Thursday, December 25, 2008

Rosettes, other cookies, and the Italian-American Christmas

Each year, for Christmas, my mother makes rosettes. Rosettes have only 5 ingredients, yet they are nearly impossible to make. The recipe (if there were a standard one) is different for each particular oven. Timing when combining and mixing the ingredients is so critical that a single minute in either direction before cooking can result in collapsed, inedible discs after cooking.

Even if you manage them to bake the rosettes correctly (congratulations), frosting the cookies is another gauntlet. Frost too early, and the hot cookie will ruinously liquify the frosting. Frost too late, and the cold, hardened frosting will rip the cookie apart as you spread. About 30 seconds separates these two states, so make sure to frost each cookie as it comes out of the oven individually. What fun!

Additionally, the process often fails, partially or completely, for no discernible reason. Witness my 10-year-old niece (the assistant cook) crying over a suddenly and inexplicably gluified mass that cannot be extracted from the mixing bowl.

In short, rosettes are the perfect holiday cookie.

Growing up in our small Italian-immigrant community, I had always believed the traditional set of holiday cookies (wand, pizzelle, dischi, rosettes, taralle ...) were the pinnacle of taste and artistry in Italian baking. It seemed that, as such, these marvels of taste-as-pleasure should be enjoyed at most once a year (imagine you are Catholic and this might make sense).

Now I know the truth. The rosettes, for example, are good but are simply one cookie-type. There are certainly many easier-to-make, better-tasting, and festive Italian cookies that come out wonderfully for the first-time maker. Why make rosettes, wand, dischi, and the other half-dozen Italian-American Christmas traditionals?

Making rosettes is a yearly trial for even the most experienced cook. It took my mother (a rosette expert) two discarded batches this Christmas to produce an acceptable third batch of rosettes. The first was destroyed by the Northeastern ice storm that cut her electricity in mid-bake. A few days later, the second batch was flattened by a forced substitution of butter for margarine due to closed roads between her and the supermarket. (butter can collapse the rosettes)

Ok. Why even try? Isn't there a toll house recipe somewhere on the Food Network web site?

Each Italian woman in my family (or naturalized-Italian wife) has a specific cookie she makes every year. In most cases the same cookie her mother (or mother-in-law) made. The arcane subtlety of preparation that results in an acceptable cookie is passed down from mother to daughter through years of pre-adolescent cookie-bonding in the kitchen.

The tradition is the desired result, the cookie is a side-effect.

With this in mind, I give you a full year to try to master the rosette. My mother's recipe is below, with her quite valuable but certainly incomplete advice unedited in parentheses.

Ironically, the most colossal failures provide the best memories. Who can forget the 2001 rosettes when she accidentally added salt instead of sugar. Miraculously the right shape, a few rosettes were grabbed by 6-year-old Sarah before anyone else could taste them. Every year, we do an impressions of little Sarah's shocked face: "Aaack! They don't taste right!"

Brave readers, let us know how you do.


3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tbsp vanilla (some people use anise)
2 cups flour
1 1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) margarine (don't use butter)

mix to medium softness
shape into balls (use a spoon and flour your hands)
place on a greased sheet pan
bake at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes

mix confectioners sugar and milk. keep a fairly stiff consistency. dip or spread (and add sprinkles immediately or frosting will harden).

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