Yesterday was my birthday. And I had every intention of diligently baking myself some birthday cookies with my grandmother’s recipe to share with you. Really, I did. But then my boyfriend surprised me by taking me out for a wonderful birthday lunch (I had a scrumptious Asian noodle salad with avocado, mango, peanuts, charred steak, and lots of other spicy tangy goodness—Yum!) Then I got to chatting with my mom and aunts and had to run some errands and before I knew it, the day was gone and I had to make myself presentable for my birthday present—Pearl Jam concert at the Garden! A spectacular show, by the way.
But no worries, I am back with one of my promised recipes: Italian knot cookies. Some people think of them as celebration cookies, made especially for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and such but to my family, they were the everyday cookie, just like chocolate chip cookies are to most American families. My Nana made them all the time for any occasion and kept her doctor, dentist and postman well stocked. Traditionally, many people coat them with a dollop of white icing and rainbow candy beads but Nana matched the icing with great care to dress swatches for weddings or to the perfect shade of someone’s favorite color. She was such a sweetheart—always adding that special touch.
I have never made these on my own, so bear with me on the instructions. My knowledge of making these comes only from memories of my grandmother in the kitchen kneading a scraggly mess of eggs and flour into a perfect shiny ball of sweet dough. On those days that I would sit and watch her, she would give me a lump of dough to play with and to sculpt into anything I could imagine which, take note, is quite a good way to keep children entertained. I would fashion little dough people and tiny bowls filled with tiny fruit and as I got older (and my hand-eye coordination improved), she taught me how to form the love knots to make these cookies, all the while telling me that one day, I would be “the baker,” a career aspiration that quickly caught on. Anytime someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would definitively respond, “the baker.” As the years passed, my aspirations changed many, many times and I often feel like I am still deciding what to be when I grow up (don’t hold your breath for that answer).
A few weeks ago, my sister, Bridget, asked me for a birthday wish list. I was looking over it this morning and thought I would share with you the first several items I wrote down:
french rolling pin
microplane rasp grater
Looking at that list now, it sounds more like a wedding registry than a birthday wish list! In the end, I did not choose to go to culinary school, but perhaps in some small way, I did become “the baker” after all. Nana would be proud.
A bit of a disclaimer on this recipe: for the most part, Nana never used recipes. The recipes were in her head, the measuring cups were her hands—a pinch of this, a palmful of that—and though I don’t expect my versions of her food to taste exactly like hers, I hope I come close. Before I give you the recipe I paired down, I must tell you that the original recipe she wrote in tiny scratchy handwriting, the one that took my mom 20 minutes and one helper to decipher, called for 12 cups of flour! The woman obviously didn’t know how to cook for anything less than an army.
My interpretation of Nana’s Italian Knot Cookies
3 c flour
½ c sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 heaping tsp baking powder
½ c (1 stick) unsalted butter
½ tsp vanilla
milk (She did not give a measurement but I used about 2 tbsp)
You could make these cookies using the tried and true creaming method. (Cream butter and sugar together, then add eggs and liquids and finally incorporate sifted dry ingredients.) However, I prefer to make them just like Nana. It’s a lot dirtier, but much more fun. No wonder I loved to cook with her!
Preheat oven to 350۫. Sift flour, sugar, salt and baking powder together onto a clean flat surface such as a large cutting board, making a large mound. Make like mashed potatoes and create a flour volcano. Crack eggs into the center and add vanilla.
Working from the inside out, start incorporating flour into the eggs. Next, knead the room temperature butter into the mixture to form dough. Put the ball of dough into a bowl, adding the milk. Mix this well with your hands until the milk is incorporated and the dough becomes slightly sticky. Chill the dough in the refrigerator for up to an hour; this makes it more manageable.
Once the dough is chilled, start pinching off small balls of dough about the size of a meatball, or 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll it out to form a rope about 6 inches long. Form the rope into a loose knot by wrapping the rope around your left thumb (vice versa for lefties like my Mom) and with your right hand, pushing the end of the dough into the hole you just created. Bake at 350۫ for 10 to 12 minutes or until cookies are golden.
Yields about 36 cookies. Cool cookies completely before adding the icing.
½ lb (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup confectioner’s suger
2 tbsp milk
Combine room temperature butter and confectioner’s sugar (in a mixer or with your hands—your choice!) Stir in milk. Add food coloring if you wish. I used yellow because it’s my favorite color and these are exactly what my Nana would have made for me, yesterday!
Take about a teaspoon of icing for each cookie, and using your (clean!) finger—it’s more fun, I promise—swirl the icing to coat the top of each. Immediately sprinkle candy beads or coconut (my personal favorite) or any other decorations before the icing dries.