While it is often said that a generation is skipped between natural cooks, a peek into the Machanic family's active kitchen in Potomac sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve quickly dispels the myth.

That's where Karin Machanic and her 17-year-old son, Andrew, spend most of their spare moments cutting, baking and frosting hundreds of perfect little German Christmas cookies. Their creations come from recipes that are generations old -- heavy on the nuts and butter, light on the flour.

When they finish baking the cookies, they wipe off the counters and start baking again, this time producing an entire line of breads and cakes, and even a gingerbread house from which the family will pick off the pieces during the weeks following Christmas Day.

Though Karin Machanic wears the chef's hat in this family of seven, she has come to depend on her son to help carry the load. His four-year apprenticeship in the family kitchen has paid off with what he considers to be the ultimate achievement -- you can't tell his cookies from hers, and both of their creations are so beautiful that you wouldn't find better in a Lu beck cookie shop.

He now plans a career in the kitchen, something his mother says she too wants to do so badly she "can taste it." Though they have talked about going into the cookie business together, that is many years down the road, she said.

"Andrew is very good, but you still have to watch him," Karin said while yelling across the kitchen for him to measure the rum for a glaze. He has learned to make flavor changes in recipes without altering their overall workability and is fast becoming a master at working with chocolate, she said. Admittedly a somewhat stern and critical teacher, Karin encourages her son to follow his first love to its fullest potential. "I'm a tough mom, but I figure if you're going to do something, you may as well do it right."

Tempting as their Christmas desserts may be, not even a crumb will be nibbled before Christmas Eve. The cookies must age for at least a week in airtight tins, stashed away alongside all of the other confections in closets around the house. No one would cheat, said Karin of her three other children, husband and mother, who help out with some of the decorating and all of the pan washing. "It's too much fun to wait. The anticipation is part of what makes them so good," she said.

Following a Christmas Eve dinner of oxtail soup, imported sausages and some of the homemade breads, the family will gather around their seven-foot tree, which has been painstakingly decorated with antique ornaments and tiny white candles, to sing carols and munch cookies.

Crescent moons, rocking horses, hearts, diamonds and even old Saint Nick are just a few of the cookies from which the family will pick and choose. Seventy or 80 cookies will be consumed by the family before the candles are smothered on the tree and the family retires for the night. The rest will be eaten on Christmas Day and in the weeks to follow by family and friends.

Making old-fashioned German Christmas cookies is not easy, both mother and son emphasized. It is as important to bring patience into the kitchen as it is to use the finest-quality ingredients. Because the doughs have very little flour and are loaded with butter, they quickly become soft and sticky, and a lot of time is spent cleaning cookie cutters in order to get precision cuts. Before the baking ever begins, nuts must be peeled, toasted and ground, and ingredients assembled.

Key to their cookie-making success is getting organized, Karin said. Every year around mid-November the two begin searching through the hundreds of recipes she has been collecting for 20 years. Once they have made their selection and compiled a list, she then heads to the nearest co-op to buy the butter and nuts at discount prices. Altogether she estimates they spend around $50 to $75 on the 25 different kinds of cookies they make each year.

Once the nuts have been prepared, recipes are paired so as to make optimum use of ingredients. Keeping in mind that they will make five doughs a day, they prepare meringue doughs that use only the egg whites, along with doughs that use only the egg yolks, she said.

Andrew, who does most of the mixing, said that he has discovered it is true that egg whites beat faster and have more volume when used at room temperature -- an important factor in the success of their meringue cookies. When the whites are stiff, he sifts in the confectioners' sugar, which eliminates clumping and promotes even sugar distribution throughout the batter.

The doughs are chilled overnight, then rolled and baked the next day. Particularly stubborn, sticky doughs require the use of a pastry cloth and chilled rolling surfaces. On the unusually warm November day during which the Machanics demonstrated their art, the dough for chocolate rocking horses melted faster than it could be rolled, but the back of a chilled cookie sheet quickly solved the problem.

Sugar or nuts are sprinkled on the rolling surfaces, "to make things more interesting," Karin said. Doughs with little or no flour are best rolled in confectioners' sugar. Granulated sugar gives cookies a crystal-like texture and they use finely ground nuts "just to be different," she said. Dipping the cookie cutters in the same medium on which the doughs have been rolled helps prevent sticking. And since rerolling the dough makes it tough, they are careful to stamp their cookies close together.

Parchment-lined, heavyweight cookie sheets work best for baking the cookies, she said. Butter browns the cookies, and waxed paper burns in the oven. Cookies with sharp or tiny ends are placed in the center of the sheets, as cookie sheets tend to be hotter at the edges. As a general rule of thumb, meringues, which should dry more than bake, do best at around 200 degrees; nut cookies bake best at 250 to 300 degrees; all others should be baked at around 350 degrees. If the cookies brown too quickly, they should be covered with a layer of parchment.

Once cooled, the assortment of filling and glazes is a matter of personal taste and can be dictated by what is in the cupboard and the refrigerator. Every summer Karin cans her own raspberry jam for the sole purpose of making linzer tortchen cookies in November, but red currant and apricot jelly also work quite well, she said. Both jams and jellies work best when first sieved, then spread on the cookie and left to dry and thicken overnight.

Glazes, which can be applied thinly or as a thick frosting, are best made with orange or lemon juice and confectioners' sugar. Once stirred into a smooth paste, the glaze can be applied while the cookie is hot and it will become transparent. When applied once the cookie has cooled, it will make an opaque white frosting.

