Friday, February 17, 2012

a breath: grief throws sucker punches & a bite: “how to” on Mexican Sugar Cookies with Tio {recipe}





A pesky thing about grief? Just when you think you have a handle on it, it throws a sucker punch right to the gut. For example: You’re driving down the highway, windows rolled tightly up and before you know it, you’re SCREAMING AT THE TOP OF YOUR LUNGS the most primal of screams. You know the kind, right? Those screams that start at the very core of your being, bubble up, gaining momentum until your body can no longer contain it and it explodes with such force that you can’t believe those animal-like sounds actually came from you?

Yeah. That kind of grief. You know what I mean.

Good days. Bad days. You know I’ve had my share…

I’ve been writing this post for over a month now. Start. Stop. Erase. Start. I struggle with the words. I struggle with inspiration. Motivation. As I write this particular line right now, revising it for the umpteenth time, it has been 64 days since Auntie Sally’s death. I’m sure more days will have passed by the time I get to actually publishing this post.

It still feels so surreal for all of us in this family. Varying degrees of surreal, maybe, but surreal nonetheless.

I do have good days.

Tio and I on Christmas Day.
Photo by my sister, Cat.
And by “good” days I don’t mean to conjure up images of levity or joy. No, no not at all. By good days I mean getting out of bed and quieting the voice that wants to call in sick and stay under the covers all day kind of good days. Good days like I can actually shower, dress, walk my pooch. By good days I mean able to get through the day tearless and with just enough in me to give a genuine smile to co-worker’s as I pass them in the hall or greet them in the elevator. Yes. The kind of good days that allow me to function so that I can be there for work, for family. And the kind that allows me to remember to pay the bills, return email (eventually) and perform other “life chores” that go along with being a responsible adult.

I get through these days still feeling like I’ve forgotten something.

Of course, I haven’t.

This is just my life now.

This is our life now.


Auntie’s death wasn’t the first in my life. I’ve had family members in my life die before. My paternal grandfather died when I was around 5 years old. I remember him. I don’t remember his death except that it was the first time I’d ever seen my strong, larger than life father cry.

The next death I can remember was my godmother. But I was still grade school age and at that age, well, everyone seems kinda old to you then, don’t they? I don’t remember her passing. I just remember that one birthday, Tia Ramona wasn’t there. Then it was my Tia Toni. I don’t really remember her funeral. I must have been in junior high or maybe even high school by then. I loved these women because they were a part of the fabric of our family. But close to them? No, not really. They weren’t a part of my daily life. They had no clue who I was. What I wanted to be. What brought me joy. What made me sad. Nor I them.

Nana, my paternal grandmother, was next. I was already home from college and working at the newspaper when she passed. No denying it: her death hurt. I still remember the sadness and sense of loss. I had spent so much time getting my new adult life off the ground that I hadn’t spent nearly that much time with her after returning home from college. I had all these questions about her life, about our family that I had always wanted to ask her. But I ran out of time.

My maternal grandfather died when I was in my mid-30s. That one knocked my world off balance. And again, this death I felt. This death hurt. I still have his sweater hanging in my closet. That was the memento I asked for after his passing. He always wore it.

And despite how much I loved him, how much of a presence he was growing up, even his passing wasn’t as profoundly life-altering as Auntie Sally’s has been.



Maybe because he’d been ill on and off for a while. Maybe it’s because Gramps had recently celebrated 92 years of living just a few months before his death. Auntie Sally had just celebrated 60.

I loved Gramps. But the respectful distance we were taught to have for our elders kept me from knowing him the way I knew Sally. The way Sally knew me.

Yes. Sally. I’ve been saying Auntie almost every time I write about her but truth be told, my sisters and I never called her Aunt Sally to her face. From a very early age, she taught us to call her Sally whenever we spoke to her and it was out of our respect for her that we called her Auntie or Aunt Sally whenever we spoke about her. She preferred the familiar salutation because she wanted one less barrier between us. She wanted us to feel like we could go to her with anything, no matter what the circumstance.

And we did. Often.

I’m still shaking my head in disbelief. Her life wasn’t supposed to end at 60.

