Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cookie Tales

Update:  Back by popular demand, the recipe for Mexican Wedding Cookies.  This cookie is a fan favorite and never goes out of style.  Due to the extreme amount of butter per batch, it's best to make these around the holidays when your gluttony levels are in full swing.  Enjoy!

Everybody's baking cookies these days. Even people who abhor baking and would prefer buying a fabulous new pair of shoes are baking. People who have no business holding a wooden spoon are baking. The guy who owns the liquor store down the street is probably baking. And all those teachers and neighbors and mailmen -- they're sitting around getting fat off the cookie. I'm not a big cookie person, but like so many others, I trot out the recipes at this time of year. I'm such a lemming.

But there are three cookies in my life for which I actually look forward to eating. One of them, Gretchen's Signature Big-Ass Chocolate Toffee Cookie, is a mysterious, obscure, ancient recipe. Or not. It's one of two dishes that my step-sister does well (the other being her mashed potatoes. They rock), so she guards the recipe under lock and key and gun. The cookies are giant, like the kind you get in NY delis. They're soft and chewy and chocolatey, and have big chunks of toffee in them. They pair well with a chilled skim or 1%.

The cookie I make every year has many names and many variations. Mexican Wedding Cookies, Spanish Wedding Cookies, Mexican Wedding Balls, Butter Balls, Add 10 Pounds To Your Waist Cookies. You can make them with nuts -- pine, pecan, almonds -- or without. They're a very forgiving cookie since they have so few ingredients, most of which is butter. A quick Google search tells me they're popular at Spanish weddings and signify a "rich and full married life." Well, duh. Anything with that much butter signifies rich and full.

I began eating these cookies back in high school, and first baked them in college. My old friend, Donna, introduced us. As I was writing up an article on cookies for Patch recently, I asked Donna, through the magic of Facebook, to tell me the history of her cookie. "Were these passed down from your mom? Another relative? Are they a favorite tradition in your family? When did you first start making them?"

Her response: "Are you kidding me? My memory is totally shot. It was before college, definitely high school. I'll go with 10th grade. My mom got a new oven and I looked through the owner's manual and came across the recipe."

Now that's rich. When I think of Donna back in high school, I see a tall, blond beauty, lazily hanging out in a bikini by her backyard pool. I do not see her curiously spy a Kenmore booklet and reaching for the flour.

The cookie that has the most meaning in my life is an actual old recipe, handed down for generations, lovingly baked by a variety of aunts, daughters and cousins.

Momo's Poppy Seed Cookies are my family's cookie. Momo was my grandmother, Pauline Manlin Helman. Nobody knows where in Russia she was born (they didn't talk about it back then). Nobody knows what her true age was (she and her eight siblings were given birthdays such as December 25th, July 4th and October 31st upon arrival at Ellis Island). There's a very good chance her name wasn't Pauline Manlin. But what everybody did know is that the woman could bake a damn fine cookie.

My father remembers gobbling them up as a kid. My cousins remember fighting over them during the holidays. My sister, Robin, wrote down the recipe sometime in the 70s, which my mother still has. And my Aunt Pat, Momo's daughter-in-law, still has a copy of the recipe in Momo's handwriting.

"Of course I still have the recipe," Aunt Pat recalled. "Or what we all thought was the recipe. As Momo lay dying, she reached for my hand and said to me, 'You must have this recipe. Always keep it.' So she wrote it down on a piece of letterhead from St. Louis Jewish Hospital and gave it to me, the one person in the family who can't cook."

"What do you mean by you "thought" it was the recipe?" I asked.

"Oh it took us forever to get it right," Aunt Pat told me. "When Momo wrote down a cup of sugar, or 5 to 6 cups of flour, we had no idea she was talking about any number of her teacups. Your cousin Tommy finally figured it out after about four or five years of trying."

So there's my grandmother, the matriarch of my family, with her sons and daughter and their wives and husband, her nieces and nephews and brother and sisters, and all the grandchildren -- God, there must have been 80 people there -- keeping vigil at the hospital while she waits to pass from this life, and she chooses Aunt Pat to be the Keeper of the Cookie. Which turns out to be a bogus recipe.

All these years I knew I had the funniest family alive. When we get together, even for a funeral (sorry you missed it, Aunt Ann, we had a blast remembering you!), we cannot stop joking with each other. I can honestly say that the Helman clan has sense of humor written in the genes. Now I know where we got it from.

Mexican Wedding Cookies
pre-heat oven to 400

1 cup butter, softened at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar + more for sprinkling
3/4 tsp vanilla
2 1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt

Cream butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add flour and salt and mix until well-blended. Shape dough into one inch balls. Place on cookie sheet and bake until lightly browned, no more than 10 minutes. While still warm, generously sprinkle with extra confectioner's sugar. Makes approximately 40 cookies.

Momo's Poppy Seed Cookies
Pre-heat oven to 350

2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup water
2-3 T poppy seeds
5 cups flour

Beat eggs, then stir in sugar, salt, baking powder, oil, water and poppy seeds. Mix in the flour until the dough comes together. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour. Roll out dough to about 1/4 to 1/2 inch, and using a round cookie cutter, form the cookies. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes - 12 minutes.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Musing on Marinades: Swordfish Kabobs

Without too much warning, and certainly no premeditated thought, I took over grilling responsibilities in the home this summer.  I won't claim the title of Grill Master.  Nor do I like Grill Girl.  Queen of All Charcoal works.

It began when the husband's new schedule meant eating dinner after 9:00.  Which meant closing out the kitchen around 10:00.  A little time to digest, a few pages from a current book, and I was looking at an 11:30 bedtime.  Insanity.  I took matters -- and tongs -- into my own hands.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Sweetest Side: Carmen Peppers

It seems every summer the husband and I get stuck on a side dish and can't let it go.  A few years ago it was the bean and walnut salad.  One year curried cole slaw took over.  There was the time my zucchini plant ate Hulk pills and we were swimming in grilled squash.

This year, we've gone sweet (and crazy) for Carmen peppers.  I've always loved a good red bell pepper.  Sweet, crunchy.  You know, how can you go wrong?  But I never gave them much thought.  Until this year.  This year, a farmer introduced me to a Carmen pepper and... Well, let's just say it's a bit sweeter than your average red bell.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Very Patriotic Bowl of Steamers

A word about July 4th.  If there's no food involved, count me out.  Potato salad, corn on the cob, hot dogs and pie.  Nothing more, nothing less.  The history about revolutions and flags?  Meh, not my scene. 

With one memorable exception in 1993, I have never been a big parade person.  Marching bands, loud drums, floats... call me unpatriotic if you will.  I'd rather spend the day at the beach or a cook-out.  And unlike my mother, who dresses for every holiday on the calendar (yep, she wears tree earrings on Arbor Day), I don't get into the red, white and blue attire just because the date says so.

This year, however, we went up to Bristol, RI.  This year, I was smack in the middle of the oldest parade in the entire US of A.  This year it was difficult not to get caught up in patriotism.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Smoking with Sassafras: Grilled Chicken

Now that grilling season is underway... actually, grilling season is always underway.  Grilling the Christmas beast is a tradition.  Steak in a snowbank is not unheard of either. 

But now it's really grilling season.  As in texting the husband on the train ride home with the question, "HMC 3 drum 2 th?"  Translated: How many coals should I light for three drumsticks and two thighs?"

To which his reply is usually a number.  60.  As if I'm really going to sit there and count out 60 coals.  Dumping the coals into the chimney starter is more my style.  And I usually do 3/4 full for everything I grill.  So why do I even text him?