Grandma Mihalik’s Butter Cookies

December 11, 2017

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.

To be sure, there was some crossover.


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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.


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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.
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Cuisine Slovak
Prep Time 1 1/2 hours
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
dozen
Ingredients
Cuisine Slovak
Prep Time 1 1/2 hours
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
dozen
Ingredients
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Rating: 0
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Instructions
  1. Combine cinnamon and three tablespoons sugar. Reserve.
  2. Grind the walnuts and reserve.
  3. Put the butter in a mixing bowl and leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes to soften slightly.
  4. Add 1 cup of sugar and flour to the butter.
  5. Mix with a pastry blender until little beads form.
  6. Add the cream and egg yolks and continue mixing with the pastry blender until a shaggy dough forms.
  7. Press into a log, cut in half (or quarters) and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  8. Roll a portion of dough between sheets of waxed paper to approximately 1/8 inch thick.
  9. Cut into shapes.
  10. Arrange on ungreased cookie sheets.
  11. 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.
  12. Brush with unbeaten egg whites.
  13. Sprinkle with ground walnuts
  14. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
  15. Bake 350°F approximately 8-9 minutes or until light brown on the bottom.
  16. Remove from the cookie sheet almost immediately and cool on a wire rack.
Recipe Notes

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Homemade Applesauce

November 3, 2017

I made applesauce for the first time the summer after my freshman year in college. Don’t ask me how or why I remember making applesauce that summer but the whole process is very clear in my mind. Cooking was still pretty new for me back then. Other than baking cakes, I doubt I cooked more than about four times before my freshman year.

I cooked about once a week throughout freshman year, usually on Sundays. As a freshman, I was required to use the dining service for 10 meals per week, which usually meant lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday. Saturdays I went to restaurants and cooked. It was truly a year of experimenting, not only with cooking but with entirely new cuisines and flavor profiles.


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A hand-crank food mill is a pretty unusual piece of equipment for a college student to have. I don’t remember where or when I bought it, possibly I bought it specifically to test out an applesauce recipe that had caught my attention. You can actually see the very same food mill in the pictures below. I still use it

Much to my mother’s dismay I did not go home for the summer after my freshman year. I landed a great summer job in a research lab working for Dr. Mary Catherine Glick (aka Susy), a very well-known researcher. I worked in that lab for the remainder of my undergraduate years.

Students could not stay in undergraduate dorms at the University of Pennsylvania during the summer, so staying in Philadelphia meant I had to find a place to sublet. One of the most common choices was to sublet in Graduate Towers. The graduate students who lived in Grad Towers had to rent for a full calendar year, even if they were not going to be in Philadelphia for the summer.

I sublet one bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment in Grad Towers. Other than a bathroom the apartment had a very small Pullman kitchen and a kitchen table with two chairs. There was nothing that resembled living room furniture, nor would there have been any place to put it.

Graduate Towers still standing but renamed to Sansom Place

The other occupant of the apartment was a graduate student who used the kitchen to “cook” exactly three things for dinner. One was a can of tuna fish with pickle relish (ok, so no cooking involved). The second was a single chicken breast boiled in unsalted water and doused with pickle relish. The third was boiled hot dogs with, you guessed it, pickle relish. He ate the same three foods for dinner, in strict rotation, for the entire summer as he had done for months (years?) leading up to that summer.

I on the other hand, freed from the obligation to eat at the University food service and with an almost totally unused kitchen, was making my mother’s long-cooked pasta sauce, baking fish, and making applesauce among other things.

Over the next few years I experimented with the applesauce, changing up the sweetener (white sugar, brown sugar, honey) and spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, cloves). In the end, I decided that simple was best to let the apple flavor shine through: white sugar (not too much) and cinnamon.


Here’s a short video of me making applesauce.


Little did I know, when I left home at the age of 17 to go to college that I would never spend a significant amount of time in the home I grew up in again. I worked for Susy for four summers in a row as well as most of the academic years in between. During my first year in medical school, I received a full scholarship for medical school and graduate school in anthropology, which I attended simultaneously. (Actually, I was awarded two scholarships and was able to return the one that had less-generous terms so that it could be awarded to another student.) The scholarship, however, stipulated that I could not take summers off, so I was in school eleven months per year. (I insisted on taking time for myself each August.)

Knowing I would never have a chance to be at my parents’ house for more than a few days at a time for the indefinite future, I was able to arrange my last 4-week medical school clinical rotation at the hospital in the town where I grew up. It was an anesthesia rotation. As it turns out, the Friday before the Monday I started there, the Anesthesia Department at the hospital held a retirement party for the nurse anesthetist who taught “open drop ether insufflation” to Robert Dunning Dripps.  Dr. Dripps was, a physician who subsequently became the first chairman of Anesthesiology at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was a student. Anesthesiology was not a recognized specialty in the 1940s when Dr. Dripps became chair. He was in the vanguard; one of a very small group of physicians who established the medical specialty of Anesthesiology.

