(by Lorraine Devon Wilke)
It’s a tender tradition, set in warm kitchens scented by melting butter and every manner of bubbling, baking thing made by hand and assembled with love. With music playing and coffee brewed—a glass of wine if you’re old enough and it’s late enough—those collaborative moments between mother and daughter are iconic rites of passage, moments of bonding and laughter as recipes are taught, translated, even improved, and debates rage over the value of tarragon or whether mushrooms ever belong in meatloaf. Many a girl has flushed at the newfound responsibility of “seasoning to taste,” while a mother stands nearby, fighting the tug of nostalgia as she surrenders the recipe box, bequeathing her cooking legacy to a beloved daughter.
Yeah. That would not be my mother.
My mother was a horrible cook. Horrible. I didn’t know it at the time; I was young and easily swayed. I thought Franco-American spaghetti with ground beef and canned corn was delectable. She had me convinced that tubbed Imperial margarine had nothing on real butter. She even exploited our yearning for Hostess Twinkies by foisting cheap Little Debbie knock-offs, and the kicker was: We didn’t care! It was all good to our way of thinking, and as one of 11 children in a tiny house in a tiny farm town in the bland northern plains of Illinois, I had no reason to believe my mother was bamboozling me on the food front.
Until that microwave came through the door. Right there was the tipping point. When my mother exalted in the convenience of thawing frozen broccoli and “softening” celery for soup made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom, I knew I’d been comestibly conned. What saved me from a potentially palate-less future was my father’s mother, my Greek grandmother living in the diverse, urban environs of Chicago. She had a food worldview as disparate from my mother’s as prosciutto is to baloney, and without effort or intent, she awakened and inspired our inner foodies. Having emigrated in her late teens/early twenties (there’s some debate about that, given the lack of paperwork), she brought with her unwritten recipes of such flavor and richness, concocted with spices and flavorings not found in my mother’s cabinet, that we were enthralled whenever she came to town or we had the luxury of time in her two-flat. Homemade bread slathered with real butter; fragile phyllo pastries dripping with honey and cinnamon; hamburgers rolled in olive oil and fragrant spices; and leg of lamb, perfect pink and dipped into mint jelly.
My mother felt understandably usurped by our ardor for all that was Greek, occasionally making snide commentary about over-baked sticky buns or dry rump roast, but when all was said and done, even she couldn’t deny the exquisite event of Grandma’s food. That transcendental moment of baklava melting in one’s mouth was an experience she enjoyed along with the rest of us, and in her better moments, she relished the richness and exotic offerings of her mother-in-law’s kitchen. I know, because even as my mother lives out the last chapter of her life in a Alzheimer’s care unit, she still delights in the Greek powdered sugar cookies I make once a year, every Christmas season, bar none. Taken from a favorite recipe of my grandmother’s that I’ve enhanced and enriched over the years, I know this simple, sweet confection is a sustaining memory that connects the many generations of women (and men) in our family. And though I do not have a daughter to tutor and teach the ways of cookery, my son, who anticipates these cookies every single year, will surely maintain the legacy of this poignant, precious recipe.
Lorraine Devon Wilke is an author, photographer, and singer/songwriter. Her books are available at Amazon, including the novels The Alchemy of Noise, After the Sucker Punch, and Hysterical Love. She is working on a new novel called Chick Singer. Her blog is Rock+Paper+Music, and her website is www.lorrainedevonwilke.com.
(Greek Powdered Sugar Cookies)
1 lb. butter, softened
3 egg yolks
1 c. powdered sugar
5 c. flour
1 - 1 1/2 t. vanilla
ground cloves, to taste
additional powdered sugar seasoned with ground cloves to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Mix butter, egg yolks, 1 c. powdered sugar, flour, and vanilla thoroughly, adding ground cloves to taste.
(Note: The dough will be stiff and of fudge-like consistency, so you will have to hand-knead to mix all the ingredients together.)
Roll into 3/4-inch balls and place on ungreased cookie sheet.
Place a whole clove in the center of each cookie.
Bake approximately 15 - 20 minutes, until pale in color but with a hint of gold to the tops.
Move cookies from tray to rack, and, while they’re warm, roll them in the powdered sugar/ground cloves concoction until each is covered; transfer back to rack.
Once they are completely cooled, roll them in the powdered sugar/ground clove concoction one more time (or two; you can’t really can’t overdo the powdered sugar). Store in a container that offers a little air, as a completely airtight container may cause the powdered sugar to congeal. These are best enjoyed during their first few days, but you won’t find anyone turning them down a week later.
Make sure to let those eating them to remove the whole clove before they bite down. Nothing wrong with chewing a whole clove, but, then again, who wants to?
(I have never NOT doubled this recipe; it’s that popular in my family. A good plan, since these are at peak deliciousness in their first days, is to double or triple the recipe, then store the dough in a big bowl in the refrigerator, baking as needed throughout the season. And there’s no law saying these can’t be made at other times of the year too.)