But there’s the rub, isn’t it? “Supposed to …” What we want isn’t always what God has in store for any of us no matter how much we bargain, plead, pray. His plan can still remain hidden from us and it takes faith to continue believing that there is a reason for everything.

Faith.

Faith is what is keeping me going. Helping me to experience more good days than bad.

Faith is my light through this dark time shining on the things I have to be grateful for: my life, my family, my job, my fur-child, my friends.

Faith. Family. Gratitude.

When you come down to it, what else is there?


a bite: making cookies with my uncle helps get us through the pain

My uncle (Tio) moved away from San Diego what feels like a lifetime ago returning for the occasional visit or major family event.

He came out shortly after Auntie Sally went into the hospital. He stayed all week, giving, most especially, my grandmother, Auntie Syl and mother much needed strength. He flew home early that fateful Saturday morning after having told me the day before that he wouldn’t be leaving if he didn’t feel that Auntie was doing better.

A few hours after he left, before his plane had even touched down, Sally took a turn for the worse and a few hours after that, she was gone.

He called after he touched down to check in. Auntie Syl told him the news. He was back in San Diego two days later and stayed through Christmas.



Life goes on …

“We’re not canceling Christmas,” proclaimed my Auntie Syl, the day Sally died. You see, Christmas was Auntie Sally’s most favorite time of year. Every year, she sent out the most lovely cards, usually depicting angels. This year, she had already purchased them and she and Auntie Syl had already completed their Christmas gift shopping.

Christmas Eve morning, the day after we buried Auntie Sally, Tio called to tell me he was making Mexican sugar cookies. We had spoken about them one day while we were in the waiting room at the hospital. I told him then that the sugar coating on top of, what our family called Mexican sweet bread (in Spanish, they are known as “conchas”), was the only part that I generally liked of the pastry. That’s when he told me he knew how to make it. That’s when I found out that the pink Mexican sugar cookies I loved as a child were actually the topping for conchas.

Wanting to learn the recipe, I grabbed my camera and headed to my grandmother’s house for a lesson.


Traditionally, these cookies are plain, sometimes chocolate (with a little cocoa powder mixed in) and most often, pink (a few drops of red food dye make them pink–my favorite growing up). They usually have sugar sprinkled on them (sometimes even powdered sugar which is why they are often called “polvorones”). Tio makes his topped with a good quality preserve and a coarse sugar, such as turbinado sugar.

Another variation is to add vanilla, clove, ginger and cinnamon which can give the cookie a similar flavor to the concha which this topping would normally grace.

Come Christmas Day, these cookies were a hit. I had never had them with the preserves. It was a wonderful contrast to the cookie itself providing a different texture and a slight tartness. Tio made a few plain ones, too, for the anti-preserve folks. These, Auntie Sally would have loved.

The best part of this cookie lesson, though? The chance, since I see him so rarely, to spend time with Tio and share a passion together.

Which brings me full circle.

Family. It’s everything.




Tio’s Mexican Sugar Cookies with Apricot Preserve
My uncle’s recipe is traditional. Meaning, the fat in this cookie is lard. This gives the cookie it’s slightly chewy texture the cookie is known for without adding flavor. If you are REALLY opposed to using lard, please use vegetable shortening and NOT butter. First, butter, sugar, flour: that’s just a plain sugar cookie. And secondly, for these cookies, butter’s high water content will change the texture of these cookies. I made three slight changes: added vanila for more flavor; salt to balance the sugar; I baked them like I would shortbread at a lower temp so that the outside doesn’t brown while the center is baking. I don’t like crunchy cookies unless it’s biscotti.

Makes about 3 dozen
1 pound lard (or 2 cups), room temperature
1 pound granulated sugar (or 2 1/4 cups)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup apricot preserves (or marmalade or your favorite fruit preserve)
1/4 cup turbinado sugar (for topping, optional)


Cream sugar and lard with hands until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time. Blend to incorporate. Add 5 1/2 cups of the flour, the baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Mix well. Cookie dough should not be sticky. If it is, add more flour a 1/4 cup at a time until dough comes together and no longer sticks to the bowl.

