I feel like I am supposed to say that the foods I remember most from my childhood were prepared from memory by my grandmother over the course of an entire Sunday, pressing pinches of love onto my cheek with one hand while she stirred and stirred the contents of a bubbling kettle with the other. I could try to make my memories fit, but it just wouldn’t be true. It’s not that my family doesn’t cook; it’s just that we don’t cook “like that.”
In truth, the foods I remember most were store-bought bagels, crisp and buttery from the toaster on tiny white paper plates, and any kind of macaroni — especially Mama Rosie’s cheese-stuffed ravioli with milk and garlic bread. The ravioli was frozen, but the 2-inch high mound of parmesan on top was always fresh, grated by hand from a wedge in the fridge.
I still love bagels and macaroni, but because I can get them anytime, they don’t conjure up a memory sigh. The things that do are rare — the foods that only came out once or twice a year at family parties. Auntie Mella’s Italian Cookies are one of those. She was married to my Uncle Artie, my grandfather’s brother, a warm, teasing man who made a game of standing right next to me when I was small, but looking over my head and asking the room “Where’s Aimee?” while I jumped up and down, waving my hands, yelling “I’m right here!”
Uncle Artie on the right, posing with my Papa at our 1992 family picnic.
My mom likes to tell me that he once asked me, the way you do when children are learning the names of relatives, “Do you know who I am?” and I said that I did — that he was Uncle Artie. When Auntie Mella asked me the same question a moment later I said “Sure, you’re Uncle Artie’s friend!”
Technically, I was correct.
Her cookies were firm and perfectly round, like mushrooms, but once bitten revealed a soft, cake-like interior. The tops were coated with a hard, shiny glaze and covered with minute, colored sprinkles. What child can resist the sight of all those sprinkles?
I didn’t recognize the aroma or flavor, but it was not the vanilla, chocolate, or peanut butter cookies I was used to. If I had known the delicate, sweet taste in my mouth was anise (the flavor in black licorice) I might have stuck out my tongue and said I knew I didn’t like it, but I didn’t know, and they had those sprinkles, so I tried one. And I loved it.
I’ve been dreaming of Auntie Mella’s cookies for years. She passed away before I developed my passion for baking, so I never had the chance to tell her how much I loved her cookies and how much they reminded me of being little and underfoot at family parties where all the people I loved were alive and happy and laughing and teasing one another after a baptism, or at our annual summer picnic.
Our annual family summer picnic celebrated its 61st anniversary in 2011 – our last in Saugus.
I tried to make them over the years. Tried to find recipes in tattered secondhand community cookbooks or online, my eyes scanning the list of ingredients and method of shaping and glazing, looking for something I recognized, but none of them ever looked or tasted right. None of them were Auntie Mella’s.
Then, last weekend, I tried again. Unlike the other times, I updated my Facebook status with my plan, and a half hour later my mom called. She had the recipe I was looking for. Auntie Mella’s daughter, my mom’s cousin Anne Marie, had written it down for her on an envelope a few years ago at a family event. She knew it by heart. My mom read it out loud to me over the phone, and in about an hour, I was biting into one. An actual dream come true.
Out of the oven they don’t look like much, but they smell wonderful, and it’s nothing a little glaze can’t help.
They came out just as I remembered them. How often does that actually happen? I ate my fair share (never mind the number), then shared the rest with my friend Heather, mom, and Nana. Food is arguably one of the strongest links we have to memory, so I plan on celebrating the memory of my Auntie Mella, the whole wonderful Italian side of my family, and my own childhood memories by making these cookies, and making them often.
Try them and see for yourself how delicious they are!
Auntie Mella’s Italian Cookies
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons anise extract
3/4 cup sugar
4 cups flour
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
For the Glaze
2 cups powdered sugar
2 – 3 Tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon anise extract
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
- In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, sugar, extract and baking powder.
- Add the vegetable oil and milk, then the flour, one cup at a time, until well combined.
- Pinch off walnut-sized pieces of dough, and roll smooth between your palms. Flour your hands if the dough is too sticky. Arrange the balls of dough 2 inches apart on the baking sheets.
- Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until bottoms of the cookies are a light golden brown. The tops will still be pale.
- Remove from the oven, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.
- Combine the glaze ingredients in a bowl until just smooth. You want it more thick than thin, but still runny.
- Dip the tops of the cooled cookies into the glaze, then return to the wire rack, allowing the glaze to drip down the sides of the cookie.
- Top with sprinkles.
Cookies are best eaten right away. Once covered the trapped moisture will soften the glaze and the colors from the sprinkles will bleed. Still tasty, but not so pretty.
Makes around 30 cookies.