Butter. Flour. Cream.
These three ingredients make up the dough of my favorite holiday cookies. We call them Kifle (a filled crescent cookie from eastern Europe) and I can eat 400 at one sitting. (I’ve never actually counted, but that’s my best guess).
We made these cookies every single year for Christmas. I have no specific memory of making them, yet I remember flour covering every surface, licking the filling off my fingers, and sneaking bites of dough. (Don’t judge.)
My mom made the dough ahead of time and we would help her make the cookies after it chilled. Roll dough, cut dough, spread filling, roll up and shape before placing on cookie sheet after cookie sheet. (Repeat till exhausted or dismissed after fighting too much with a sibling.)
It’s not a hard process. It just takes time.
Traditionally, you can put three fillings in them. A mixture of nuts and sugar, apricot jam, or plum butter. Although I liked all three, my mom exclusively used the plum.
I grew up calling it Lekvar because that’s what she called it. I never really knew it was made from plums, I just knew it was delicious. And, lest you visit four grocery stores asking for the wrong thing, know it’s plum butter and you can’t find it everywhere. (So don’t decide to make these at the last minute.)
My mother did not wear any jewelry or have any collections (minus a handful of tiny souvenir spoons). So when she died, ten weeks after her cancer diagnosis, we swam in a sea of grief through a houseful of her.
Two years later, when I was just twenty, there were few choices to easily take with me when I married and moved away. I did not take her crystal or china, for they still found use in our family home.
So I took her recipes.
The square wooden recipe box left her home and came to mine. These were recipes she brought from her country and many she collected from ours. These recipes were written on scrap pieces of paper after watching The Frugal Gourmet next to (what I consider) heirloom recipes written in her first language.
Young and newly married, I tried many of the recipes. Some were successful. A few were not.
Even with my surprising aptitude for cooking and baking, I couldn’t bring myself to make Kifle.
I’d like to say it was because I didn’t know how, but honestly, I was scared. If I didn’t make them, I couldn’t fail. If I made them and they didn’t turn out right, it would be yet one more way I’d lost my mom.
Then one Christmas season, years later, I was ready. Willing to try, even if I failed.
They were remarkably easy to make. Getting the right thickness for the dough and amount of filling was second nature.
I presented them to my family like a wise man bringing gold to the baby Jesus. A gift of immeasurable worth and meaning. Eating those cookies next to my dad, brother, and sister was a bite of heaven.
My own kids are older now. I make the dough and let it chill, then invite them to help me when it’s ready. Just like my mom did with me, I let them cut a big circle with the fluted pastry wheel, making a zigzag design at the edges. I watch my daughter’s small hands work and tell her how I used this same tool with my mom. She looks up at me and smiles. “Grandma Violet?”
“Yes, honey. I did this exact same thing with your Grandma Violet.”
For the most part, doing this with my children is practical. I want their help. I want them to learn. Roll, cut, spread, roll again, and bake.
But it’s emotional too—sharing the same love you felt from your mother, the same love she felt from hers, and giving it to your child while baking the same cookies made in each generation.
We are an ocean away from my mother’s birthplace and culture. It’s not an easy place to get to and once she crossed the ocean at twenty-three, she never returned. Yet making these cookies was one of the ways she stayed connected. Without her here with us, it’s one of the ways we stay connected, too.
These cookies are a way to give my children their roots, especially during the holidays. I find comfort in our heritage and overwhelming joy in sharing it with my own children.
I’m going to have the kids help me make the dough this year. I want them to know how to make Kifle from start to finish. They need to understand it’s a process—how it’s worth the effort and the wait. Butter. Flour. Cream. And I’m going add one more ingredient to the recipe, the secret one each mom put in all those years: Love.
This essay was first published on The Good Mother Project.