If there is one thing I know about Italian women it is that the kitchen is their domain. Living in Italy for the semester, I am very anxious to get into the kitchen with my housemother and to learn all her cooking secrets. Yet, even without the language barrier, this is much easier said than done.
My host mom Flavia reminds me a lot of my own Italian great grandmother. Although Flavia represents a more modern woman because she also works outside of the home, she and my great grandmother have many similarities between them, specifically in regards to their behavior in the kitchen. One such parallel is the great effort exhibited by both women in their favorite place in the house. Like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, Italian woman live to feed those around them. Unlike the witch, however, who cooks for and feeds the fairy tale children in order to fatten them up for her own indulgence, Italian mammas feed others so that some day those same mouths will reciprocate the favor.
Yet, there is perhaps one slight problem with this expectation. If one was to ask an Italian woman about her recipes, it is doubtful that she will point to a favorite cookbook or a stash of hand-written recipe cards. Rather, most will simply smile and point to their heads, indicating that their recipes are consolidated memories from extensive repetition and practice. To them, the kitchen is a laboratory, the place where they go to experiment and to prepare multi-course meals for the various hungry stomachs in the family. Every meal is a trial and error period until eventually something tastes just right. Although diners might not ever notice the differences in preparation, there is a very thin line between perfection and imperfection for an Italian woman.
My Italian great grandmother was one such woman. As a young child, I would eat nearly everything that she would put in front of me, regardless of whether I knew what it was or how it was prepared. In my eyes, everything that she cooked was delicious and easily surpassed the cooking of my parents. Although she passed away more than five years ago, I can still remember vividly the scents and tastes of my favorite dishes: pound cake with fresh juicy strawberries, sizzling pan-fried pork chops, and dough boys hot from the fryer sprinkled with sugar. Each time I enjoy such foods today, I immediately compare them to the memories I have of my grandmother’s cooking, and oftentimes those memories win out in taste.
My favorite item from my grandmother’s was her Italian egg biscuits. More like a cookie than a biscuit, these sweets were made with lots of flour, oil, and eggs. As a child I would watch my grandmother as she dumped the ingredients into a large bowl and then turned the dough out onto the counter where then she would knead the dough with her wrinkled hands until it was fit to be shaped into biscuits. On many occasions, grandma would retell me the story about the time she once lost her wedding ring in the dough. While listening and observing, I often tried to sneak a piece of raw dough while my grandma was not looking. The taste of vanilla was definite, and the dough was smooth and silky; if the cookies were not so irresistible, I could have eaten all of the dough without it ever leaving the bowl.
Once the cookies were in the oven, I waited patiently for them to puff as the scent permeated the kitchen. At this time, my grandma prepared a simple glaze to cover the cookies once cooled. I can remember pouring spoonfuls of sprinkles on the freshly glazed cookies, and once again waiting with my mouth watering for the glaze to harden. Then, finally, I could enjoy the finished product. The cookies were incredibly moist and had the perfect level of sweetness; even after a day or so (if they lasted that long), the cookies retained their flavor.
Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away before I had the chance to venture into the kitchen to learn her secrets. I have asked my aunts if they knew their methods behind their mother’s madness, but even they cannot reciprocate the taste of my grandmother’s cookies. Interestingly, two of my aunts claim to have the cookie recipe, but each recipe is very different from the other. Each recipe has a different cooking time, one calls for the inclusion of orange juice, and one calls for the combination of baking powder and soda. Having tried both recipes as is, I have concluded that neither one is “the” recipe. I watched my grandmother when she made the biscuits, and I cannot recount a time when I saw her measure out five cups of floor or a half-cup of oil. It is no wonder then that I cannot reproduce her results. Though my grandmother might have tried to write down the recipes for my aunts, I imagine that she could only estimate the ingredients, or perhaps my grandma was consciously leaving something out because she did not want to share her great cooking secrets….
Since her passing, I have tried to recreate these cookies at least a dozen times, and each time it seems I might be getting closer to my grandma’s standard. Regardless of whether or not I manage to reproduce the cookies perfectly, I love attempting to recreate my grandma’s cookies just so I can relive those afternoons at her home.