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Grandma's Christmas cookies to take you back to your childhood

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

All this weekend, we've been hearing about special recipes - the kind you make for the holidays or that are really special to creating memories with families and loved ones. And now we want to get even more personal. Our very own producer and director Tyler Bartlam spoke with her grandmother, Sylvia Noureddin (ph), who she calls Teta (ph), Arabic for grandma, about her Christmas cookie tradition. And she put together this piece to walk us through one special recipe in particular.

TYLER BARTLAM, BYLINE: Every Christmas, in addition to piles of presents, my family is all about cookies. We have your classic sugar cookie, Russian teacakes and chocolate crinkle cookies. But there's one cookie that stands above the rest. That's my Teta's lace cookies. She only makes them at Christmas, and they are a staple of the holiday. And since I'm not able to go home this year, I wanted to learn how to make them on my own. So I called my Teta on Zoom to watch her make six dozen cookies for Christmas.

How long have you been making them?

SYLVIA NOUREDDIN: It's been so long, I don't even remember.

BARTLAM: Well, why did you start making them?

NOUREDDIN: I have no idea.

BARTLAM: (Laughter).

She may not remember when she started making them, but we did figure out the recipe is from 1965. And it's not your typical cookie recipe. For starters, you'll need a double boiler to make the batter. Put some water into the bigger pot and let it simmer. Then add a smaller pot on top of it. Be sure to set your oven to 325 and grease your cookie sheets. Then...

NOUREDDIN: Put a fourth of a cup of butter in the top of the double boiler along with a fourth of a cup of shortening, also in the double boiler, and then a half a cup of light corn syrup and two-thirds of a cup of light brown sugar. You press it in so that it's tight.

BARTLAM: And for those of you who don't know what shortening is, like me, it's a type of fat that stays solid at room temperature. My Teta uses vegetable shortening, and she says it shouldn't be substituted. Now that you have these ingredients in the double boiler, it'll start to melt.

What consistency are you looking for?

NOUREDDIN: It would be kind of like - well, almost like a pancake batter.

BARTLAM: In the meantime, melt a cup of semisweet chocolate chips. You can do this in a separate double boiler or in the microwave. Once the butter has melted, let the mixture cool and then add a cup of flour mixed with a cup of nuts.

NOUREDDIN: And the nuts are very important in this recipe because they are what form the lace pattern. The nut should be chopped fairly fine - not to a powder form.

BARTLAM: What kind of nuts are you using?

NOUREDDIN: I'm using pecans.

BARTLAM: But could you use any nut?

NOUREDDIN: Oh, yeah. You could use any nut you want.

BARTLAM: Do you always use pecans?

NOUREDDIN: Well, let's say that there are certain people in my family who don't really like walnuts. I used to be using more walnuts than anything else. But now I've switched to pecans.

BARTLAM: The mixture should be sticky, so it may be a bit of a workout to mix in all the flour and nuts. But the key is to keep the batter warm.

NOUREDDIN: It's already starting to get hard. So I'm going to put it over the boiling water for a bit. Now restirring to make sure all the flour is blended in with the original batter. And then I'm going to put it over the simmering water in order to soften it a little. Right away, I want to mention that this double boiler I'm using was my mother's.

BARTLAM: Wow. So how old is it?

NOUREDDIN: Oh, I don't even know because I don't know where she - when she bought it.

BARTLAM: So she didn't teach you how to cook?

NOUREDDIN: No. I learned most of my cooking from my grandmother who lived with us. I used to watch her, and sometimes I would help in whatever she was doing.

BARTLAM: Now the batter is ready to bake. Use around a teaspoon to scoop the dough onto a cookie sheet about three inches apart and bake for 8 to 10 minutes.

Has anyone else in the family ever made these?

NOUREDDIN: I don't think so.

BARTLAM: Have you taught anyone else?

NOUREDDIN: No. Nobody asked me. I guess they figure they're too much trouble. OK, the buzzer has gone off. So we'll take a look. Well, they look like lace. The nuts have separated the batter into a lace pattern.

BARTLAM: Once they're done, just let the cookies cool and add a thin layer of chocolate on top.

NOUREDDIN: It probably sounds complicated, but it isn't that bad. And it's something that you feel proud of once you finish because they're pretty to look at. And if you wanted to, especially for Christmas, after you put the chocolate on, you could put sprinkles on or red and green crystals or anything like that.

BARTLAM: I guess this is where I'll admit a big secret. Growing up, these cookies weren't my favorite to eat. But these cookies have taken on new meaning as an adult. There's something about the flavor, the process of making them and spending time with my grandmother that brings me back to my childhood. And I have Teta to thank for that.

Tyler Bartlam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY G'S "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tyler Bartlam