When I was young, cookie season started in mid-December and continued until early January. Friends and family all had platters and trays of cookies on their tables, often of the multi-tiered variety. Each was carefully wrapped in plastic ready to be unwrapped when guests arrived. The platters were replenished after each group of guests left.
In my circle of family and friends, cookies usually fell into one of two categories, Italian-American or Slovak-American.
Nut rolls and poppy seed rolls are Slovak (well, OK, they’re really pretty much pan-Eastern European but since I grew up in a half-Slovak family we considered them to be Slovak even though we knew they were also made by the Poles, Ukrainians, Slovenians, and other Eastern Europeans in town) but they were made by the Italian side of my family as much as by the Slovak side.
There were also nut horns, butterballs, and thumbprints which defied ethnic baking boundaries.
However, flat, rolled cookies, like these butter cookies, were not usually made by Italian-Americans. The totos that I wrote about last December and the colored cookies that are coming up later this week were not usually made by Slovak-Americans.
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This recipe came to me by way of Aunt Ann who was married to my father’s brother, Jano. She said it was Grandma’s recipe.
I remember eating these cookies and seeing them piled on my grandmother’s table over the holidays.
These cookies are similar to the sand tarts that are common in the central part of Pennsylvania where the Pennsylvania Dutch, of German extraction, historically lived. The big difference, though, is that the dough for these butter cookies is prepared more like a pie crust while the dough for sand tarts is prepared more like cake batter. That is, for these cookies, flour and sugar are cut into butter with a pastry blender whereas for sand tarts the butter and sugar are first creamed together.
There also are sand tarts that I think of as more Southern. These are usually rolled into balls or formed into shapes and baked but not rolled thin like Pennsylvania Dutch sand tarts and my grandmother’s butter cookies.
Grandma Mihalik's Butter Cookies
The cookies should just be pale golden brown on the bottom. The color and weight of the cookie sheet significantly influence cooking. I find that shiny aluminum cookie sheets of medium weight work best. Dark metal will cause the bottom of the cookies to brown too much. Allow the cookies to rest for about 30 seconds before removing them from the cookie sheets. If you wait too long the cookies will lose their flexibility and are likely to break.
Combine cinnamon and three tablespoons sugar. Reserve.
Grind the walnuts and reserve.
Put the butter in a mixing bowl and leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes to soften slightly.
Add 1 cup of sugar and flour to the butter.
Mix with a pastry blender until little beads form.
Add the cream and egg yolks and continue mixing with the pastry blender until a shaggy dough forms.
Press into a log, cut in half (or quarters) and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Roll a portion of dough between sheets of waxed paper to approximately 1/8 inch thick.
Cut into shapes.
Arrange on ungreased cookie sheets.
If the dough starts to warm too much it will be difficult to get the cookies off the waxed paper. If this happens, put the rolled out dough, still between the waxed paper, in the refrigerator for a few of minutes.
Brush with unbeaten egg whites.
Sprinkle with ground walnuts
Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
Bake 350°F approximately 8-9 minutes or until light brown on the bottom.
Remove from the cookie sheet almost immediately and cool on a wire rack.
Pizzelle were present at every holiday, birthday, wedding, and festive event as well as at random times throughout the year.
They usually came from Aunt Margie, though other folks made pizzelle, too.
My mother never did. Though she liked to bake, and made some wonderful pastries, pizzelle were not part of her repertoire.
The classic flavor is anise, though vanilla, and to a lesser extent lemon and orange, are common as well.
Aunt Margie would use pizzelle to make ice cream sandwiches. She would roll them around a tube to make faux cannoli. She would even roll them into ice cream cones. Of all the permutations, though, my favorite is just the classic, flat, crispy anise-flavored cookie.
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I don’t know anybody who doesn’t use an electric pizzelle iron these days but originally Aunt Margie used one of cast iron that was heated on the stove. It came from Berarducci Brothers in McKeesport, Pennsylvania and is most definitely iron, not aluminum. I have the pizzelle maker in its original box.
