I was going to post a fictional story today, but spent the entire morning making Snowball cookies. They’re also known as “Russian Teacakes,” but these aren’t those insipid, weird tasting ones you buy in the store. It’s a simple recipe, so I don’t know why the homemade ones are so much better! Maybe it’s because there are no preservatives in homemade ones? Anyway, you start with half a pound of butter – real, salted butter – never stick margarine (which has been proven to be bad for our bodies. The soft spread stuff in the tub is okay, but still, for these cookies, you must use butter!), let it soften and then cream it. Add a cup of confectioner’s sugar, some salt, vanilla, flour, ground nuts (your choice – I use almonds), and roll teaspoon-sized nuggets of yum in your hands. Yep, it takes hours!
I believe baking from scratch is a form of Art. Standing there today in my pretty kitchen, baking the one thing I excel at, I took a stroll through Memory Town. I come from a vast mix of Italian families. My Aunt Colleen lived in Tuckahoe, NY, about half an hour from NYC. She and Uncle Charlie owned a huge house and had room to take in Grandpa Georgie. Since they were central to everyone else, most relatives would go to their home for the holidays. When the door opened, you could smell Aunt Colleen’s progress in her art as it drifted outside, tempting you to head straight for the kitchen.
Ah, but wait, she was a fastidious housewife (and registered nurse, but that’s another story) and woe to the child who entered her home with boots or shoes on. We stood in a dripping crowd on her doormat (the house was always too hot – from the cooking and because Grandpa Georgie was always cold, so the snow we were covered with melted pretty quickly), half a dozen cousins, my three siblings and I, yanking off mittens, coats, and boots. Bumping elbows and hissing at each other to move out of the way, someone (usually me) always ending up shoved to the floor, frantically avoiding sharp knees and stamping feet. When our outerwear was hanging on the coat rack to dry and our boots neatly lined up on newspapers laid on the floor to protect it, then we could step out of the foyer.
For Italians, my mom’s family wasn’t very demonstrative. A quick peck on the cheek, a stiff hug, and a courteous short bow to the old man glowering at us from his throne, um, chair at the head of the dining room table. I don’t remember Grandpa Georgie speaking much to any of the kids. This was the sixties and children were expected to speak only when ordered to and only be seen when commanded to be present. The older men would sit themselves at that huge table in stone silence until all children had left the room. The younger men would go into the living room where they were allowed to watch TV. No child was allowed in the living room and, honestly, we didn’t want to go in there. It was a formal room, magazine perfect, with plastic covering every fabric and delicate glass knick-knacks arranged on all surfaces. The fancy silver artificial Christmas tree took up one corner of the room (Oh, how my Aunt Colleen hated real trees with their mess and bother. She embraced the brand-new fad of fake trees with glitter-eyed fervor!). The beautifully wrapped gifts under it were artfully displayed and for show only.
The kids were herded into the kitchen by the mothers, aunts and older female cousins. As the door swung shut on us, Grandpa and his co-horts would start talking – in Italian, which would immediately switch to English if we poked our heads back into that room, New York English and usually one shouted line from Uncle Max: “Getchure noise back in dere!” (And Uncle Max’s brother in his razor-sharp black suit never spoke, never sat down; he stood behind Uncle Max, staring out the big picture window. Yeah, I suspected the same “connection.”)
The women spoke Italian, too, mixed with English for the poor misguided daughters-in-law and ignorant children. They’d chatter away, swatting at various child-sized body parts reaching up to snatch a goodie from the counters. The teen cousins had the job of parking the youngsters at the kitchen table with a big box of arts and crafts supplies. That half of the kitchen was our domain and the real Christmas tree next to the table awaited our decorative efforts (The real presents would appear under that tree on Christmas morn!). It was an excellent way to distract us from the activity going on in the other half of the kitchen. The male cousins would string the lights on the tree while we plastered our creations with glue and glitter, paper and paint, carving cut-out snowflakes and threading popcorn chains. Ah, those horrible children’s scissors that couldn’t cut a blessed thing! The girls would beg for help and the boys would sneak over to the junk drawer and dig for the real scissors. We knew better than to grab the shining nurse’s scissors peeking from the pocket of Aunt Colleen’s brilliant white uniform hanging in the laundry room; those were very sharp and very special, a tool embodied with mystery and fear (hospitals…shudder!).
It was a big kitchen but comfortable. It was where Aunt Colleen could be messy, where WE could be messy, and not feel like the world would come to an end. Every burner had a bubbling pot on it and all three (Yes, three!) ovens had goodies baking inside. I don’t know how my aunt convinced Uncle Charlie to install a double-decker oven. It was unheard of back then, and the range had a perfectly good oven. He was a dentist and the wealthiest man in the family (aside from Uncle Max, who lived in a mansion near Endicott, NY with chain-link fences and big black dogs strolling about with a number of big stern men in black suits….hmm? Later, later, for that story, my friends!). I think Charlie loved who Colleen turned into when she was in that kitchen, happy, relaxed, and churning out awesome yummies, so he indulged her.
