Saturday, September 24, 2011

As good as the recipe....

People ask me which I enjoy more - baking or cooking. And the truth is the answer depends on the day. I love the creativity that cooking allows me. I can play with ingredients without worrying about measuring and I can adjust flavors based on a whim. Baking is a bit more scientific but no less fun. Now that the weather is starting to cool down and dry out (ok, not so much today with the air feeling sort of soup like with this humidity) I am excited to get back into bread baking and croissant making and all those things I can't really do during the hot New York summers without central air.

And because baking is a much more specific art, I do follow recipes a lot more closely. Which is where the topic for today's blog comes in. We've had a recipe in my family for many years, passed down from my Great Aunt Ida to her children, nieces and nephews. They are a very traditional Italian cookie called Anginetti. Every family has a recipe for them and everyone thinks theirs is the best. When made right, they are a good size, cake like lemon flavored cookie covered in a thin lemon icing.

I grew up making Aunt Ida's cookies. When I was about three, Mom started handing me small balls of the dough to play with. I'd play with this dough for hours and hours and eventually, I'd shape it into a little knot, hand it back to Mom completely blackened and filthy from my little hands (and however many times I dropped it)and watch expectantly as she dropped it onto the baking sheet. I'd then excitedly pick out 'my' cookie from the sheet after it was baked. Of course, Mom was awesome with the bait and switch, carefully tossing my dirty cookie and replacing it with a nice clean one.

As I got older, I got to help out more in the making of the dough and the rolling of the cookies. I moved from breaking the eggs and adding them as Mom mixed the dough, to pouring in the butter, measuring the dry ingredients etc... The reason I love this recipe is that we do it all by hand. The flour goes on the table in a ring, and in the center we mix the sugar, baking powder and lemon extract, then add melted butter and eggs. The dough gets kneaded for a long time until it is a smooth, elastic ball. After a short rest, we roll small balls of the dough into snakes and then twist them into either long or round shapes. They are baked, cooled, iced and packed away in double layers of foil and plastic wrap to ensure freshness.

A few years ago, Mom and I switched roles. She became the assistant and I became head baker. Until very recently I never attempted these cookies without her there to give me a final check on the dough. The first time I made them by myself I was completely and utterly terrified. But my hands have become so acclimated to this dough over the years that I stopped thinking and started just feeling. It also helps to have Jerry Vale and Lou Monte blasting in the background (my neighbors LOVE me).

But I did sometimes feel that my cookies didn't quite have the same flavor as Mom's. I use the exact recipe she gave me. But mine just never come as lemony. Is it me? Am I buying the wrong lemon extract? I always buy pure just like Aunt Ida taught us. I never use a mixer. I bake for the required amount of time and always keep a pan of water in the bottom of the oven to create a little steam. The texture is always perfect and if you had nothing to compare them to you'd probably think they were great. But there's just something missing....

Last week I made a double recipe to turn into favors for my Dad's 75th birthday party. I baked about 200 cookies and then some friends came over later to help bag them in cello bags and tie them with ribbons. They were beautiful and everyone in the room immediately recognized them as Aunt Ida's cookies. Mom and Dad both said they were delicious as they have enjoyed the leftovers on a regular basis since the party. Today, while talking to Mom she finally let slip that maybe, there wasn't enough lemon flavor and that maybe, someone might have mentioned that they weren't as good as Mom's. So we went over the recipe and she asked how much extract I used. I told her 2 ounces for a double batch. She said "Oh, that's your problem. It's 2 ounces for a single batch!" Well Mom, that's not what the recipe YOU sent me says. But just to make sure I checked and sure enough she only had typed one ounce....

Had this been the first time she did this to me, I might not have taken it so personally. But there was the great crumb cake incident about 5 years ago that has never quite faded from memory. Mom has this great crumb cake recipe that I asked for. The best part are the crumbs and in the recipe she sent me there was no flour listed. I figured Mom knows what she's doing so I made the recipe and ended up with goopy brown sugar mess on top of my cake. I called her and asked about the flour and she said (in her very Mom tone) "Oh? Did I forget the flour? Oh I'm sorry!" Riiight. I call sabotage!

So now I know - double check any recipe that Mom happens to send me. And this year - when we both make the cookies at Christmas time, we'll see who comes out ahead. As far as I'm concerned, this means war. And what a delicious war it will be.

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