My notes are a bit crude, dusted with flour. December 12, 2009.
Six eggs, jumbo. She uses seven, though. She doesn't like even numbers. Since the cookies came out perfectly, I have to guess that seven is right. Just right.
Two cups sugar—heaping.
One cup whole milk—give or take a drop.
1/2 cup corn oil.
1/2 cup cool water. Not cold.
One good pinch of salt. She held out the palm of her hand. It looked to be about 1/2 teaspoon.
One teaspoon vanilla—that's an Italian teaspoon. Not exacting, a just-so measurement. 'About this much' she said.
Juice from half a lemon, but not the zest this time around. The lemon didn't look pristine, so no zest.
The Sunbeam mixer, most likely over 30 years old, probably more, with two beater attachments was whirred up to high. It beat for however long it took (my notes say for a very long time) which was quite a while. In the meantime, coffee. Light conversation, barely audible over the tiny jet engine beating the life out of phase one of Roberto's favorite cookies.
Transfer to jumbo bowl.
Add flour 'never sift' she said.
Roberto's aunt spooned in heaping large spoonfuls (the kind of spoon one would use to stir pasta—the large metal all-purpose spoon that every Italian has in their kitchen arsenal) from the 30-odd year old orange Tupperware container. One spoonful and hand mix at a time, mind you. No measurements here. It's all by feel. 'My mother, she never measured anything' she said.
And this, this was a half batch. The full batch required 12 eggs, but she always uses 13. She doesn't like even numbers, if you recall.
I couldn't imagine doing a full batch of these cookies. I asked if I could feel the dough—I was observing—helping where I could. I went to the sink and washed my hands. She commented 'You don't have to wash your hands, they're clean...shit (she likes to say shit in her broken accent) in Italy they'd come in from the fields, never wash their hands and...'.
She continued to work the dough with her one strong hand. She complained that her other hand just didn't have the strength that it used to. I tried to make her feel better by telling her that it was good that she had the one clean hand for doing other things. I doubt my comment made a dent.
When she had finished mixing/kneading/working the dough, it was covered and left to rest for 10 minutes. At this point the dough was heavy and wet. The gluten had been worked, put in its place.
After the 10 minutes had elapsed, she uncovered the bowl and proceeded to add in one heaping Italian teaspoonful of baking powder for every egg she used. So, six...no, make that seven heaping teaspoons of baking powder. This was then worked into the dough. All said and done, she must have worked the dough a good 25 minutes by hand.
Roberto retrieved the board from the basement. The all-purpose board that it seems every Italian household has. Used for gnocchi, pasta, cookies, and the likes.
Flour board heavily in the center.
Transfer dough to board.
Fold dough over on itself and then flip. Let rest.
At this point you can flour baking sheets (we ended up using four baking sheets) with quite a dusting of all-purpose.
With a long rolling pin—the kind every Italian kitchen has—roll out the dough to about a little less than half inch thickness.
Cut strips about 1 1/2" wide. Then cut those strips into about 3" long pieces. She used a tool that looked like a miniature pizza cutter, but the edge was serrated, so it left a nice little toothy edge to the cookie.
Transfer to baking sheet.
Starting on the lowest shelf, we slid the first sheet into the 350° oven. The cookies would spend about half their time in the oven in this position before they were moved to the top rack to finish. This ensures a nicely browned bottom and a golden top. Ultimately, an evenly baked cookie with perfect coloration on all sides.
I suppose it took about 20 minutes to bake, but this is just something you have to keep an eye on. When the color is right, that's when you pull it from the oven. Not a moment more or less.
The cookies are then dumped into the jumbo bowl once again (which has been cleaned). There they will sit for a minute or two until they are able to be handled. At that point the excess flour is brushed off.
Once the excess flour has been removed, they are to cool in another vessel (of your choosing) until they are lukewarm. At this point they are to be transferred to a plastic storage bag. The perfect home for these. They will keep for weeks, these cookies. Though, they never last that long in our kitchen.
Roberto's beams when he's been given a bag. We enjoy them with espresso after dinner. Late at night broken into a bowl of cereal. In the morning with long-drip. Light in texture, not too sweet. A biscuit, biscotti.
2 1/2 hours had passed. I walked back home to document the mornings cookie making, Roberto went next door to help his father butcher a deer that he had just hunted earlier that morning. I'm hoping for venison tenderloin for supper one day soon.