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.