On June 21st, my brother, Bernie and and sister-in-law, Donna will celebrate their 45th Anniversary. I find that impressive because even if I got married right now; the best I could hope for would be maybe 40 years and that’s only if I live to be 98 and marry an infant.
My brother Bob and his wife Patty just celebrated their 40th last year with a great surprise party. My marriage fizzled out before I even got to silver, but I haven’t given up on weddings yet because:
A. I’m still a hopeless romantic who believes marriage can be great if both people really want to work at it.
B. They’re a great excuse to bake cookies and maybe finally learn to do a proper Electric Slide or Tarantella.
C. I love telling this wedding cookie baking story about my mom, which involves potential bodily injury, table-shaking laughter, and a great recipe.
Since Bernie was the first surviving son in our Italian family, his wedding was right up there with a papal inauguration. In Italian families, nothing is too good for the sons. The oldest boy is essentially, the King. If there’s more than one boy, they become King # 1, King # 2. etc.
If you’ve never been to an Italian wedding reception, cookies are of paramount importance. This is where Italian women get to strut their baking stuff. Even seemingly great wedding receptions can get thumbs down for lack of cookies or bad selection. The unwritten rule is: There should be a minimum of twelve cookie varieties to choose from with each cookie being very labor intensive. There should be a minimum of six dozen of each variety.
That’s why baking cookies for Bernie’s wedding took an entire month and a half in the spring of 1969. My mother was not to be outdone by my Aunt Johanna, who went into full blown baker mode before her daughter’s wedding. I remember longingly eyeing the thousands of cookies being stored in a cool area of my aunt’s basement before that marriage and plotting which ones I’d eat first at the reception.
My mother and I started baking on May first, so we’d have “enough” cookies for my brother’s June twenty-first wedding. A little backstory here: Bernie was born shortly after my mom’s first son passed away, and my dad was sent to war, so she lavished “Lilla Bernard” with every ounce of attention she could. She always said, “Wenna I see Bernie, I see heaven a.”
Obviously Heaven was going to need a mother lode of cookies for his wedding. So, my mother and I stood in the basement, staring at the stack of cookbooks she kept, but never used, hoping for inspiration. By the time May rolled around in Pennsylvania, it was just too hot to bake upstairs, and in the ’60s air conditioning was only for rich people, so mom had another completely outfitted kitchen downstairs. Not that we had an obsession with food or anything.
We looked at photos to determine the best looking cookies. This was our least sophisticated, yet most successful cookie selection method. We decided on Almond Tea Cookies. (No picture…we were going out on a limb, but mom thought they sounded good.) We altered the original recipe, making the icing almond flavored instead of tea and put a cherry on top instead of an almond. (This is a repeat of a previous recipe, but I’m also including my Russian Teacake recipe because they are perfect for a wedding. The original recipe is to the left, out of respect for poor Eva Beasely; its author, who hopefully, is beyond caring.)
I was about thirteen at the time and a pretty accomplished baker for a kid, so we divided the duties. I looked at the recipe and got out the ingredients. Mom read the instructions and I mixed everything together. We were doing okay — the first four ingredients were in and mixed together when I said, “Okay Ma, what’s next?” Without skipping a beat, she said, “Adda sifted a flour anna chopped almonds. Mix a trootfully.”
I looked up, a little puzzled and said, “What?”
Again, a little impatient and more forcefully she repeated “Adda sifted a flour anna chopped almonds. Mix a trootfully!”
Trootfully, trootfully, I’m thinking…. what can she possibly be reading?
I asked one more time, “Are you sure it’s truthfully – Ma, how can you mix truthfully?”
“Gaddamit, a Frenzy, I don’d a know, but it a says a right a here, mixxa trootfully!” she said, pounding her heavy fist on the cookbook, sending up an angry dust cloud of flour. So I put the bowl down, calmly walked over and looked at the cookbook. Ready to be vindicated, she looked up at me expectantly, through flour-smeared glasses sliding down her nose. Her face was flushed and she was clearly angry that I didn’t believe her and had to read it myself.
This was a potentially dangerous time. She could either start yelling in Italian and smack me, or burst into laughter — you never knew — sort of like pulling a pin from a hand grenade that someone says is a dud. I looked at the book and finally understood what she was trying to say.
“Ma, that’s not truthfully, that’s thoroughly. Mix thoroughly,” I said. Sensing a little smile coming to her face, I knew I had her and asked, “Ma, how would you mix truthfully?
Finally, her brow unfurrowed, her eyes opened wide and she said, “OOOHHHHH!” The pivotal moment…she finally got it. We could never buy my mother funny Hallmark cards because she never got the humor because of the language barrier. We always ended up having to explain the joke, so, anytime she got it with no explanation was a huge victory.
She buried her face in her hands and started a silent shaking laugh. Next, she leaned back, her face became very red, and she started laughing out loud. In seconds, the whole table nested against her ample stomach started shaking furiously back and forth like it was possessed, and she was helpless to stop it. I heard her gasp, “Oh Frenzy, you keella me,” then go into another spasm of laughter with the table dancing along with her.
The only dark side to this story is that after we slaved away baking for a month and a half, most of the cookies were stolen that night before they ever got to the tables. (I take this as the supreme compliment. If someone is willing to commit larceny for your baking, you must be pretty good!) However, since the cookies were baked and all the Italian women at the wedding knew it, our good name was saved and we did not get thumbs down, but man what a disappointment.
On the bright side, all the cookies clearly turned out great, hopefully the thieves gained 20 pounds, and 45 years later these little almond cookies are still Donna’s favorites. Mom would be so proud. I’m also giving you my recipe for Russian Teacakes because they are another of my wedding favorites.
(We decided to leave out the chopped almonds)
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
2 cups flour
1 tsp. almond extract
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks and almond extract. Blend well, then add flour. Mix thoroughly. Form into 1 inch balls, place on ungreased baking sheet and flatten balls to 1/4 inch thick. Bake at 325 for 15 minutes. Frost and top with cherry slice when cooled.
1 TBSP butter
1 cup powdered sugar
1 TBSP whipping cream plus 1 tsp. milk
1 /2 tsp. almond flavoring
Dash of salt
Melt butter, stir in powdered sugar, cream, milk, almond flavoring and salt. Stir until completely smooth. Frost cookies with icing and place a 1/4 sliver of maraschino cherry on top.
Russian Teacakes – one of my wedding favorites!
1 cup soft butter
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 1/4 c. flour
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 c. finely chopped pecans (I think they’re better than walnuts.)
Additional confectioner’s sugar for rolling
Mix butter, sugar, and vanilla thoroughly. Blend flour and salt and stir into mixture. Mix in nuts and chill. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Roll chilled dough into 1 inch balls and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes and while warm, roll in additional confectioners sugar. Cool, then roll in confectioners sugar again Makes 4 dozen.