Here are five of their favorite recipes. CINNAMON STARS (Makes about 4 dozen)

4 egg whites

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar, plus extra for rolling

5 to 6 cups ground unblanched almonds

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Beat egg whites until frothy, add salt and continue beating to soft peaks. Sift in the sugar gradually, beating until stiff and shiny. Reserve 1 cup egg white mixture for topping.

Add almonds, cinnamon and lemon juice to remainder of egg white mixture and thoroughly mix into a smooth dough. Add additional almonds if dough is sticky. Chill.

Sift confectioners' sugar onto rolling surface. Roll dough 1/2 inch thick. Cut with a 2 1/2-inch star cutter, dipping cutter into additional sugar to prevent sticking. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet.

Brush reserved egg white mixture on top of each star. Bake at 200 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center still comes out slightly sticky with dough. The stars should come out of the oven snow white. Cover with additional parchment if they show any sign of taking on color while baking. LEMON HEARTS (Makes 2 1/2 dozen)

4 egg yolks

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla sugar (recipe follows)

1/8 teaspoon lemon extract

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

2 2/3 cups ground hazelnuts or filberts

Ground hazelnuts or filberts or confectioners' sugar, for rolling


1 cup confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Beat egg yolks until light and fluffy. Add granulated sugar, vanilla sugar, lemon extract and baking powder. Beat until light and lemon colored. Mix in ground hazelnuts or filberts and mix into a smooth dough. Dough will be very sticky. Chill for at least 2 hours.

Sprinkle nuts or sift confectioners' sugar on rolling surface. Roll dough out to 1/2 inch thick on top of nuts or sugar. Cut out 2 1/2-inch hearts, dipping cutter in sugar to prevent sticking. Bake on parchment-lined cookie sheets at 325 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven.

Mix confectioners' sugar with lemon juice. Brush over tops of cookies while they are still warm. VANILLA SUGAR (Makes 1 1/2 cups)

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 vanilla bean, cut in tiny pieces

In a blender or food processor, blend sugar and vanilla bean to a fine powder. Sift out large pieces of vanilla bean and store mixture in an air-tight container. VANILLA KIPFERL (Vanilla Horns) (Makes about 3 1/2 dozen)

2 cups flour

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 cup (2 sticks), plus 1 tablespoon sweet butter, room temperature

1 1/4 cups finely ground blanched almonds*

1 teaspoon vanilla sugar (recipe above)


1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons vanilla sugar (recipe above)

Sift flour and sugar together. Cut the butter in tiny pieces and add to flour mixture and stir in almonds. Add vanilla sugar and work into a smooth dough with either hands or a wooden spoon. Dough will be very crumbly at first, but the butter will soften as it is worked into a ball. Chill for 1 to 2 hours.

Break off walnut-sized chunks and shape into 2-inch crescents. Bake at 275 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, until very light yellow. Remove from oven, cool completely and roll in a mixture of granulated sugar and vanilla sugar.

*Note: To blanch and finely grind almonds pour boiling water over them and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Drain and let dry overnight. Rub the skins off. Grind in a mill or blender, then pass through a sieve. Use only the finest meal for these cookies and reserve the rest for another use. GEWURZSCNITTCHEN (Spicy diamonds) (Makes about 3 dozen)

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1/2 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs

1 1/2 cups finely ground unblanched almonds


1 cup confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice


Thin strips candied lemon or orange peel

Beat butter with sugar until fluffy. Add egg and mix well. Sift flour with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Mix in bread crumbs. Stir flour mixture into butter mixture along with ground almonds. Mix into a smooth dough. The dough will be very sticky. Chill.

Roll out 1/4 inch thick on a clean surface. Cut out diamond shapes and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool.

Mix confectioners' sugar with lemon juice and blend into a smooth paste. Brush on cookies. Place 2 or 3 thin strips of candied lemon or orange peel on each cookie for decoration. LINZER TORTCHEN (Makes about 3 dozen)

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature

2/3 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon cloves

1 1/4 cups ground hazelnuts

1 cup seedless raspberry jam

Confectioners' sugar for dusting

Cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Sift flour with cinnamon and cloves. Stir flour mixture into butter along with hazelnuts. Mix into a smooth dough. Chill for 2 hours.

Roll out on a lightly floured surface to 1/4 inch thick. Cut 1 1/2-inch rounds with a fluted cookie cutter. Cut the centers out of half of the cookies to make ring shapes. Bake on parchment-lined cookie sheets at 325 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes until lightly browned. Cool.

Spread a 1/4-inch layer of raspberry jam over the top of each cookie with the center still intact. Put rings on top of jam and let stand overnight to dry. The next day dust cookies with sifted confectioners' sugar. Spoon a few drops of jam in the center of each cookie to cover the sugar. Store in air-tight containers with parchment between each layer. CHOCOLATE ORANGE HORSES (Makes about 2 dozen)

This is a difficult dough to work with. It is essential that the dough be kept cold at all times, otherwise the chocolate will melt and the dough will stick to the rolling pin and the rolling surface.

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) sweet butter, room temperature

2/3 cup sugar

Dash salt

1 egg

Grated rind of 1 orange

1 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 squares semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely grated


1 cup confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoons orange juice

Beat butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar, salt, egg and orange rind. Sift flour with baking powder and add to butter mixture. Mix in grated chocolate. Mix together into smooth dough. Chill for 2 hours.

Chill a cookie sheet lined with parchment. Roll dough on chilled cookie sheet to 1/8 inch thick. Cut with rocking horse cutter (or whatever shape you desire). Bake on another sheet that has been lined with parchment at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes.

Mix confectioners' sugar with orange juice to a smooth paste. Brush glaze on cookies while they are still warm.