There is a house on an unassuming and quiet street in Battle Creek, Michigan. It’s the kind of house where you stay for the whole summer, excitedly taking your first solo cross-country flight to as a child; the kind of house you escape to as a young college student to comfortably shed all your young-adult anxieties. It's the kind of house you invite your fiancée to, and reflect on how much things have changed on the outside. Inside, the house radiates the same love and warmth you’ll never be too old to crave.
This was my husband Drew’s maternal grandparents’ house. He took me (the fiancée at the time) for the first time one year for the holidays. From the moment we stepped into its linoleum-floored kitchen, I was instantly reminded of my own grandparents’ house in Tabriz, Iran. Battle Creek is a world-and-a-half away from Tabriz.
But it’s never the studs or the geography of a home that embrace you. It is the scents and the sounds of a crowded kitchen; the familiar bustle of a family negotiating a holiday meal; the comfortable lull after eating, when the coffee is put on, the cookies are taken out of their tin, and everyone settles in for a game of Canasta. No matter how many oceans divide us, a good card game and a freshly baked cookie is part of a language that needs no interpreters.
In Drew’s family, every holiday cookie is invariably one of Grandma Stauss’ recipes.
I never met Grandma Stauss, but every Christmas, my mother-in-law, Susan, pulls out what used to be her wooden recipe box holder. I watch as my daughters and her decide which cookies to bake. The girls love the sugar cookies that they can decorate; Drew loves the ginger-molasses cookies; and Susan and I share a love for all things baked with almonds, so we reach for Grandma Stauss’ Almond Christmas Balls.
These Almond Christmas Balls are a festive addition to any cookie tin—and they come with the surprise gift of a cherry in the middle. Grandma Stauss’ original recipe calls for candied cherries, which I have substituted for dried cherries. I have a hard time finding the candied cherries, and oftentimes find them a little too saccharine. The dried cherries work just as well, especially because I like to soak them in water to plump them up. (For an adult version, you can also soak the cherries in a holiday liqueur of your choice.)
You can use either blanched almonds or skin-on almonds for this. If you use skin-on almonds you’ll have little specks of the skin peeking out from the cookies. I don’t recommend using almond flour, as you’ll need a little texture in the ground almonds to help keep the balls intact. The cookies are crumbly, like a shortbread cookie, but should hold together while forming and baking.
The house in Battle Creek still stands, though it’s just a structure now. The elders of the family are all gone. But the cookie tin remains: the keeper of their stories, a family historian of sorts, guarding memories and making room for new ones. And the tin always has Grandma Stauss' Almond Christmas Balls in it, with a surprise cherry in the middle and an extra dusting of powdered sugar on top. —Naz Deravian
Test Kitchen Notes
Featured in: Food52's Holiday Cookie Chronicles —The Editors
- Prep time 20 minutes
- Cook time 20 minutes
- Serves 36
(140g) raw whole almonds, blanched or skin-on
(2 sticks, 1/2 pound, or 227g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
(28g) powdered sugar, plus 1 cup/113g for rolling and dusting
(250g) unbleached all-purpose flour
pure vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) with the rack set in the middle position. Line a half-sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside. You may need to use two sheet pans.
- Place the cherries in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Set aside to reconstitute and plump up, about 10 minutes. Drain and scatter the cherries in a single layer on a paper towel. Set aside.
- Place the almonds (if you can’t find whole blanched almonds, slivered blanched almonds work just as well) in a food processor and pulse until finely ground, but with some texture to it (but not ground to a flour). Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or by hand, beat the butter, sugar, and vanilla until fluffy. Start on a low speed and increase speed gradually so the sugar doesn’t fly everywhere. Add the flour and almonds and mix just to combine everything well into a batter. You can also get in there with your hands and combine everything.
- Place the batter, dried cherries, and the sheet pan beside you. Very lightly sprinkle a little powdered sugar on your palms and fingers—this will help the batter not stick to your hands. Use a tablespoon to scoop out the batter and roll into a ball. Make a slight indentation in the middle of the ball, place a cherry in the middle, close it up, roll back into a ball and place on the prepared sheet pan. You may have a few extra cherries, which you can just pop in your mouth. Continue with the rest of the batter leaving a small space between the balls.
- Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until the bottoms and sides of the cookies are slightly golden. Remove from the baking sheet and cool slightly on a wire rack.
- Place the remaining 1 cup (113g) of powdered sugar in a pie plate or bowl. When the cookies are still warm, but not hot, roll them gently in the powdered sugar and place on a wire rack to cool. Once cool, you can dust them with a little more powdered sugar, if you like.