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Thoughts on Tradition: Four Generations of Anise Cookies

December 7, 2010

My mother gave me a very special gift this year, her Christmas cookie recipes. I am blessed to be a lineage of women who know how to cook, but really know how to bake. My grandmother loves to brag about how her Jewish doctor admittedly preferrs her homemade hamantaschens to his own mother’s. Of course my grandmother takes such delight in this. Who wouldn’t want to bake cookies better than someone else’s mother?

In the case of my family’s most traditional cookie recipe, I only aspire to bake as well as my mother, my grandmother and my great grandmother.  Aside from one brave cousin, I believe only the women along my mother’s side have been throwing together this simple, but so very sticky recipe for about 75-80 years!  What a custom right?

Tradition is no simple task for those of us accustomed to picking up anonymous recipes, slashing and recreating.  Following a recipe is a daunting task once we’ve tasted the original and have a means to work toward it! What do you do when it’s not working?  When you believe you could get the same results with simpler practices?  Is tradition about taking the same journey or just the end result?  Just pleasure in the taste and texture?

Making my family’s anise oil cookies was  no easy street!  More like a combination of one large, sticky mess.  A “hot mess!”  Basically, edible glue.  Edible glue that required rolling carefully into bags of flour sifted on a large clean countertop! A countertop which became thoroughly covered in edible glue!  A delicate pain the the butt!  Near tears, I phoned my mom for guidance.

After being rolled lightly in flour...

“Oh yeah, I roll in tons of extra flour.  You know what?  Your grandma actually tossed her batch this year because she said the batter was too sticky.”

“Mom, why don’t you or grandma just add more flour before attempting to roll them out?  Would that work?”

My mom laughed.  My mom is a pro. She doesn’t need to add extra flour to the bowl and the batter before rolling it out. I needed to.  I cheated.  I tweaked. Oh, I couldn’t help myself!  My failed attempts to create a cookie out of powdery glue drove me wild!

An (amended) antique recipe with antique cookie cutters

Two hundred and fifty cookies later, I am a survivor.  What a treat it is to have these unusual traditional cookies around to share with neighbors, friends and family!  But now I  understand why they are only made once a year!  If you’ve never had anise before, it has a bit of a licorice and fennel flavor.  Sweet, sort of minty with a twist. While not a fan of licorice, I appreciate these cookies for carrying just the right amount of flavor to make me think about pine trees and the Christmas holiday. The texture is perfect for dipping in hot cocoa.

Perhaps next year I will attempt the original recipe again, but for now I am satisfied with my adjustments and hope you will be too.

Ritter Family Anise Oil Cookies
Makes about 125 cookies

5 c. granulated sugar
1 c. margarine, softened
4 organic eggs separated
1/2 c. milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2-3/4 tsp anise oil (I use 1 1/4 tsp for a double batch. Do not substitute for anise extract)
6 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
powdered sugar
food coloring

To Do:
1: In a small bowl, whisk egg yokes.  Cover and place  egg whites in the fridge.
2: In a very large bowl whip together sugar and margarine. Combine egg yokes, milk, vanilla and anise oil.
3: In a large large bowl, combine flour, salt and baking soda.  Slowly incorporate the flour mixture with the wet ingredients.  Using a spatula, shape dough into a ball, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour or overnight.  Let sit at room temperature about 5 minutes before rolling out.
5: Preheat oven to 350°F.  Do not grease cookie sheets, but cover with parchment paper or a reusable silicone baking mat.
6: Sift a thin layer of flour out onto a clean, wide surface. Flour rolling pin and hands.  Pull about a softball size of dough from the entire batch. Mold into a smooth ball and dust outside with flour.  Roll out to 1/4 inch thick.  Add addition flour if needed, one spoonful at a time.  Use cookie cutters to cut out shapes. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until golden brown on edges.  Allow them to fully cool before icing. Repeat.
7: Icing: Take out egg whites from refrigerator.  For each 1/2 c. of egg whites, combine with 2 cups powdered sugar.  Add more powdered sugar 1 Tablespoon at a time if icing is too thin.  Add 1/2 tsp vanilla to icing.  Separate equally into small containers. Add food coloring and decorate those cookies!  Perfect for kids to do!
8: Allow icing to dry completely before moving.  Store in an airtight tin.  If placed in a cool area, cookies will last years.  The flavor actually becomes enhanced over time.

Unfortunately, anise is becoming obsolete in modern kitchens and local stores.  Your local drugstore may carry it, but if not, try online.  This is the brand I used at a really great deal.
2: Anise cookie batter may be frozen (3-6 months) before baking.

Organic Egg White Icing

Thank you for allowing me to celebrate my right of passage from icing helper to baker!

What are your thoughts about traditional holiday dishes?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Meredith Greenwood permalink
    December 7, 2010 9:47 pm

    My Grandmother once made a delicious Puerto Rican pork dish called Pernil. My favorite part of the whole thing was eating the crispy fat. Gross, right? No, butter, pure butter. She’s still alive, but I think cooking just takes a lot out of her now that she’s approaching her mid 80s. Mom is most famous for her sweet potatoes (and a million other things). Having a mom who once owned a catering company meant we never had a shortage of delicious things on the dinner table. I have to say that the moments I hold most dear often occurred as we found ourselves elbow-deep in flour and sugar and laughter and song (because more often than not, music played (and continues to play) a very integral role in the whole thing).

    Following a recipe passed down from matriarchs and patriarchs and the arches of Saint Louis can seem daunting. But I tend to think that we are not meant to simply duplicate the wheel, but rather tweak and tweet and add to it our own time and place. We are meant to do this thing with our hands with our furrowed brows (and in my case my tongue between my lips in a pose of concentration) to show that we are not so different than they were, but we bring something new.

    I love that you’re making so much wonderful food. I love that you’re a Master Gardener.

  2. Anna permalink
    December 8, 2010 12:11 am

    I love you for this, and I may just try to start on this before our date tomorrow. They definitely look like you did your momma (and grand, and great grand) proud.

    I agree with Meredith. Family recipes only become so treasured because of the stamp each generation leaves on them. I think the custom has much more to do with carrying on a memory, the heirloom of a family tradition, than it does an ingredient list.

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