Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What is a Cookie Table?

My friend Marie asked a good question the other day:  what exactly is the Pittsburgh cookie table tradition?  I realized then that I hadn’t yet addressed this fundamental question on my blog.  How silly!

The cookie table is a popular wedding tradition in northwestern Pennsylvania.  It is usually a table (or two, or three, or four) covered with trays of cookies for guests to snack on throughout the party.  The veritable cookie buffet is, of course, in addition to a proper wedding cake which many guests do not even eat, wrapping their slices instead in paper napkins to take home for breakfast the next morning.

Some cookie table displays are extravagant.  A wedding vendor I interviewed told me of a mother-of-the-bride who, on the morning of the wedding, delivered 10,000 cookies for the venue staff to arrange and plate just six hours before the reception.  Now the vendor charges a set-up fee for larger-than-usual quantities.    

The vast quantities of cookies are produced by obliging aunts, grandmothers, cousins, and sisters of the bride who begin their work months before the wedding, freezing their creations until the big day.  Sometimes they designate a few weekends and do their baking together.  It’s a good excuse to spend time with one another, chat, and relax before the wedding.

No one is sure where the cookie table tradition began but it seems to be practiced in cities with large enclaves of Italian and Eastern-European immigrants. Perhaps it was a custom the newcomers brought with them from their home countries.  Another theory suggests that the cookie table grew out of the Depression.  When families couldn’t afford a wedding cake, guests chipped in by bringing batches of cookies, as a way to round out and make an otherwise sparse celebration, special.

For many, the cookie table is the best part of a wedding celebration.  Guests enjoy seeing what cookies the bride’s family has baked as they usually reflect her origins and tastes. Every guest secretly, or not so secretly, compares the lady locks to their grandmother’s recipe.  They are never quite as good.  In Pittsburgh the cookie table is an event in itself.  It’s a unique quirk which, as Pittsburghers marry outside the region, other cities are adopting adopt.  And it’s about time.  Who doesn’t appreciate a good cookie?   That’s right, no one. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cherry Coconut Shortbread Bars

 A recipe slipped out of my late grandmother’s Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook as I paged though it last week.  Hand-written on lined notebook paper, it was a recipe for cherry bars.  The letters were clear and slanted; the paper was crisp, as though grandma had written it a week ago.

Was it Grandma Eleanor’s handwriting? I wondered.  It was possible. I read the instructions and imagined her voice—cheerful, but raspy from cigarettes—guiding me though the instructions.

Sift flour, sugar.  Cut in Oleo. And press into an 11” x17” pan.

Grandma Eleanor was my father’s mother.  Her hair was bobbed and white and she wore oversized gray glasses.  I was convinced that she was Mrs. Claus and, come December, was extra cautious in her presence.   She died when I was seven, before I really knew her, but some of my fondest memories include baking cut-out cookies in her kitchen.  

  The cherry bar recipe was like a conversation she and I never had. Grandma dictated the instructions, and I visualized myself following them.  The handwriting mesmerized me, I could have looked at it for hours.  A handwritten recipe is different from letters on a computer screen or a cookbook’s printed text; it’s personal and undeniably the words of another human.  A cook communicates her personality in the way she loops her Ls and ends her words with an upward swoop.  A happy, organized woman penned this recipe, of that I was certain. I added cherry bars to the top of my must-try list, for purely sentimental reasons.

It was a strange recipe.  Grandma listed baking powder, flour, and flaked coconut as ingredients for the cherry filling. The shortbread crust called for powdered sugar.  I shrugged at the ingredients and gathered them anyway, Grandma was the expert. I followed the recipe exactly.  Well almost. The sugar I reduced by half, the maraschino cherries I replaced with Trader Joe’s Dark Morello Cherries in Light Syrup.  Instead of Oleo, I used my favorite baking fat, unsalted butter.

My apartment smelled like a bakery after I put a pan of them in the oven.  For the rest of the afternoon, I was happy indoors. 

 The next day my mother dropped by and I cut her a piece.“Mmmm. It tastes like a moist cherry shortbread,” she said, picking it up with her hands. “I want another piece.”
 I handed her the recipe and asked if the writing was Grandma’s. Mom glanced at it.

 “No, Honey, I’m sorry,” she said.  “That’s not her writing at all.”

Sometimes I’m too romantic for my own good.

Still, it is a wonderful recipe, perfect for breakfast or a late afternoon snack. The crust is a powdery pastry, the kind that clings to the sides of your mouth and begs for a glass of milk.  Laden with toasted almonds and held together with chewy coconut, it is a most satisfying treat.

