I wrote about the wonders of baking gingerbread with children in my post last week. I started the post reminiscing about my father’s forays in the kitchen making Italian cookies from his childhood. One of my readers commented that the list of Italian cookies sounded like poetry. Since I spent the better part of my week writing list poems with 2nd graders, I thought I’d pause here to create a cookie list poem.
Holiday Cookies – Italian Style
Biscotti, twice baked, crunchy –
Chocolate, hazelnut, almond.
Torcetti, buttery twisted teardrops,
Pignoli, chewy almond goodness
Crowned with pine nuts,
Cuccidati soft dough stuffed with dark figs.
Brandy, raisin, nutmeg, and cinnamon,
Glazed with sugar icing and bright sprinkles.
Struffoli, deep fried golden balls dipped in honey,
Piled into festive wreath and tree shapes
Sticky sweetness; try to eat just one!
Giuggiulena, rolled into logs, cut into rectangles.
Sprinkled with sesames, baked until crisp,
My morning breakfast cookie.
Although I loved all these cookies and sneaked my fair share before dinner, or while I was reading before bedtime, the giuggiulena cookie was a staple in our house, no matter the holiday. After he perfected the recipe, my father started to experiment by adding different flavors – orange, almond, vanilla, lemon. The traditional cookie is flavored with anise, a slight licorice flavoring. Sometimes he did outrageous things like combined orange and almond. Once, he put in some cocoa in the dough. Though I do love all things chocolate, the giuggiulena began to take on an entirely different personality, and I begged my father to go back to the traditional cookie.
When my mother and aunt were young women, sesame seed were very hard to come by. Supermarkets did not carry sesame seeds in the large quantities needed to make the cookies. My mom, Vivian, and my Aunt Jo told us the story of how they went together to the local Italian bakery to get the sesames. The owner of the bakery would sell them to the neighborhood women at whole sale prices. I could just picture my mom and aunt as young women dressed in thick wool coats and sturdy boots trudging through the snowy streets to the baker’s. Once there, they had to go around to the back of the old, brick bakery where they would knock cautiously on the heavy wooden door. They would stamp their feet shaking off the cold, waiting for the door to open. Finally, they’d hear the bolt slide across. The door would open a crack. Vivian and Jo would whisper in unison, “Sesame!” The baker would shuffle into the deep recesses of the kitchen and bring back two small brown paper bags filled with sesame seeds and hand them to the two young women, who would pay him promptly. Then they would trudge back through the snowy streets to my grandfather’s kitchen to start making dozens and dozens of giuggiulenas. This story brought us such delight. My sister, cousin, and I would marvel the lengths our mothers would go to make these delicious treats.
I’m sure that it is my Italian heritage that instilled in me a love of food. It is the first thing I think of in the morning when I awake, and it’s the last thing I think of at night when I’m falling asleep. What will I eat? What have I eaten that was so delicious? Indeed, I spend quite a lot of my leisure time pouring over a good cookbook or two. It is my genre of choice when I want to relax and forget about the world. A few days ago, I returned to one of my old cookbooks, The Heart of the Plate by Mollie Katzen. The photographs and drawings are as exquisite as the recipes, and Mollie created all of them! I love flipping through the pages to find something unique I might try the next time I’m in the kitchen. This time, I was reminded of how wonderfully Katzen crafts her words. This is not just a step-by-step cookbook; it really is a work of art. Katzen carefully sifts and mixes her words so that they pop out at you from the page and make you pay attention. She describes her Cucumber-Melon-Peach Gazpacho this way: “Dappled like a summer fruit version of a Seurat painting, this refreshing hot-weather special might come out slightly different each time, depending on the colors and flavors of your melon and peach.” One can truly see the affect art has had on Katzen’s cooking. And I love her description of Forbidden Rice with Beluga Lentils and Mushrooms: “In this “fade into black” dish, tiny black lentils and minced mushrooms disappear into the shadows of the mysterious, nightlike grain. Depending on the ambient light and the angle, there may also be undertones of purple, dreamily nocturnal. The subtle, deep flavor of the finished dish echoes the soothing, dark theme, like a reveries of umami.” Wow, when I read that, I thought, “Mollie Katzen is a poet.” Who would have thought that cookbooks could hold such poetry? I laughed to myself, I guess that’s why I’m also attracted to cookbooks because they contain such bold description that stir one’s senses. I can’t wait to to discover the poetry waiting for me in the rest of my cookbook collection. And as luck would have it, Mollie made her own foray into the land of sesame. I was thrilled to see a recipe for Sesame Stars in her book, Vegetable Heaven. It is quite different from the giuggiulenas, but these crisp butter cookies flavored with tahini (ground sesame) will be a great accompaniment to my holiday giuggiulenas this year. I can’t wait to make them!
Mollie Katzen Cookbooks for Adults
- Enchanted Broccoli Forest
- Get Cooking
- Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café
- Moosewood Cookbook
- Still Life with Menu Cookbook
- The Heart of the Plate
- Vegetable Heaven
- Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without
Mollie Katzen Cookbooks for Children
- Honest Pretzels
- Pretend Soup
- Salad People
- 1 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose Flour
- 1 1/2 cups pastry flour
- 1 Tbsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2/3 cup light brown sugar
- 1 cup butter
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1 Tbsp of orange zest
- 2 tsp anise extract (you can also use almond, vanilla, or lemon)
- 1/2 cup milk (2% or whole)
- 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water for egg wash
- 2 cups sesame seeds (some people toast their sesames first, try it both ways)
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease 2 cookie sheets.
In a bowl, mix the flours, baking powder, and salt together, then add the light brown sugar and mix.
Add the butter and work it into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse corn meal.
Add the eggs, lemon zest and flavoring of your choice, then add the milk a little at a time and work the mixture until a ball of dough is formed.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces.
Roll each piece on a floured surface into a rope about 12 to 18 inches long and the thickness of your middle finger.
Cut the ropes into 2-inch pieces.
Roll in the sesame seeds, pressing them to adhere, and place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat until you have used up all of the dough.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until nicely browned. Transfer to wire racks to cool.
Makes about 3 dozen cookies.