they were done. Once they had cooled for a few minutes, my sister and I carefully selected one cookie each to taste. I preferred the ones with slightly browner bottoms, while my sister made her choice based on the neatness of the sunburst pattern and whatever color spoke to her most that day. That first bite, crumbly and still slightly warm, was pure joy.
As soon as my kids were capable of wielding a juice glass, I instituted our own holiday cookie baking tradition. For all the same reasons as we did, they look forward to making Secret Cookies more than any of the others. And the leftovers are still the first to disappear from the cookie jar. —Merrill Stubbs
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar. Add the yolks and vanilla, mixing well. Add the flour and combine thoroughly.
Use mounded teaspoonfuls and make balls of dough with your hands. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet, then flatten the dough with the bottom of a patterned glass dipped in colored sugar (don't mix the colors!).
Bake for about 10 minutes (watch carefully as they burn easily), until the cookies are lightly golden just around the edges. Let the cookies rest on the baking sheets for a minute or two and then gently transfer to baking racks to cool—they're fragile.