Divide dough into thirds. Lightly flour your work surface. Roll each third into a log about 2 - 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap each log in parchment paper (or wax paper or plastic wrap, your choice) and chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line three cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

Remove a log from refrigerator and unwrap. Working quickly so dough doesn’t have to time to warm up, slice the log into 10-12 slices about 1/4” thick, arranging on cookie sheet two inches apart as you go.

Using your thumb, make an indentation in the center of each cookie about halfway down. Fill the cavity with a 1/2 a teaspoon of preserve. Sprinkle the cookies with turbinado or other coarse sugar. Bake in preheated oven for 15-20 minutes or until the cookie is set but not golden. Just like any sugar cookie, you don’t want to over bake. Remove from oven and let cool on pan for 6 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack to finish firming up.

Repeat with remaining logs. Allow to cool completely before placing them in an airtight container. Store for up to one week.

I made this recipe again this week in order to be able to post pictures of the more traditional pink and of the sometimes found chocolate variation of Mexican Sugar Cookies. I think the chocolate has usurped the pink as my fav. Love the slight chocolate flavor in these!

Make three cookies from the above dough recipe 
For apricot: Follow recipe using only one of the chilled logs for the apricot.

For pink: After you divide the dough, take one third knead in 2 drops of red food dye. Roll into log and proceed with the rest of the directions, skipping the steps for the apricot.

For chocolate: Take the last third and knead in 1/4 good quality unsweetened cocoa powder. Roll into log and proceed with the rest of the directions, skipping the steps for the apricot.


Two months…

I realized last night as I was finally finishing up this post, that today, Friday, is the two month anniversary of Auntie's death. Time passes differently now. But with every day that passes, I'm getting a little stronger, a little more able to live my life. It's not that I am letting go of the pain, but rather that I'm trying to let the pain wash over me so that I can begin to let go of my grief and slowly replace it with all the wonderful memories I have of Auntie Sally. I am so very lucky that I have a lifetime's worth to hold in my heart. 

As I've gone through this time – arguable, one of the most difficult of my life's journey so far – I have not been able to write, laugh freely or visit much with friends. And this blog has taken a hit because of it. I have plenty of post ideas that have been brewing and now that I've written this one and actually posted it, I think I'm ready to jump back into regular posting again. 

I want to thank you all, my dear readers, for your support, encouragement, prayers. Even with no new posts during my mourning, you still come here and check in on me. Thank you for keeping me a part of your blog reading routine. It means so very much to me.

Much peace, love and light. Until next time…

¡Buen Provecho!
Ani

8 comments:

  1. those look so darn good! :-)

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    1. Thank you, Justina. I took it further and put thumbprints in the chocolate ones and filled them with Nutella. Ohmygosh! Those were the best!

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  2. Beautiful mihija!
    ...and yes Sal would have loved the plain ones!
    Syl

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    1. Thank you, Syl. And thank you for the rides this week! Xo

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  3. I love this blog Ani. Family is everything and being so far away now, it makes me wonder how or why when I was in San Diego did I not take more time for visits, etc. but it's just life in these times. I hope, and I believe (or hope) that all my family knows even though physically I'm far away the love and gratefulness I have for each of my family is with them everyday. Thank you sister for seeing me through my recent surgery and recovery. That is what family means. Sally, I love you and think of you everyday!!! Beautiful job Ani. Cookies look great.

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    1. Bubsie, of course we all know how much we are in your thoughts and you are always in ours. Everyday, I think of you and send well wishes for you and J. It was my honor to come out and see you through surgery. I only wish I could have stayed a little longer to see you off your feet for just a few more days. My love with you always, sweetheart.

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  4. Ani, so wonderful to see you today and thank you for this heartfelt post. I am glad that you are moving through your grieving process. Grief sucks.
    XOXO
    Stephanie

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    1. Boy! Howdy! It sure does suck.

      Stephanie, it was great seeing you today, too. I do still want to do a Q&A "Sharing the Kitchen with…" feature with you. Life is still a little nuts so it won't be for a bit. Once stuff settles down for me, I'll touch base and see if you're still up for it, too.

      Many hugs...

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