I honestly wonder how my life would have been different had I not landed that first summer job with Susy. It’s the reason I stayed in Philadelphia rather than returning to Johnstown for the summer. It started a whole cascade of events that got me integrated in Philadelphia society, a very different scenario from being a transient student.

Let’s make some applesauce as we ponder the unknowable.


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Homemade Applesauce
The amount of sugar and cinnamon is up to personal taste, and partially dependent on the sweetness of the apples chosen. I used Rome and Golden Delicious apples, both are great for applesauce as they break down with cooking and have a very good apple fragrance. Feel free to substitute what is available. Apples that are good for applesauce include McIntosh, Jonathan, Jonagold, and Gravenstein. Leaving the peels on is not only easier but, if some of the apples have red skin, gives the applesauce a beautiful rosy color. The stems and seeds will give the applesauce a bitter taste and must be removed.
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Course Fruit-based, Sides
Cuisine American
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Servings
cups
Ingredients
Course Fruit-based, Sides
Cuisine American
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Servings
cups
Ingredients
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
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Instructions
  1. Wash the apples.
  2. Quarter the apples.
  3. Remove core and stems but do not peel.
  4. Cut each quarter into four pieces. The pieces should roughly be about an inch on a side.
  5. Put apples and apple juice in a heavy-bottomed pot.
  6. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat.
  7. Reduce heat to medium-high and continue to cook, stirring periodically, until the apples are soft, 20-40 minutes. Do not overcook the apples or they will begin to lose their flavor.
  8. There should only be the barest amount of liquid in the pot when the apples are finished cooking.
  9. Pass apples through a food mill.
  10. Add sugar and cinnamon to taste while the applesauce is still hot.
  11. Cool completely and refrigerate or freeze.
Recipe Notes

If you’re not certain if the apples are cooked enough, try to run a spoonful through the food mill. If they don’t crush easily, return the “test” apples to the pot and continue to cook the batch a little longer.

In the United States, cassia, a spice different from cinnamon, can legally be labeled cinnamon.  While cassia is good in its own right, it is much more assertive than true cinnamon.  If you can find whole Ceylon cinnamon give it a try.

Ceylon cinnamon

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Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake

August 25, 2017

Mike Abramson says his carrot cake is the best ever.

Janet Carlson doesn’t necessarily agree.

For now, the controversy will need to simmer as I only have Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake recipe, though I have suggested to Janet that she and Mike have a carrot cake bake-off.

Mike makes no apologies for having stolen the recipe from Tom Grier, originally of Grier, Georgia.

The story goes something like this…

In the 1970’s a group of four friends from San Francisco bought a weekend house, they named Aros, near Sebastopol, California. The four owners rotated use of the house, each getting it for a week at a time but also sometimes showing up there together to host parties as in the photo below.

Mike Abramson, second row far right

Over the years, ownership of the house shifted as some individuals sold their interest and others bought in.

At one point, Tom Grier was the youngest owner.

The group met on a quarterly basis in San Francisco to discuss maintenance issues related to the house. As with use of the house, these meetings were held in rotation at the owners’ homes in San Francisco.

Whenever Tom hosted the meeting, he served carrot cake, which Mike believes originated as a Grier family recipe. Tom shared the recipe with Mike and the rest is history. Mike’s (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake was born.

But for Janet’s assertion that Mike’s might not be the best carrot cake in the world, well, we’ll just have to wait for the bake-off.

From left to right: Janet Carlson, Richard Valantasis, and Gino Barcone

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Mike's (Justifiably Famous) Carrot Cake
This is almost a cross between a spice cake and a carrot cake. The frosting is generous and could easily be reduced by one-third. This recipe is for sea level. If there is interest in adjustments for high altitude, let me know and I’ll post them.
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Cuisine American
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 40 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Frosting
Cuisine American
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 40 minutes
Passive Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cake
Frosting
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
You:
Rate this recipe!
Instructions
Cake
  1. Butter and flour a 9” x 13” baking pan.
  2. Grate the carrots on the tear-drop holes of a box grater.
  3. Coarsely chop the nuts.
  4. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix with the paddle.
  5. Add the oil and eggs to the flour mixture. Blend until combined.
  6. Add the carrots and crushed pineapple with the juice. Mix thoroughly.
  7. Add the walnuts and raisins. Stir to combine.
  8. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake at 350°F for 35-40 minutes or until the center springs back when lightly touched.
  9. Cool completely in the pan before frosting.
Frosting
  1. Beat cream cheese and butter until light using the paddle of a stand mixer.
  2. Beat in all other ingredients.
  3. Frost cake when cool.
Recipe Notes

For recipes that call for solid vegetable shortening, such as Crisco, I use coconut oil is due to concerns about the negative health effects of hydrogenated fats.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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