A breath + a bite
As the holidays approach, specifically, with Thanksgiving just around the corner, I sit here taking stock of my life and asking myself, "What am I most thankful for?"
Without pause, the answer at the top of my list is, and will always be, family.
My family, far from perfect, is nonetheless a strongly committed, fiercely loyal and supportive one. Yes, there are times when life between us isn't harmonious and feelings are easily hurt. But when life throws any one of us a major curve ball, it's often as if the curve ball was thrown at ALL of us and we inevitably come together a united front to fight an obstacle. And even though I grew up highly influenced by a strong, hardworking father who always went above and beyond to ensure that we had our basic necessities covered, I cannot imagine the kind of woman I would be were it not for the women I grew up surrounded by: my mother, my four younger sisters, my two maternal aunties and the woman who influenced all of us, my maternal Grandmother.
|Grams and I after the last cookie sheet went into the oven.|
Grams was born in San Bartolo, a small town on the outskirts of Tepatilán de Morales in Jalisco, Mexico. The first child to survive infancy, she had one sister and seven brothers. Life was not easy for the family and particularly difficult for my grandmother. Unable to receive formal schooling, she taught herself to read and write Spanish. Later, once my grandfather moved his young family to San Diego, she taught herself English by listening to the radio, watching TV and reading Psychology Today. Even to this day, Grams can be found working on a puzzle in one of her Word Search magazines as she continues, at 82, to "work her mind," as she told me today.
When I was young, us girls would take turns spending the night at Grandma and Grandpa's house on Friday nights. Grams would spoil us the next morning making us her pancakes from scratch that were, I kid you not, as large as a dinner plate and lusciously drowned in Caro corn syrup. On holidays we were treated to her tamales. And on every visit, no matter what time of day or day of week, we were greeted with, "¿Tienes hambre?" (Are you hungry?). If we said yes, there was always frijoles de olla (pinto beans cooked in a stockpot) sitting on the stove waiting to be refried and fresh corn tortillas for bean tacos offered and enthusiastically accepted.
|6 eggs. 3 cups of sugar. Beat. Whoa.|
|Adding in the spices changes the batter color from yellow to mustard.|
My fondest culinary childhood memory involving my Grandmother? Her spice cookies. These crispy biscotti-like, cinnamon and clove scented cookies hold a special place in all of our hearts. With a pound-and-a-half of butter, it's not a recipe she made often so when she did, it was a welcomed treat.
|After most of the flour has been incorporated, Grams shuts off the blender, cleans off the blades before moving onto working the dough with her hands so she can feel if it needs more flour before hand-forming the cookies.|
A year or two ago, my sister B asked Grams to teach her this recipe. I wasn't able to join them then but knew I very much wanted to learn it and share it here with my readers. In September, Grams mentioned her cookies again and because we were in the middle of a heatwave, I asked if she could teach me her recipe when the weather was a little cooler.
Well, a little over a week ago I was texting one of my aunties when she texted back, "Your grandmother says the weather's changed."
|Grams poured about 1/4 cup of flour directly onto the worked dough to use to flour her hands and work more flour into the cookies while simultaneously forming them. I come from a family of intuitive cooks: measurements? Yeah, right.|
Ah! Why, yes it has changed. The weather here in San Diego has indeed cooled down. My bed now sports my down comforter and I have been lighting a fire in my fireplace this week to warm up my house for Starbuck and I.
Since I knew I was going to be on vacation this week, I made a date to go over to document my Grams making her cookies.
While we were waiting to begin, I asked her who taught her the recipe. She told me that when my mom and my uncle were little, she used to put the radio on to entertain them. There was a children's program on that, from her description, sounds like it was a Spanish equivalent to TV's Sesame Street, which is what I grew up with. One day, the show following the children's program turned to cooking and described this recipe. She didn't write it down then but later, recreated the recipe from memory. It was such a hit, that she continued to make it periodically for her young family and then when we came along, we would beg her to make them for us, too.
|There they are. The sight of these cookies with the familiar criss-cross pattern while we were growing up meant that Grandma loved us.|
As the last of the cookies to baked in the oven, I asked Grams about atole and champurrado. Atole is a thick hot drink and I vaguely remember drinking it as a youngster with my grandfather. Yes, my grandmother said, she used to make it. She said it's thickened with rice flour, all-purpose flour, masa harina for tamales, corn starch or the prepared masa you can buy at Mexican grocery stores. It's scented with cinnamon and she said she'll often flavor it with crushed pineapple or strawberries to make it even sweeter and thicker. Champurrado is an atole flavored with Mexican hot chocolate such as Ibarra or Abuelita. And as we're talking about it, she pulls out a pot and begins making it for me. "Oh, goodie!" I thought. I was eager to taste this as an adult.
|Freshly made atole ready to be served. It was quite delicious. And now that I know it's so dang simple to make, I'll be making it a little more often on exceptionally cold evenings or mornings this winter. Thanks Grams!|
I wasn't disappointed. Plus, it went great with the cookies.
Thank you, Grandma. ¡Te quiero mucho!
Makes about 4½ dozen 4 in. cookies
3 cups sugar
½ teaspoon ground clove
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ lbs butter, room temperature (These days, Grams likes to lighten calories a little by using I Can't Believe it's Not Butter)
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
6 cups all-purpose flour, plus ½ cup for forming
3 tablespoons milk in a small shallow bowl (Grandma prefers Carnation evaporated milk)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Place rack in center.
- Spray nonstick cooking spray on cookie sheets. Set aside.
- In an extra large bowl, beat eggs and sugar on medium-high until smooth. Beat in clove and cinnamon. Add vanilla and beat for 1 minute. Add butter and beat on medium for 2 minutes. Add baking powder. Beat on medium until smooth. Add flour and beat on low until incorporated and dough begins to form. Dough will be slightly sticky. Flour hands, pinch about two tablespoons worth of dough and roll between hands to form about a 3 ½ - 4 inch "log" (if dough is still too wet to handle, slowly work in additional flour a little at a time). Place logs onto greased cookie sheet and repeat process until cookie sheet is filled with logs spaced about ½ inch apart.
- After cookies are all laid out, dip a fork into milk and make light indentations at a 45 degree angle all the way down the log. Dip fork in milk again and repeat at a-45 degrees angle, creating a criss-cross pattern on the cookie much in the same way you would decorate a peanut butter cookie. Bake cookies one sheet at a time (unless two pans fit on the same rack) for 20-30 minutes until the cookies are set and edges are beginning to turn golden. Tops of cookies will be slightly shiny from the milk.
- Serve with espresso, Mexican hot chocolate, atole or champurrado.
- Heat water to simmering in a saucepan.
- Whisk in flour. Cook, whisking continuously for 5 minutes. Add cinnamon and sugar. Whisk 5 more minutes.
- Add milk. Whisk for 10 minutes or until atole is slightly frothy and reaches the consistency of heavy cream.
- Serve immediately.