I spent my first 40 Christmases in New Hampshire, where our family's traditions always involved a tromp through snow-dusted woods to cut down our tree and roaring fires in the woodstove to fortify us against the below-freezing temperatures.
Then 13 years ago I moved with my two younger children to Marin County, where we celebrated our first California holiday season with a hike to the ocean, in shirtsleeves. It was a gorgeous day, but I felt a stab of pain at being transplanted into such an utterly unfamiliar place. No making snow angels, or impromptu New Year's Day hockey games on the pond by our house.
I love California. I love our home on Mt. Tamalpais. Still, I found myself breaking into tears, that first year, when the letter arrived from a friend back East saying how much she'd miss our annual cookie party--an event begun when my daughter was small, as a way to bring her friends together for baking.
The concept was simple. We'd invite friends over on a Saturday before Christmas, asking that everyone bring a half-dozen of a single variety of Christmas cookie along with a good-sized tin. We'd lay the cookies out on platters, so each guest could gather up an assortment to bring home.
Some people's cookies resembled elaborate artworks. As for me, my own specially--learned years ago from a Scandinavian woman I met at a party--was a homely looking cookie called kanella.
Kanellas aren't elaborate. They are sausagelike affairs, requiring the baker to roll out bits of dough, each of which is then laid out on the cookie sheet in the form of a parenthesis.
My kanellas never received much attention at the party, where everyone gasped over the showy baked goods. It was after my guests returned home that the responses filtered in. "I wish I'd gotten more of those funny-looking cookies of yours," a friend told me, the morning after Cookie Day. "What makes them so great, anyway?"
No food item with ground hazelnuts in it is ever a bad idea, I explain. Then there is the inclusion, in the dough, of a little cream. Once baked and cooled, the kanellas turn hard, which makes them excellent for dunking. Best of all, because kanellas are humble-looking, a person won't mind picking one up and popping it in her mouth, unlike cookies that look as if they belong in a museum. …