Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Saints and sesame seeds

I once lived twelve feet above a church altar.

It was an amazing altar, one where short old ladies who wore black dresses and carried Rosary beads came together to mark all of the major Saints' Days. They would pray, of course, and light candles, lots of candles. Many of the women would linger, speaking Italian to one another and drinking espresso and eating cookies.

I was not a member of a religious order, if you were wondering, and, for that matter, did not live above a church. The altar, a real one, stood in the living room of a small ground-floor flat occupied by a woman known only as Miss Mary. The baker of all Saints' Day cookies, Miss Mary lived alone in the apartment with just her religious articles, her baking tools and, of course, her altar.

I lived in a slightly larger space a flight above, with my parents and my two brothers.

It was a pretty spectacular place to live. I mean, how many apartment buildings do you know of that smell like an Italian pastry store all day long, and for so many days out of the year? (There are a lot of Saints' Days, you know.) More important, how many act as the central gathering place for scores of people who are looking for a warm, welcoming place to spend time with their neighbors?

Right. Not many. Different times.

Anyway, enough with the altar. I was a kid. All that mattered to me was that I could run down the flight of stairs whenever I felt like it and Miss Mary would always give me exactly what I wanted.

Her sesame seed cookies.

Those dry, crunchy, slightly sweet, always satisfying biscuits are as much a part of my childhood as any food I can think of. Even today I can summon their scent in an instant and without the slightest effort. The cookies are inside my head, I tell you. And they ain't-a-gonna get out.

It wasn't until a lot of years later that I learned the cookie's proper name (Biscotti di Regina, The Queen's Biscuit). Not that it mattered. I had probably put away thousands of the cookies by then. Besides, to me they're always going to be Miss Mary's sesame seed cookies. No matter who makes them.

Even if it's me.

The dough feels like a cross between a pasta dough and a pie crust. Just wet enough so that it will hold together to form the cookies, but still on the dry side.

The only other things you'll need: milk and raw sesame seeds.

First you form these thumb-sized pieces of dough.

Dip in the milk.

And roll in the sesame seeds.

Set them down on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and into the oven at 400 F.

About 10 minutes later you've got yourself a fine mess of cookies.

This is the altar I was telling you about, part of it anyway. Years back, after Miss Mary had died, I helped to clear the place out. She must have had a couple hundred statues of I don't know how many different saints, and the altar was pretty much as I'd remembered. (I came across some recipes, but not for the cookies, and so I've used a family recipe here.)

After the last of her things had been boxed up and the altar hauled away, I went across the street to Vinny Biscuit's grocery and picked up a package of Stella D'oro sesame cookies. I went back to the empty apartment, sat on the living room floor, and ate a couple of the Stella D'oros.

Then I locked Miss Mary's door and headed out, missing the smell of her cookies in the hallway a lot more than I thought I would.

I don't know what happened to the Stella D'oros. I left those propped against the living room wall. Where the altar used to be.

Biscotti di Regina 
Sesame seed cookies

Yields around 3 dozen cookies

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
8 Tbsp. butter (at room temperature)
2 egg yolks
2.5 Tbsp. milk
1 Tbsp. Anisette
1 tsp. lemon or orange zest

Combine the flour, sugar and baking soda, then incorporate all the other ingredients.
Mix together until you can just form a ball. (If the dough feels wet add a little flour; if it's dry and won't form a ball add milk, but only in 1/2 tsp. increments.)
Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate about an hour.

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Form thumb-sized biscuits. Dip each one in milk and then roll in the sesame seeds.
Put cookies on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake for around 10 minutes, or until golden brown.


Jeannie said...

Tis the season for cookies huh....this recipe sounds delicious! The photos are enticing!

Fred said...

Sesame seed cookies by the pound emerged from my mother's oven on nearly every holiday and special occasion. Somewhere, I still have an aging black & white photo of my sister on her Confirmation Day standing behind a huge mound of Mom's sesame cookies, piled high on a dinner platter. Who knew they had such a regal name? My mother-in-law still bakes them now and then. Of course, that's not why I married her daughter. Is it?

PS: Why do I recall a hint of vanilla in these cookies?

Claudia said...

Oh so many things. The cookies are a staple in my home. The altar is my Grandmother's and I may swipe the photo because I never took one of hers. The women in black, lighting candles and then again - those addictive, sweet, crunchy, spicy cookies...and I get to be 9 years old again.

Therese Panariello Ringle said...

Great story! enjoyable. Actually can picture the alter, as you said there dozens of saints around the house, exactly the kind of household i was brought up in! What a wonderful memory you have of Mary.. I must try your recipe one of these days. I too, love those sesame cookies..

Proud Italian Cook said...

I have yet to make these, I always pick some up at the bakery though, I'm saving your recipe for Easter!

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

I saved all my mother-in-law's statues and photos of Padre Pio. I even display few :)

My husband would love it if I made these cookies for him! I'm sure they taste better than Stella D'oros.

PS: I joined your facebook page!

Ciao Chow Linda said...

Really lovely story, and terrific cookies that I never think to make, but that I've always loved. Thanks for the Nutella post too. I recently bought some hazelnut oil for a salad, but now I've got more than I need. this would be the ideal use for the rest. I'm going off to 'like' your facebook page too!

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

Is this a hard crunchy cookie like a biscotti?

Mister Meatball said...

Crunchy, yeah. Not as crunchy as biscotti, though.

Love these.

Eating one right now at Joe's place.

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

So, I hope you and Joe enjoyed yourselves without me. **pouting** I have since purchased the ingredients and have the dough "resting" (or chilling or ... whatever it does) in the fridge. The "incorporate all the other ingredients" didn't go quite the way it's supposed to, I don't think. I haven't made cookies for awhile, but from what I can remember, you usually cream those types of wet things together, then start adding dry ingredients, which I didn't do either. I creamed, yes, but then I dumped my creamed goo into the bowl of flour mixture and started trying to "incorporate." Before I could make a ball, I had to add what I'm sure amounted to more than 2.5 half-teaspoons of milk. But eventually I made that wad of dough form a ... an oblong. :) Will let you know how they turned out. Used Anise Extract instead, cutting the amount down a tad. Still, bottle says it's 79% alcohol, so there you go! Will let you know how they turn out.

Mister Meatball said...

Please do.

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

I found online where it said if you were subbing extract for booze, use 1 tsp. to 1 tbs. I used a tad more, but could have gone tadder, if you know what I mean. Also, I believe I underbaked the first batch (the biggest) and I know I overbaked the second batch, although it tasted better for the crunchier factor. Other than MY doofusness, we liked them, so thanks again!

Kat said...

I just made these tonight and they are delicious.. I decided to make them because I liked the story but these cookies are a keeper, not too sweet with an elegant presentation! They needed more cooking time in order to brown and they are perfect.
Thank you!

Mister Meatball said...

So glad you enjoyed them!