Recreating Memories in the Kitchen

I can’t remember exactly when it was, but recently I learned an Italian phrase that I had never heard before: “fare la scarpetta.” Roughly translated “to do the little shoe,” the terms refer to the act of taking a piece of bread and soaking up the remnants of gravy or soup or whatever meal leftovers remain.

Upon investigating, I learned that the “shoe” reference is a metaphorical description of the bread. Like a shoe being dragged in the mud, the bread soaks up the sauce and becomes saturated with flavor.

Admittedly, I’m one of those people who loves to soak her “shoes” in the “rain” of gravy. Oftentimes, I will ladle extra sauce on my plate just so that I will have extra to wipe clean with my hunk of crust Italian bread.

Considering that the Italians have a phrase for “bread-mopping,” I began to wonder if they had anything to say about “dough-snatching.” As much as using bread to clean a plate might be considered less than ladylike behavior, so too is sneaking bits and pieces of cookie dough for a cheating taste of that sweet, tender mixture. Yet all of us can admit to doing it…guilt-free.

When I was younger, I used to spend my Sundays with my dad visiting my great Italian grandmothers. The tenement apartment house of dad’s mom’s mother was always the first stop, and no matter what time of year and no matter what time we arrived, she always had something waiting for us to enjoy. Sometimes is was as simple as a bowl of ditalini in chicken broth or a slice of store-bought pound cake. But on those special days, we would walk into her kitchen to the sights and/or smells of her infamous egg biscuits.

Now, I write infamous not because they were foul-tasting or burnt to a crisp; rather, the infamy comes from the fact that nobody in my family knows how to recreate them exactly like grandma. I have two very different recipes in my possession, with varying proportions and ingredients, and my aunt has three. Never mind that the variations are so significant (the inclusion of orange juice in one is just one example), it is impossible to know the true recipe because my great grandma didn’t measure her ingredients. Even when baking, an art much like a science, she “eyeballed” everything. Despite the fact that her recipes have measurements, I never saw her measure anything, besides maybe with the occasional coffee cup.

When my aunt stumbled upon a recipe in Mary Ann Esposito’s cookbook Ciao Italia, she thought it resembled her mother’s recipe, so she decided that while I was with her, we could give it try. After following the directions almost exactly (we swapped corn oil for vegetable shortening), we labored, rolled, baked and frosted nearly four dozen cookies. But alas, while they were tasty and had a texture reminiscent of my grandma’s, they still fell short of expectations.

Before the cookies even went in the oven, I had high hopes for the Italian treats. Like my dad used to do when I was younger, I could not resist sampling the dough stuck to the inside of the mixing bowl.  I will always remember the sound my grandma made when she slapped my father on the hand for sticking his fingers into the bowl to snag pieces of unbaked dough. However, the lure was worth the risk.

It tasted like vanilla, like lemon, like a piece of my childhood.. Yet, even with a tasty dough, Esposito’s cookies weren’t my grandma’s.

Like mopping up the leftover sauce with a hunk of bread, eating the leftover cookie mix ensures that nothing goes to waste. Although my grandmother warned about the dangers of consuming raw eggs, I never became sick. So until I do, I’ll just have to “fare la scarpetta,” or whatever the Italians want to call it, with the leftover of cookie dough.

Italian Egg Biscuits
Makes about 45 cookies
Adapted from Ciao Italia

4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup corn oil
1/2 cup milk
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest

Frosting:
1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1/4 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla

In a bowl, beat the eggs until pale yellow. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat until thick and light-colored. Add the oil and milk, beating well to combine. Sift the flour and baking powder together and stir into the egg mixture. Stir in the lemon juice and zest, mixing well.

The dough will be soft; wrap it in wax paper and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease three cookie sheets.

Place the dough on a well-floured surface. Break off egg-size pieces of dough and roll or coil into balls. Place the dough balls one-inch apart on the cookie sheets.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until lightly colored and firm to the touch.

Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool slightly before frosting.

For frosting, combine the sugar, milk and vanilla and stir until smooth.

While the cookies are still warm, dip the top of each cookie in the frosting. Place the cookies on racks to let the frosting dry before storing. Sprinkle with nonpareils, if desired.

Cookies will keep in an airtight container for up to one week or frozen for up to three months.

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