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The Commons
Photo 1

Food and Drink

Hot from the oven

Baking at the crossroads of taste and tradition, holidays and heritage

Originally published in The Commons issue #437 (Wednesday, December 6, 2017). This story appeared on page C1.



BRATTLEBORO—Something about the holiday season brings out the baker in many of us.

Perhaps it’s the pull of tradition through years and generations past. Perhaps the ritual of holiday baking ties past to present to future for them and connects faraway lands and times past to the here and now. Perhaps the sight and smell of baked goods, providing warmth in the darkest days of winter, shake loose memories of the love that binds us to one another.

Inspired by the photos shared on social media of such endeavors, The Commons invited some readers to share the recipes that shaped their own such traditions.

Following are some of their stories — and, like families in these times, they can be complicated.

Great Aunt Lois’s Scottish shortbread

On Nov. 29, Scott Ainslie, of Brattleboro, shared on Facebook a photo of a pristine pan of cookies destined for the oven, to the acclaim of dozens of friends and relatives.

“Getting a start on the seasonal Scottish Shortbread,” wrote Ainslie, an accomplished blues musician and historian. “Cajun music blaring in the kitchen. Ignoring the news. Best wishes, my friends.”

“You are still using Aunt Lois’s recipe!” replied Laurie Thorp — Ainslie’s first wife.

“No other,” he replied. “I am most grateful to have it and to have met her with you, as well. Family, such as it is now, is still important!”

“I love that you are continuing to spread that recipe and your delicious cookies all around the world!” Thorp responded. “And that was such a lovely night when we went to see Aunt Lois. Grateful that we were on the journey together. Yes, family.”

Ainslie provided the recipe to The Commons, along with some of the back story. “Good food survives even when families fall apart,” he said.

He and Thorp separated in 1986 and subsequently divorced. “We had two boys who we both adored,” he said. “Laurie lives in North Carolina now. I have made shortbread every year since.”

“This simple shortbread recipe came from the Anderson side of my first wife’s family, good Scots all,” he wrote. “My father’s family, the Ainslies, are from Bo’Ness [Borrowstounness], between Edinburgh and Glasgow on the Firth of Forth, due north of Linlithgow. So, I come by my love of this stuff honestly, which as a Scot is important (though I have been told that the Ainslie name is more likely Viking than Scots).”

The recipe “scales up perfectly,” he said, and it has only four ingredients:

¶1 stick of salted butter

¶¼ cup sugar

¶1{1/4} cup all-purpose flour

¶Pinch of kosher salt

“When it was taught to me, these ingredients were simply worked by hand until the warmth and action of the hands turned it into a cohesive dough. It can be patted out and scored for breaking after baking, or cut with cookie cutters.

“When I make batches, I cream:

¶1 lb. of room-temperature salted butter

¶1 cup sugar

¶a generous pinch of Kosher salt

¶Then add:

¶5 cups all-purpose flour

“I work the dough into a 1-to-1{1/2}-in.-thick rectangle and wrap it in plastic wrap to rest. This allows the moisture from the butter (which is generally 20 percent water) to equalize and makes the dough easier to work. Tightly wrapped, you can leave this in the fridge, but let it come to room temperature before you try rolling it out.

“I roll it to about 3/8-in. thickness, using a favorite wooden spoon as a guide, then cut them, place them on trays, and chill them. I then dust them with sugar and bake them at 325 degrees F. for about 25 minutes, until the edges of some of them are just starting to show a little color.

“At this point, remove them from the oven and let them finish and cool in the pan a bit before removing them to drying racks. They will still be fragile, but will toughen up as they cool.

“I prefer bite-sized cookie cutters and favor maple leaf, stars of different sizes, a very small Christmas tree and this year, a fleur-de-lis that I bought down on Bayou Teche in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, this fall.”

