Friday, September 14, 2012
Grandma B's Italian Crescent Cookies
I was in a massive funk when I first moved back to Chicago from Beijing. I missed my friends; I missed all the friendly stray cats I brought home (sorry, Nick); and I missed my disposable income. But mostly I missed the food.
Even at the time I knew it was a crazy thing to sit in Chicago and miss any kind of food, but the food in Beijing was some of the best I'd ever had, and I just couldn't find the same things or even make my own, having left behind the contents of my massive Beijing pantry.
But I can't stay in a food funk forever, especially in a food-centric like Chicago. After a few weeks I decided it was time to stop mourning my nightly jian bing and try to focus on the things Chicago did better, like sushi and Italian cookies.
That's when I attempted to sort my mother's recipe binder (an asylum of more than 35 years of magazine clippings and diet tips in a Joy of Cooking cover) and this fell out at me, literally:
My father's mother, Grandma B, never wrote down her recipes. Truth be told, she wasn't exactly known for being a good cook. My father once shocked her by ordering liver and onions at a restaurant.
"You don't like liver!" she accused.
"I don't like your liver," he said. "Your liver's like shoe leather."
Grandma B didn't know what to do with meat, so she'd just leave it on the stove until she was absolutely positive that it was cooked through, which was usually about half an hour after it was actually finished. They didn't often have meat, so that didn't come up more than occasionally. She wasn't known for her cooking, but every once in awhile she'd knock it out of the fucking park.
Her two great culinary victories were her lasagna, and her crescent cookies. The lasagna recipe survives because my father watched her cook it, made her measure everything (which she'd never done before), and then wrote it down so it would be forever preserved for posterity. The crescent cookies survive because I asked for them.
Grandma B's crescent cookies were my favorite thing in the world back in the days when I ate butter and jelly sandwiches, and I never really outgrew them. When I was in fifth grade, I asked Grandma B if she would give me the recipe, so she came over to spend the night, and she wrote down the recipe on an index card and showed me how to make it.
From a flavor standpoint, these cookies are kind of ridiculous. They're utterly devoid of nuance or sophistication. They're insanely sweet and powdery, and they're almost entirely butter. I suspect that it would melt if you held one in the palm of your hand long enough. They're strangely salty, from both the added salt and the salted butter, and there's this weird, rich, savory, flavory umami-thing going on at the end from all the nuts.
The last time I had had Grandma B's crescent cookies was during the first month of my freshman year of college, when she sent me a care package containing half a can of Pringles, five slices of American cheese, and a tin of crescent cookies. I wasn't sure whether to run through the hall sharing them with everyone to show off my possession of superior cookies, or lock the door and eat every last one by myself.
Every time I eat one, it short-circuits my brain a little bit, and I experience that lizard brain impulse that says, "I must eat this or I will die!" that probably motivated the cavemen to go after sugar and honey. I think I actually said, "Om nom nom," then I licked all the butter and sugar off my fingers.
And there it was, the same handwritten index card, committed to the asylum of my mother's recipe binder, where all uncooked recipes go to die.
So I decided to make it. But when I was ten it was a simple, uncomplicated recipe, and now it was a mass of unspecified choices. "Butter"? Did she mean salted or unsalted? "Nuts"? What kind of nuts?
I asked my father if he thought she used unsalted butter.
"No," he said. "If there was ever a question between the more healthy thing and the less healthy thing, she went with the less healthy thing."
Well that takes care of that.
I guessed that the nuts were walnuts, but pecans would probably work too. (Now I find myself compelled to try these cookies with all the different nut varieties, just to see what happens.)
Also, Grandma B left me no actual directions, just a list of ingredients.
I set the oven to 325 and put together the butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt.
Then I mixed it up till it was smooth and a little grainy. Right about now it starts to smell really good and I was compelled to taste it, even though it was just butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt. As expected, it was delicious. Don't do that while people are watching, though, because they will come through the kitchen and scold, "Liz! Don't eat that, it's just butter!" (sorry, Nick). For that reason, I recommend making these cookies at night. (That's why these pictures kinda suck.)
Then I added the flour in stages.
Right about now the people who scolded you for eating butter and sugar will come through and steal the cookie dough. Apparently adding two cups of flour makes it noble.
But a couple tablespoons of cookie dough are an acceptable tithe for a baking assistant, because for the next part you have to mix in the chopped nuts, and it's actually really hard. There are so many nuts, the dough gets a consistency like semi-set concrete, and it was more than my pansy little baby arms could handle. So I made Nick do it.
Then I made all the dough into crescent-shapes.
Then I put them in the oven. Grandma B's card said to cook them for 20 minutes, but mine didn't start to look golden brown and delicious (GBD) until about 30.
Rolling the cookies in powdered sugar while they're still warm makes this amazing little gummy frosting around the edges, which is probably my favorite part of the whole cookie. But if you roll them while they're too hot, they'll crumble to pieces. Make sure they're slightly warm, but not hot. You might lose a couple to experimentation. It's OK to eat those.
Then you just lay them out on waxed paper to cool. If you pile them up, they will stick together and possibly crush each other. These guys like their space.
When they're cool, you can stack them or put them in a tin.
Grandma B's index card said this recipe should make 74 cookies, like it did when I was eight. This time it made just 40. I guess my hands got bigger.