Saturday, December 20, 2014

But who will make the cookies?

I come from a long line of excellent bakers. My mother's cucidati (Sicilian fig cookies) are a hit at every family party. The recipe was passed to her from her grandmother and even though I am sure mom could make the cookies by heart, she pulls out the yellowed index card with my great-grandmother's illegible writing every time. The cookie base is an incredibly basic yet somehow complicated recipe that yields the popular cucidati as well as giuggiulena (rolled in sesame seeds) and plain 'ol "white cookies". Many a Sunday afternoon has been spent rolling the dough into various shapes under my mother's watchful eye. Not too big, not too small, don't play with the dough. (She actually made my nephew cry once.)

It is obvious were my mom got her baking skills and regimented, slightly dictator-like method of instruction. My maternal grandmother made a kick ass meringue that she whipped by hand with a fork and mouth-watering, eat-them-til-you-burst sfingi (basically a small deep fried doughnut covered in powdered sugar). When I was little I would stand by with the shaker full of sugar, meticulously covering each warm sweet sfingi with a generous sprinkling after they came out of the fryer. Which I could never distribute to my grandmother's liking. Ever. Not like it should matter what the sugar looked like. But it did. A lot.

The baking style of my paternal grandmother was a bit different. She was famous for her apple pie (I dream about it every time I sink my teeth into a slice of not-grandma's apple pie) and chocolate chip cookies. Grandma C was much more laid back, letting me eat the perfectly curled apple peels as they fell onto the paper towel and baking up birds' nests out of the leftover dough. (My mother carries on this tradition - yum!) When she passed away I inherited her mixer and fell into hysterical sobs the first Christmas I pulled it out to make cookies.

My point is this: the baking gene should be strong in me. But it isn't. Despite having grandma's mixer and countless attempts, my cookies never really turn out. I'm not saying the results are inedible, they're just not that great. I struggle with the execution - the recipe following, the exact measuring - it's just not in my blood. I'm more an experimental chef who would rather cook to my own beat. That simply does not work when baking. Mom is worried that no one will take over her role as Sicilian cookie maker extraordinaire. Already the high-fat treats of my childhood are long gone (did I mention Grandma L made utterly amazing cannoli? I didn't? Well she did. A-MAZING). My sister doesn't really like to bake, although she is pretty good at making truffles. I think mom is secretly hoping that my brother's wife will carry on the tradition. She is a fantastic chef and loves to celebrate our heritage. But she doesn't like to bake either. Somehow it skipped our generation. None of my cousins seem eager to inherit the yellowed index card and responsibility for making twenty dozen cookies for every holiday, wedding, graduation, and anniversary party.

Sometimes I wish it could be me. Keeping heritage alive is important, and I want my children to be proud Korean-Italian-Americans. But it seems all I've inherited is the fussy controlling behavior of my mother and grandmother. J loves to help me bake, and I try very hard to let it go when he sloshes the batter all over the counter or ends up with more egg on his hand than in the bowl. To not nit-pick if the frosting doesn't look just right because, let's face it, my cookies are not that pretty to begin with.

At least I make a mean sauce.

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