Unfortunately Berarducci Brothers is no longer around. Not only did they manufacture stove-top and electric pizzelle irons, they made ravioli molds, crank-handle vegetable strainers, and an array of other culinary tools.
In my experience, anise oil is essential. Anise extract simply does not pack enough flavor to give pizzelle the punch they need.
When I was young, anise oil came from the pharmacy. It was not uncommon in those days for pharmacies to routinely compound medications to a physician’s specific instructions. Compounding is now limited to a few specialty pharmacies but not so back then. Anise oil was commonly used to flavor what might otherwise be a noxious medication.
It was common practice among the Italian families in my hometown to go to the pharmacy to buy a bottle of anise oil. One upside, besides the easy availability of the stuff, is that it was pharmaceutical grade and, therefore, very pure.
I tried that in Santa Fe after my mother-in-law kept failing to get enough anise flavor out of anise extract. We even have actual compounding pharmacies in Santa Fe as well as pharmacies that specialize in herbal and homeopathic medications that also make up their own medications. No dice. Not one of them carried anise oil.
Amazon to the rescue. There are other on-line sources, too, like the King Arthur Flour people. So, if you want to try your hand at pizzelle, get anise oil, not anise extract. If you don’t like anise you could give vanilla, lemon, or orange a try. If you do, I suggest the lemon and orange oils from Boyajian rather than extract.
Anise extract does not work well. Anise oil is an absolute requirement for the authentic taste. As with many "old Italian recipes" in my collection, this one provided a range of amounts of flour. 1 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour worked well and was pretty much right in the middle of the range. The batter will be quite stiff until the melted butter is stirred in.
Getting beans to the right texture and the liquid to the right thickness is almost an art form.
Food is scarce in Cuba…at least if you’re a Cuban paying in Cuban Pesos. Not so much if you’re paying in CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos), which is what foreigners use. The CUC is pegged to the US Dollar but if you change Dollars for CUCs you pay a 10% penalty as opposed to exchanging another currency, say the Euro, for CUCs.
I visited a butcher shop in Havana which pretty much now only sells chicken; when chicken is available, that is. If you notice the door to the cooler is open. That’s because the cooler isn’t on because there’s no inventory.
The butcher is just waiting around for chicken to arrive.
When that chicken does arrive, it will likely be frozen Tyson chicken from the United States. Even though, when this picture was taken, the US embargo of Cuba was in full force.
The same is true of hot sauce. If one asks for hot sauce at a restaurant in Cuba one is likely to get a bottle of Tabasco shipped in from Avery Island, Louisiana. Clearly there are exceptions to the embargo for some American companies!
If you pay in CUCs, the food available increases dramatically.
The disparity in prices for food purchased with Pesos vs CUCs is so large that average Cubans cannot afford to buy food with CUCs, even if they can get them. It takes 25 Cuban Pesos to buy one CUC. Paying in Pesos limits one to shopping in pretty-much locals’ only stores, with limited inventory where the products, like rice and beans, are sold at subsidized prices.
Rum is widely available regardless of the currency. You’ll pay more if you’re a foreigner, however.
After returning from the trip to Cuba in 2014, I tried but couldn’t get the texture of my “Cuban” black beans right. But then, my mother-in-law got a recipe from Beatriz (Betty) Scannapieco. Betty is from Cuba. She was in the exercise group my in-laws attend. Betty’s recipe, using a pressure cooker as is common in Cuba, works like a dream. It’s really pretty effortless, too. The green pepper, onion, and garlic add tremendous flavor but are removed after cooking leaving just beans and the silky cooking liquid.
I made three changes to Betty’s recipe. She called for 1 teaspoon of white wine. I use 1 tablespoon. Betty didn’t use tomato paste or black pepper but both are common ingredients in many Cuban black bean recipes.
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Cuban Black Beans
This recipe came from Beatriz (Betty) Scannapieco in my in-law’s exercise group. Betty is from Cuba. I added the tomato paste and black pepper to Betty’s recipe. I also increased the wine from 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon. It can be challenging to get the bell pepper, onion, and garlic out of the beans as they very soft after cooking. If you want to make it easier, you could tie them in cheesecloth.