The woman could cook! She was queen in there, directing her troops, tasting each sauce, basting, pounding…thin slices of tender veal covered in seasoned breadcrumbs and painted with lemon butter; steak pounded thin, stuffed with more breadcrumbs, mozzarella, stewed tomatoes and roasted bell peppers, rolled up and tied with string (bragioli? Saints forgive me, I’ve forgotten how to spell it!); prime rib, cooked to juicy perfection, dripping a bloody sauce; and the bird – a massive turkey, fresh off some farm upstate, plucked by hand and dressed to the nines! Every side dish you can think of, a myriad of soups, and an antipasto in a giganormous platter that took two people to lift!
Aunt Colleen could bake, too. There would be sugar cookies laid out on plates beside small bowls of colored frosting, sugar sprinkles, cinnamon candies, and it was our delightful task to decorate them (and no one minded if we ate most of them before the butter-cream frosting could set). Snicker-doodles, gingerbread men, macadamia buttons…and two pies, cherry and apple, cooling on the sill of the open window. That was lovely, but that was it. Colleen’s forte was cooking. Her little sister, my mother, was the primo baker in the family.
I don’t know how they did it – all those women fluttering about in that kitchen – but at some point, when an oven was empty, when a counter had been cleared, my mom would pull out the cookbook she’d inherited from her mother. It was ancient, the leather cracked, the pages stained, scraps of paper tucked inside, and recipes that called for substitutions of ingredients Grandma Louise didn’t have and couldn’t get in the Depression-Era days when that cookbook was pristine and new. Notes scribbled in the margins of what worked, what didn’t and how to fix it; handwriting identical to my mom’s, the cursive letters so tiny and precise. The book would open on its own to a particular page: the Snowball cookie recipe. That recipe called for an army of cousins putting it together while Mom rolled out pie crusts. Our noses would come up, our mouths would drool, and we’d stare as our quiet aunt took a break to sit with us and chat while my (much) louder, and (much more) chaotic mother took over her kitchen.
I’m a good cook and an okay baker; I am nowhere close to the Art these two women created in their kitchens. My mom’s pie crusts were flaky, light, slightly moist, slightly sweet, somehow as delicious as the tears-of-joy inducing fillings of the pies. Apple (always better than Aunt Colleen’s, but no one ever said so out loud!), pumpkin, mincemeat, and oh-my-god chocolate with homemade whipped cream (and there was an Art to that foamy num-num as well!), but Mom had two masterpieces: cream puffs dribbled with chocolate glaze and those snowball cookies. I fail at pie crusts, chocolate pies and cream puffs, but I have managed to master those incredible cookies.
Tiny balls of sugar-coated heaven…we could eat as many of the other cookies as we wanted, but we were only allowed three snowballs each. No one cared that all that sugar would have us bouncing off the walls – we were bundled up and urged outside to work it off, disappearing for hours in the park behind the house until the teen cousins were sent to shepherd us in for dinner. No, the limit was imposed because snowball cookies were Grandpa Georgie’s favorite cookie and he didn’t like to share. Those cookies were the only thing my mother did that he approved of and they were her Christmas gift to her stoic, imperious step-father.
So many years later, I roll the last cookie in confectioner’s sugar and pop it in my mouth. Another follows, a blissful bite, but the third one makes my teeth hurt and I gulp down a swallow of tea. I want more and they tempt me, but I’m an adult now and know better. Three is the limit, perhaps the mothers and aunts knew that as well forty-something years ago. What I know is that baking those cookies is my favorite tradition, bringing my children and husband sniffing like puppies into the kitchen, and sending me into a haze of sugared memories I hope never fade.
Sweet Dreams to All and a Blessed Good Night!
Preheat oven to 325 degrees
1 cup (two quarters) butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1-2 cups ground nuts (your choice)
Let butter soften, then cream it. Gradually add sugar and salt. Blend well. Stir in nuts and vanilla. Gradually add flour and mix thoroughly. Using a measuring teaspoon, shape into balls (anything bigger and the cookies will spread, losing the “snowball” appearance. They shouldn’t be any bigger than the top of a woman’s thumb.). Place on ungreased cookie sheet and Bake at 325 degrees for 13 to 15 minutes. Do NOT Brown! While still warm, roll in confectioner’s sugar (once cool, Mom would roll them again, but that’s too much sugar for my teeth these days!). Store in air tight container (I’ve never kept count, but one batch fills a gallon size Ziploc bag!). Enjoy! 😀