We've been talking about favorite picture books. This was mine.
You may be more familiar with the iconic red and white folk art cover of earlier and later editions, but Mom owned the version published in 1956. I discovered Betty Crocker soon after I learned to read. She offered much more than lists of ingredients and procedures. Every recipe came with an anecdote, a bit of cooking lore or tidbit of celebrity gossip ("Christian Dior. . .sent us this recipe as a special favorite.") Charming, tiny illustrations accompanied these little stories.
Later in life, Mom haunted used book stores all over the country, searching for copies so that each of her four daughters could own the same edition. She succeeded—no easy task, for people cling to these cookbooks. Five years ago, my dear sisters presented me with Mom's own marked-up copy.
As a girl, I read the book so many times I can still quote bits. (Won't you come into our kitchen and join us in our "Cooky Shines?") I can still lose myself in its steam-stiffened, stained pages.
If you haven't the luck to own a handed-down copy, the original 1950 edition is available in a 1998 facsimile. (Warning: only the 1956 version contains the Eskimo Igloo Cake instructions!)
One indispensable component of any Christmas Cookie Table is found on page 220:
These scrumptious snowballs melt in the mouth. They'll also crumble into powder if you're rough with them before they cool. So treat them tenderly, and bake lots. (They freeze well.)
- 1 cup soft butter
- ½ cup sifted confectioners' sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla
SIFT TOGETHER AND STIR IN
- 2 ¼ cups sifted flour
- ¼ tsp. salt
MIX IN ¾ cups finely chopped nuts
Chill dough. Roll into 1" balls. Place on ungreased baking sheet (cookies do not spread). Bake [at 400 or moderately hot oven for 10 to 12 minutes or] until set, but not brown. While still warm, roll in confectioners' sugar. Cool. Roll in sugar again.
Makes about 4 dozen 1" cookies.
LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: I'd never try to mail or ship Russian Teacakes. But I've learned how to carry them safely on planes and trains. Nest one in each hollow of those hard, clear plastic boxes in which are sold a certain kind of popular round, gold-foil-covered chocolates. (You will have to find a way to dispose of the chocolates, first.)
Since I'm reminiscing about hand-me-downs and family traditions, I'll share two Eastern European cookies my family always makes:
CREAM CHEESE KOLACHE
Kolache (or kolacky) means, simply, "cookies." There are lots of versions—Polish, Slovak, Czech, and so on. We pronounce it cuh-lotch-key, and we bake two varieties. This first kind is a two-bite treat, not too rich, and it freezes beautifully. (The other is more of a breakfast pastry, larger and with a yeast dough, and we wait to bake it until Christmas Eve.)
- ½ pound cream cheese
- ½ pound unsalted butter
- 3 cups flour
Begin with ingredients at room temperature. Cream the butter and cream cheese together. Then stir in the flour. Do not over-mix. Form into four flat, rectangular portions, wrap well, and chill overnight.
Roll out on well-floured board until so thin it's almost translucent. Cut into 3" X 3" squares. Drop about 1 teaspoon of fruit filling in centers. Overlap two corners of each square in the center, moistening the dough with water to seal. (The dough resists sealing; be firm.) Arrange kolache about 1" apart on ungreased pans (we like the air-filled, non-burning kind) and bake until tops start to turn golden brown (up to 15 minutes) at 375.
Just before serving, sieve confectioners' sugar on top.
LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: Never, never, never fill your kolache with the commercial fruit fillings sold in 10 oz. jars. The filling will run out of your pastry and bake into fruit leather.
So what to use? Best is to make from-scratch fillings, simmering 1 pound of dried fruit and 1 cup of sugar in 2 cups of water until the goo is too thick to drip off your spoon.
But we're lucky enough to bake our kolache in Pittsburgh, where grocery store bake shops cater to home bakers by selling commercial fruit fillings in bulk.
That's an outdated name, of course. I believe the recipe was Croation to begin with. These are fussy to make, and your grocery bake shop sells something that looks similar. Trust me, there's no comparison; these are super-flaky, and the filling has a delicate meringue crunch.
- 2 cups flour
- ½ cup unsalted, chilled butter
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 cup sour cream
Make as for pie dough: in a food processor, pulse flour and butter together until it resembles coarse meal, with bits of butter still visible throughout. Add egg yolk and sour cream, and pulse just until a sticky dough forms. (Or you can make this pastry the traditional way, using a pastry cutter.) Shape into four flat rounds, and chill for one hour.
After 45 minutes, prepare the filling:
- 2 egg whites (reserve the extra egg yolk for the egg wash)
- 1 dash cream of tartar
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
Add cream of tartar to egg whites and beat until soft peaks form. Beat in the sugar until meringue-stiff and sugar is dissolved. Fold in the vanilla and walnuts.
Remove one portion of dough from chiller. Roll into an 8-9" circle on a well-floured board. Gently brush with melted, unsalted butter. (Dough is delicate!) Cut circle into 16 pie slices. Put ½ teaspoon of nut filling on each wide end. Roll up and place on ungreased cookie sheet (we use the air-filled, non-burning kind). Gently brush with egg wash (1 yolk whisked with about 1 tbsp. water). Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes at 375. Cool on pan for 2-3 minutes. Remove cookies to rack while still warm, or they'll glue themselves to the pan.
It's traditional to dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.
LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: Some of my sisters recommend rolling and shaping the Kifle right on the cookie sheet; and instead of brushing with melted butter, they spread the dough thinly with softened, whipped butter. All of us agree that a rolling pastry cutter works best for dividing the dough; a knife tends to drag and distort it.