Cherry Coconut Shortbread Bars
2 cups flour
½ cup powdered sugar
1 cup butter, unsalted
Preheat the oven to 350oF.  In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour and sugar.  With a pastry cutter, paddle attachment of a standing mixer, or two knives cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Press the mixture into an 11”x17” pan and bake for 10 minutes.  Be careful not to overbake the crust.  It should be underdone at this point, to allow for more baking later.

½ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 cup chopped cherries in light syrup
1 cup flaked coconut
¾ cup chopped, toasted almonds
Combine the dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and beat in the eggs.  Fold in the cherries, coconut and nuts.  Spread over the half-baked dough and bake for 30-40 minutes at 350oF.  Serve plain or topped with sweetened whipped cream.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Best No-Bake Cookies in the Universe

 It’s been a lonely two weeks from where I stand but I’ve had some good cookies to bake.  Thanks to everyone who sent me recipes and ideas, I will put them to use. 

My fiancé, Spyros, moved back to Greece last week.  While living on my own has offered me more time to read and write (which is a bit like taking your multi vitamins, for a writer), without another person in the house, I lose track of time and the rhythm of the day.  I also don’t cook as much.  As I discovered last week, one batch of ratatouille provides at least a week’s worth of meals for one person. 

  But I am still baking. It’s an activity well-suited to solitude.  Cookies, cakes, and bread require concentration, accurate measurements, and slight adjustments in mixing speeds...

 My good friend, Marla, sent me her grandmother’s recipe for no bake-cookies last week. To be honest, I’ve never been one for no-bake cookies.  No-bake cookies seems like another term for candy, something I don’t have a taste for. Too many gummies and Laffy Taffies landed me under the dentist’s drill as a child.  My fault entirely, I realize, but I'm still suspicious of the stuff.  I like cookies because they are not candy.  They are miniature, soft cakes of butter, flour, sugar, and sometimes spices.  But according to Marla these are “the best no-bake cookies in the Universe” and a favorite recipe of her late grandmother, Hazel Shorts Work.  So I was curious to try them.  Late last Friday I whipped up a batch.

I heated a saucepan over my electric stove, poured in the milk, sugar, and cocoa powder.  Drowsy, I questioned my sanity for baking in the first place.  Besides me, who else would eat the sweet treats? And nine-thirty at night was hardly a reasonable hour for baking.  But I continued on:

The recipe said, “Stir the sugar/milk mixture constantly until it reaches a rolling boil.” 
I stirred and stirred, rotating my wrist like a baton twirler. My eyes fixed on the mixture and nothing else. Small whiffs of sweetened milk travelled up my nostrils.  I felt cozy and not so alone anymore. A pot of milk depended on me.

When the mixture reached its rolling boil, I set the microwave timer for one minute.  When it rang, I removed my mixture, and stirred in the peanut butter, butter, oatmeal, salt and vanilla. Like Halloween, my kitchen smelled of peanut butter cups and I felt that surely the apartment wasn't empty.  My thoughts cleared; I knew what I needed to do to complete the cookies and the rest of the evening.

In her recipe, Mrs. Work recommends letting the cookies set at room temperature.  But since it was a hot evening, I placed them in the refrigerator.  Later that night, when I had settled on the couch with a glass of red wine and Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte, I remembered the cookies. I peeked into the refrigerator, and saw that Hazel’s No-Bakes had set with a beautiful gloss.  I took a bite of one and widened my eyes a little.  It had the consistency of a cookie and a piece fudge all at once. Without planning it, I took another.  I had to leave the room to prevent myself from taking a third.  These are the best no-bake cookies in the Universe and my parents and younger sister agree. Thank you, Hazel and Marla.  

Hazel’s No-Bake Cookies 

In a medium saucepan combine:
1/4 cup cocoa powder (I used Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate Cocoa powder)
2 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla 
1/2 cup milk  (skim and whole milk work in this recipe but Marla says whole milk yields a tastier cookie)
pinch of sea salt 

Over medium flame, uncovered, stir the above mixture constantly until it comes to a boil.
Stir ONE MINUTE at a rolling boil then remove from heat.

While still stirring, add:
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 stick butter 
3 cups Rolled QUICK oats/minute oats

Drop by heaping teaspoons onto waxed paper
Let harden at room temperature or in the refrigerator. 

Marla’s warning - if the first ingredients are cooked too high or boiled too long, it seems to impact the way the cookies set (or don't set).

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Grown up Peanut Butter Blossoms

 My love for peanut butter blossoms began early.  I remember, as a child, stumbling in on dozens of them at my great aunt's house.  Aluminum trays covered her dinning room table, each containing neat rows of blossoms, ready to be served the next day at a friend’s wedding. The Kisses's points poked at their flimsy cellophane covers and begged to be eaten. 

