Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cookie Time!

It's that time of year when the house should smell of baking. I think I used to have more time for this--I know I did when I was self-employed and didn't own a horse. I'm not giving up the horse to spend more time in the kitchen, though.

When I do have the time, I like to make cookies which have been made in my family for as long as I can remember (with the exception of Mexican Wedding Cakes and the Fudge Crackles, which I added along the way.) The most of the recipes came from my Italian-American grandmother, but a notable one came from my Czech-American grandmother, and both were filtered through my mother's kitchen. My mother has this habit of leaving out key notes, so one year I went home for the holidays and watched her do things, making notes in my little blue book the whole time.

I've rarely found recipes in traditional cookbooks for these sweets. I don't know if it is because the names I've got are in a dialect rather than in formal Italian or Czech or some other reason. They all tend to be time-consuming undertakings and I don't have help in the kitchen to make them, unfortunately.

The Italian Cookies:

Tarella are hard anise cookies which we dip into a frosting and sometimes decorate with sprinkles or colored sugar. They are good dipped in coffee or hot chocolate. I remember getting the recipe to make in home ec in junior high. My mother neglected to give the correct amount of flour, which varies depending on humidity. We were scraping dough off everything, it was so sticky. I'm better at it now.

Pizzelles are made on a special waffle iron and are very much affected by humidity. They take a lot of eggs and it is slow going because you can only make two at a time. My grandfather used to eat them with wine.

Ceci are half-moon shaped fried cookies filled with a chickpea-honey-orange rind filling. The finished cookie is springled with cinnamon & sugar. I'm sure that ceci and some of the other fried dough Italian Christmas cookies (the names of which I can't recall right now) owe something to Jewish cuisine in Italy. They just seem like they'd be right at home at a Hanukkah party.

While not a cookie, I do make panetone for the holiday. It is a bread with some preserved citrus rind and pine nuts that is traditionally baked to look like a chef's hat. I tend to make it as a boule. I like it toasted with jam. It is easily purchased at Italian food emporia this time of year, but when I was growing up, the only way to get it was to make it. It isn't that difficult. Really.

The Czech Cookie:

Kolachki are Czech, with a delicate, flacky pastry enclosing a nut or fruit filling. They are probably akin to rugalah, but not as dry. They are absolutely addictive, but so labor intensive I rarely have the time to make them. The pastry is Crisco and flour, rolled in powered sugar to keep it from sticking. It is very difficult to work with under the best conditions. After filling and sealing and baking, the cookies are dusted with more powdered sugar, which I think must have the addictive power of another white powder. The other reason I don't make them more often is that I would eat all of them. It's the one recipe I've got from my namesake grandmother and making them on the Hoosier kitchen top always makes me think of her.

The Other Cookies:

I found a recipe for Mexican Wedding Cakes in the Washington Post soon after I moved to Northern Virginia many years ago. It was the recipe that convinced me that margarine is no substitute for sweet butter, no matter what the cost or health risk. The small round cookie is made with pecans, lots of butter, flour and powdered sugar and after baking it gets two more coatings of powdered sugar. They melt in your mouth.

Fudge Crackles use three kinds of chocolate and get their name from the shiny cracked surface. They are best barely cooled from the oven. The recipe came from a holiday cookbook I own and was worth the price of the volume. A plate of fudge crackles and Mexican wedding cakes makes a lovely presentation.

If I'm really good, I'll get up on Christmas morning and make a batch of scones from the Ticky-Boo Tea Shoppe Cookbook. The recipe is in a post I made back in July. I don't think I've got time to make lemon curd, but that's easily purchased at Trader Joe's.

Have a Merry Christmas or whatever winter festival you celebrate. There's lots of good things to eat at most of them.

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