Baking with Grandma

photo 4 (3)With the wedding, I found myself thinking about my Grandma Forkosh – my mom’s mom – a lot. She passed away when I was in college and, therefore, never had a chance to meet Mark. I like to think she would have approved of Mark, particularly because he loves to do dishes, which was her chore of choice. Despite having a dishwasher in our home, she insisted on doing everything by hand for as long as she was physically able. I also like to think she would have approved of my love for cooking, which did not develop until I was an adult, and my decision to go to graduate school – twice.  She always praised me for liking school and said it reminded her of my mom – her daughter – who loved school so much that she became a teacher.  Moving to New York, on the other hand… I’m not sure how she would have felt about that one.  Her ancestors arrived on Ellis Island and immediately headed to Western PA, so I don’t exactly come from a long line of New York lovers.

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I thought of her so much that I even incorporated her into the wedding day by carrying a pendant she had given me for my Confirmation on my bouquet. My mom sewed it onto the bouquet for me, which made it an extra special “something old.”

photo 1When I re-launched the blog post-honeymoon and realized that Mother’s Day was right around the corner, I decided it was time to pull out a recipe I had been holding onto for a few months… As part of a shower gift, my mother had given me a copy of Grandma’s recipe for kolachki, a Slovak jam-filled cookie. (Some people will tell you they are Polish or Russian. But my Grandma was Slovak, so I say they’re Slovak cookies.) It was such a nice surprise. I knew my mother had recently started trying to make Grandma’s recipes again, but I had never tried any of them for myself.

As I scanned the recipe card, the most satisfying part was how simple – not easy, but simple – it is. It requires no special tools, no appliances, no gourmet ingredients. Just pantry staples (flour, sugar, butter, eggs, yeast, sour cream, preserves), two bowls, two cookies sheets and a lot of elbow grease. That’s a good family tradition recipe for you.

photo 1 (4)The only ingredient I had to buy was apricot preserves for the filling. Living in Brooklyn, I have access to all manner of specialty, organic, local or imported preserves. In fact, if I were a true Brooklyn stereotype I would probably be making my own preserves from scratch.  But if there is one thing I remember about Grandma, it was that she always had Smucker’s apricot preserves. Even when she was older and her baking days were over, she still had preserves on hand for her morning toast. So it was only fitting that I tracked down the jar with the orange and white gingham lid for her recipe.

In getting ready for this endeavor, I was curious if there were other recipes out there and did a quick search. It turns out a lot of people make kolachki (and spell it in a million different ways) and use photo 2cream cheese, which strikes me as a bit of a crutch. My Grandma used sour cream and butter. I found only one other recipe online that used this combo – it was in a blog where a women talked about learning recipes passed down from her mom. It seemed that she and I were of the lucky few to learn the “true” method.

What I did not appreciate about kolachki until I began to actually make them was that the dough is very pie like. Lucky for me I spent some photo 5time a few years ago learning how to make pie crust. The first step was to incorporate cold butter into the flour and sugar mixture. A few years ago I would have struggled with this. But now I’m an old pro…who, admittedly, used her pastry cutter to get things moving. Sorry, Grandma, I cheated just a bit.

photo 2 (2)Next I focused on the wet ingredients. I was surprised to find that I could mix the yeast directly into the sour cream. No warm water or blooming needed? Normally I would question this, but it’s hard to question a family recipe. In went the yeast, followed by vanilla and three eggs.

Then it was time to knead the two together and make dough. As I was kneading, I had a moment where I couldn’t stop smiling. I really felt like I was channeling my mother, grandmother, great grandmother and a lineage of my family I frankly don’t think about enough. I don’t often find myself getting spiritual while cooking, but there was something about literally digging my hands into this recipe that just felt right. Like she was there – somewhere – watching and smiling about the fact that my mom had passed this on to me and that I was keeping the tradition alive.

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With the dough in a malleable condition, it was time to roll. As I was cleaning off surfaces and making room, I thought of my Grandma, who also had limited kitchen space in her house on Home Street. I wondered if she, like me, ever rolled cookies on her kitchen table?

photo 4 (4)As I began to roll, the number of cookies I was about to make began to sink in. My mother hadn’t given a count, but I could tell based on the ingredients list (FIVE cups of flour and FOUR sticks of butter) and the size of the dough, I was in for a few rounds of baking.

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The directions said to roll to a quarter inch and then cut the dough into squares. Easy. Next, I dropped a half teaspoon of preserves into each square. Then, I had a choice. I could either fold them into a little pocket shape or make the far more impressive looking star shape by cutting slits in each corner of the cookie. I decided to go 50-50 on the designs and had fun choosing styles at random as I placed them on the cookie sheets.

photo 2 (4)I managed to get about half of the dough onto the first round of sheets, which promptly went into the oven. Then it was back to rolling, cutting and folding another round. In the end, I made 73 cookies!

Both batches came out of the oven perfectly golden. Not surprisingly, it took a little longer than 15 minutes to bake because my oven never gets hot enough. But a little patience ensured they cooked just long enough to be crispy but not too dry.

The final – and perhaps most important step – was powdered sugar. I knew we would be eating cookies for days and I didn’t want the sugar to get absorbed into the cookies. So I plated just a few to “test” and sprinkled the sugar on top. The rest went into a large storage container (once they were cooled), and I decided to figure out what I should do with this plethora of cookies when I wasn’t quite so tired.

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The cookies were perfectly buttery and flaky… and exactly as I imagined them. To be honest, I have a hard time remembering my grandmother making kolachki because she made them when I was really young (I have an easier time remembering her nut rolls, which I will try to make sometime soon). But I definitely remember my mom making them and mine tasted exactly like hers, which I took as a good sign. My mom’s are a bit prettier and way more uniform, but then she’s much more of an artist than me. I’ll just have to work on my presentation next time.

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All in all, it was a perfect evening (yes, I did this from 8pm to 11pm on a weeknight). I got to spend time doing what I love most with a recipe from someone very, very special to me. Thanks Mom for sharing. And thanks Grandma for being you.

Happy Mother’s Day! photo 5 (3)

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