When I was certain that my mother and aunt were too busy chatting to notice, I dove my chubby hand underneath the plastic and plucked two blossoms from their resting place. With some creative rearrangement of the other cookies, my aunt would never suspect. I skipped outdoors, blossoms in hand, and ate my pilfered snack undetected.

 Freda Smith created the peanut butter blossom for the 1957 Pillsbury Bake-Off competition.  While Mrs. Smith’s recipe did not win the grand prize, it was a finalist.  Afterwards, the recipe was printed on bags of Hershey’s Kisses, giving peanut butter blossoms national exposure and a tender spot in the hearts of millions.  Including mine.

Peanut butter blossoms are the cookies I sample first at weddings, baptisms, and graduation parties if they are present…and they usually are.  It’s for this reason that I’m devoting my first post to them.  Blossoms are the cookies I always start with, and it’s comforting to begin a new project in a familiar place.

Mrs. Smith’s original recipe is on file at the Smithsonian institute.  I’ve sent a request for it but the archivist tells me it may take a few weeks to receive it.  In the meantime I’ve created, what I believe is a worthy substitute. 

 A grown-up peanut butter blossom.

It calls for natural peanut butter, the kind you must stir with a butter knife to incorporate the separated oil. It’s time consuming, yes, and a bit messy but the result is well worth the effort; peanut butter cookies with a concentrated flavor and dense, chewy texture.  

While warm, I pressed dark chocolate Kisses in the center of each.  They make a most satisfying dessert.  Or you can eat them the way I do, as an afternoon snack with a cup of coffee.

So while I’m starting with a familiar favorite, I’ve matured since my cookie-snatching days. I crave toothy, meaningful cookies now, not something I sneak for a sweet thrill. I think this version accomplishes that.

Peanut Butter Blossoms

Adapted from Pillsbury.com

Makes about 4 dozen
1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

½ cup natural style peanut butter

2 tablespoons milk

1 egg

additional sugar for rolling

48 dark chocolate kisses

Preheat the oven to 375oF.  In a large bowl with an electric mixer, stir together the brown sugar, ½ cup granulated sugar, peanut butter and butter.  The mixture will be crumbly at first, but keep stirring.  It should turn into a thick paste.   Stop stirring when you reach this point, you don’t want to over mix.

Next add the milk, vanilla, baking soda, and salt and mix until well-incorporated.

Shape dough into ¾ inch balls. Smaller is better with these guys since they tend to spread a good bit in the oven.  Roll the ball in a small bowl filled with the additional sugar.  Space them about 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets and bake for 10-12 minutes.  This is a good time to start unwrapping those Hershey’s Kisses.

When the cookies are slightly golden, remove from the oven and immediately press a chocolate Kiss into the center of each.  Remove them to wire cooling racks.  While cooling, the kisses become soft, almost runny.  You can place them in the refrigerator for about an hour to make them solidify faster.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Coming soon, Peanut Butter Blossoms

Found a great recipe for peanut butter blossoms, one of my favorite cookie table staples. The apartment is still smothered in peanut butter aroma from this morning. Will post more soon.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Food and Pittsburgh

I want to talk to you about food.  And Pittsburgh. 

Pittsburgh is a city of food traditions.  Come summertime, it’s an order of Potato Patch Fries or a towering chocolate dip cone at Kennywood Park.  Fall brings Steeler games and crockpots full of kielbasa and sauerkraut.  A cookie table must be present at every wedding reception.  And just about everyone likes a sandwich stuffed with fries and coleslaw. Food is important in Pittsburgh and many of the people who live here continue to cook their grand-parents' and great-grandparents' favorite recipes.  While the preparations may not be fancy and the flavors, well, not quite complex, these traditions are part of what gives Pittsburgh its character and unique hometown feel.  At least I think so.

I am moving away from Pittsburgh soon, to join my fiancé in Greece.  While I look forward to sunnier skies and a never-ending supply of olive oil, I will miss my city’s quirky food customs, particularly at our wedding which will be held in Athens next summer.  Lucky for me, my fiancé loves Pittsburgh and its traditions as much, if not more, than I do.

To incorporate a nugget of steel into our Greek reception, we’ve decided to organize a traditional Pittsburgh cookie table.  But, as I will be far from my family and friends in the months leading up to the big day, I hope to gather cookie recipes and try baking them before I leave. It will be a personal project—something to work on every day.  I am turning it into a blog as a way to hold myself accountable. Hopefully, it will be a place where I can collaborate with others and collect cookie recipes, memories, and stories online.  So dear friends, family members, and readers please send me your recipes, stories and ideas.  What cookies do you think absolutely must be included on a proper Pittsburgh cookie table? Which recipes do you think are nice, modern additions? Are there any you dislike?  I am open to any and all suggestions and wait for you with a ready ear and a hungry stomach.