Babka like Grandma’s

“If I close my eyes I can still see my little Grandma’s house,” writes Sandi Capponcelli of Athens. “Dusty pink, a wire fence around the border of the yard, an old milk box next to the back door”

Capponcelli remembers the sight of the tiny kitchen and the “wonderful smell” of a loaf of babka, the Polish bread rising in “the darkness and warmth of the tiniest of pantries.”

She never got the actual recipe for babka from her grandmother, Polia Zlotnitsky, who immigrated from Russia and learned both English and Polish as second languages. Zlotnitsky died when Capponcelli was in high school, “when I was at the age of being too self-absorbed to think about such things,” she wrote.

“My mother never got the recipe because — well, I am not sure why. Maybe because she thought her mother would not gently slip away from this life in her sleep unexpectedly.”

Eventually, Capponcelli felt a tug — the need for a babka recipe, one that would remind her “of those days of visiting my grandma and sharing in the bread she made and a recipe that might remind my kids of their childhood some day in the future.” She tried several recipes from Polish cookbooks, eventually honing in on such a recipe.

While her grandmother made her bread weekly, Capponcelli bakes hers “for the holidays and for special occasions.”

“It’s funny how food can be a touchstone to something that lays dormant within us,” she continued. “I can see my grandma bustling about in that little kitchen, serving us borscht, slices of cold ham, and warm bread. It’s all as clear as if it happened yesterday, not 45 years ago.”

One unanticipated consequence?

“It is good, too good,” Capponcelli wrote. “My husband and I have no control over ourselves when I bake it.”

Some caveats from the cook: Don’t even try dark raisins; they just don’t work well with the dough, advised Capponcelli, who uses a stand mixer with both the wire-whisk attachment and the paddle attachment. “The bread hook doesn’t work particularly well, as this is a very soft dough,” she added.

The babka, she said, is “good warm, the next day, and as toast — if it lasts that long.” Fortunately, the recipe doubles well, she noted.

Here is the recipe that Sandi Capponcelli adapted in homage to her grandmother.

¶¼ cup milk

¶2 scant teaspoons of yeast

¶¼ cup butter

¶¼ cup warm water

¶¼ cup sugar

¶3 eggs at room temperature

¶2{1/3} cups flour

¶½ cup (or more) golden raisins

Pre-warm the oven to 350 degrees F.

“First, scald the milk. Take the pan off the burner, and cut the butter into it. Stir the butter in until it’s melted.

“Put the warm water into the mixer bowl. Add the yeast and let it sit for 5 minutes or so. If you can smell the yeast, you know it’s time to make the bread.

“Using the wire whisk, slowly add the milk/butter into the yeast and water. Then add the sugar. While mixing fairly slowly, add the 3 eggs, 1 at a time, and mix well.

“You can add about half the flour slowly until the batter resembles cake batter, and then it is time to change to the paddle. If you don’t have a stand mixer, I would suggest brute strength at this point to incorporate the rest of the flour.

“Once everything is mixed together, it’s time to let it rise. If you have doubled the recipe, you need to put the bread into a larger bowl. I put mine in the oven to rise. You can cover the top of the bowl with a damp towel or a piece of plastic wrap.

“Let it rise for 1½ to 2 hours. It usually goes beyond double in size. Take it out and stir, folding in the raisins. Frankly, this is the hardest part because the dough is sticky, and you can’t use your hands to do this job.

“Now you have a choice: you can put the dough into a regular-size loaf pan which has been greased and floured for the second rise, or you can free-form it and put the blob of dough on a greased and floured cookie sheet.

“Let rise for a ½ hour.

“Bake for approximately 35 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.”

Moravian Christmas Cookies

“Any Moravian would tell you there is only one Christmas cookie,” Rick Hege of Townshend told The Commons. “There are no others, period. We are as certain of that as the Republicans are of trickle-down economics.”

The paper-thin sugar cookies, spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, are an indelible part of the tradition of the Moravian Church, one of the world’s oldest Protestant denominations, which began in Europe on land that now is part of the Czech Republic. Missionaries from Germany brought the denomination to North America in 1735.

