On a few separate occasions, I’ve asked Nonna to teach me how to make cookies. Not just any cookies. The cookies – the ones from that tattered notebook she keeps tucked away in the top drawer of the china cabinet, next to the silverware and the birthday candles; the book that only comes out at Christmas, baby showers and weddings, when the recipes are tripled and quadrupled to suit the occasion.
It’s the kind of thing that is ubiquitous in the world of grandmas – the mythical recipe book that is beaten, bruised, smeared with grease-marks and filled with barely legible handwriting. The recipes are often a blend of tried-and-true methods and weirdly incongruous instructions. My grandmother’s notebook is no exception: in the recipe for “chichinotti”, tartlet-cookies made with chocolate and almonds, Nonna refers to “Crisco” shortening as “Grisco”, forgets to add the flour to the list of ingredients for the pastry, and does that annoying thing that cooking matriarchs often do, by mentioning “un po” (“a little bit”) as a baking quantity. Is that a pinch? A teaspoon? HOW MUCH IS “A LITTLE BIT”?!?
Oh and there are no assembly or baking directions, so good luck with that.
Despite all this, it’s still a disarming specimen of love and care and ancestry, which more than makes up for its shortcomings. The handwriting alone is a solid heart-melter…
Early on a Saturday morning, I get a phone call from Nonna, telling me that today is the day. Having only banked 4 hours of sleep prior to her calling, I didn’t exactly jump for joy at the prospect of shaping trayfuls of cookies. But I knew that this was a rare opportunity, so I rolled out of bed, grabbed a coffee, and with eyes at half-mast, hauled myself to the other end of town to her house.
When I got there, she was sitting at the kitchen table with all the ingredients laid out in front of her, ready to be measured and blended. The woman was clearly on a mission. First order of the day: she insisted that we take out her old mixing machine, the “Oster Kitchen Center”, a brutal-looking thing from the early 70s that weighed about as much as a toddler and was enrobed in a slick of greasy dust, thanks to a long hibernation in the kitchen cupboard. And yes, I would have the honour of restoring it to its original state.
In the midst of scrubbing it down with a soapy toothbrush, I began to have questions for Nonna. Are you sure we need to use this? Can’t we just use a whisk? Nonna shook her head. No, we would not be using a whisk. We would be using The Oster. Period.
Right around the time we were almost done cleaning it, I turned to my mom and joked, “Imagine after all this, we plug it in and it doesn’t work?”. Mom glared. “Julia, that isn’t funny.” At that moment, we both realised that testing it before spending so much time and energy cleaning it may have been the more intelligent way of doing things. I sheepishly plugged it in and prayed under my breath before pressing the button. Omigod, please please please – *click*.
No sound, no action.
Our hearts sank for a moment. Nonna shrugged her shoulders. Refusing to accept this state of affairs, I stubbornly disassembled and reassembled it – clicking all the bits into place – then took a deep breath and plugged it back in.
And lord have mercy, the thing came to life. It produced such an astonishing amount of noise and vigor, that we all took a step back. Nonna clapped and the rest of us laughed nervously as the monstrosity that monopolized half our counter space whirred and whizzed, deafening us with each turn of the beaters. It was like watching a robot come to life, or a horse giving birth – terrifying, yet oddly mesmerizing. We were so transfixed, you’d think we’d just discovered electricity.
Yes, my family is a cheap date.
In the end, the machine felt like an integral part of the process, or at least of the experience. That said, you by no means need to use one. A handheld beater or whisk will do just fine (just don’t tell Nonna). The only special equipment you may need to purchase are the tin moulds, which should be available at most kitchen stores.
One last thing – promise me you’ll try one straight out of the oven. Well don’t, like, burn the roof of your mouth or anything….but once it’s had a minute to cool down, go for it. There are very few pleasures in life that will compare.
Chichinotti – makes about 3 dozen
For the filling:
• 14 oz skinless almonds (toasted, then ground)
• 10 egg whites (the yolks will be used later – see below)
• 4 oz cocoa powder
• 12 oz sugar
• 4 pieces of Baker’s bitter-sweet chocolate, finely ground
• finely grated rind of one lemon
• about 2 tsp cinnamon
For the pastry:
• 10 egg yolks
• 7 oz vegetable shortening* (such as Crisco), room temperature
• 10 oz sugar
• 16 oz all-purpose flour
• finely grated rind of one lemon
*shortening is not one of those products that I like to endorse, but to stay true to Nonna’s recipe, I use it here. You’ll probably be able to replace it with butter by tinkering with the quantities a little bit. If you try it, let me know how it works out!
Preheat the oven to 350°F
1) Roast the almonds at 350°F for about 10-15 minutes until golden, turning once halfway through. Allow to cool, then grind them finely in a food processor. Set aside.
2) Prepare the filling: combine all the ingredients listed in the “filling” section above (except the ground almonds) in a medium-sized bowl. Use a stand mixer, hand mixer or whisk to combine the ingredients until uniform in colour and texture. Add the ground almonds, mixing with a wooden spoon to combine.
3) Prepare the pastry: combine all the ingredients listed in the “pastry” section (except the flour) in a medium-sized bowl. Begin to mix with a whisk, increasing speed as the mixture starts to come together. Once the mixture is smooth and creamy in colour, begin to slowly add the flour in batches, whisking between each addition. Once it reaches the consistency of a dough, knead it gently into a rough ball.
4) Prepare 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. With your hands, take a small quantity of pastry dough and press it into the mould, making sure that the bottom is completely covered and the sides as well. There are no exact measurements behind this, but you’re going for a medium-thickness – meaning that you don’t want it so thick that it would be un-enjoyable to eat, but not so thin that it burns and hardens. Try to reach a happy medium. Practice is key to getting this part right.
5) Fill each pastry shell with some of the chocolate mixture, nearly filling to the brim. Place filled tins on the prepared baking sheets.
6) Bake at 350°F for about 20 minutes, or until the filling is puffy and the pastry is golden.
7) Allow the tins to cool enough for you to handle; gently pry each cookie from the tins. Dust with powdered sugar once cooled and serve.