One Moravian settlement eventually became Winston-Salem, N.C., where Hege spent his youth and where his father, Rev. Fred Hege, served three Moravian churches and worked as assistant director of Christian education for the churches in the region. On Jan. 1, Hege’s sister, Rev. Ginny Tobiassen, became pastor of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, one of the churches their father served.

“You might say ‘family’ extended to the entire church community,” Hege wrote.

Hege recalls his grandmother “carefully making cookies every year, an extremely time-consuming process as, indeed, they were so thin you could almost see through them.”

He said his younger sister spent time with their grandmother to develop the “time-honored skills” necessary “to learn how to do them.”

“You can’t just pass the recipe down,” Hege wrote.

According to the website of the Salem Baking Company, which has been making the cookies in North Carolina for generations, “Because of the precious ingredients and the time required to roll the dough so thin, the cookies were traditionally made only during the holidays.”

Halifax resident Elizabeth Smith, coincidentally also from Winston-Salem, is ready to bake.

Unlike Hege, who looks forward to family sending the cookies via mail order, “I have my family recipe and cookie cutters, and in a good year you can see through them!” she wrote.

Smith has her mother’s recipe on a yellowed and stained scrap of paper and a set of metal cookie cutters waiting to be used to create dozens of lambs, doves, and other iconic beings.

Her mother said she would never be able to make them — “too hard,” Smith wrote.

Smith’s mother might have a point: The dough is very fragile, and the instructions call for sewing a cloth to the cutting board. It’s a recipe not for the faint of heart, and it’s one that requires a degree of “magic” to work, Smith said.

¶1 pint molasses

¶{3/8} pound light brown sugar

¶{3/4} cup melted lard

¶1 Tbsp. cinnamon

¶{3/4} Tbsp. ginger

¶1{1/2} tsp. cloves

¶{1/2} tsp. nutmeg

¶1{1/2} tsp. baking soda

¶{1/8} cup warm water

¶{1/2} cup flour, plus additional

Mix molasses and sugar. Pour melted lard over the mixture. If the lard does not mix well, warm the mixture until it does.

Dissolve baking soda in the warm water and add to the mixture.

Mix spices into {1/2} cup of the flour. Sift into the mixture, and stir.

Add small amounts of flour, stirring in until the mixture assumes the consistency of pie dough.

Cover the dough and let it stand overnight at room temperature. Do not refrigerate.

Grease cookie pans.

Cover a cutting board with a cloth and sew it on tightly. Work flour into the cloth until it is covered.

“Put down a fist full of dough...roll out patiently with unfloured rolling pin,” Smith said.

The family recipe does not specify baking time and temperature. Smith advises bakers to “use instinct and smell,” removing the cookies from the oven when they smell “delightful.” In the original recipe, her mother warns that “the cookies burn easily, so watch while baking.”

“I guess it would be 325-ish for 8 minutes,” Smith said. “They should slide off onto a cotton tablecloth for crisping.”

The recipe yields approximately 3 pounds of cookies. Store in tightly covered tin cans.

The lost Danish cookie

“I have a cookie story but no recipe due to some sad circumstances,” wrote Beverly Langeveld of Vernon.

Langeveld’s mother was born in Denmark, where cookies “are a huge part of Christmas, or were in the middle of the last century.”

“As the first girl in the family, my mother was expected to be the one who would carry on tradition and bake those cookies,” she explained.

“The real baker, though, was my grandmother,” said Langeveld, who said her specialty was the kringler, a knotted sugar cookie that is fried and sprinkled with sugar.

“She kept her recipe in a small wooden box. Sadly, she died when I was 11.

“My mother was a single mom without a lot of time for baking, so she never claimed that box of recipes. My grandfather married about a year after my grandmother died, and we found out too late that [his bride] had thrown out the box of my grandmother’s recipes. Perhaps the new wife didn’t want any reminders of her predecessor around.

“I’m still sad about this because I love to bake and would love to be able to make ‘her’ cookies,” Langeveld wrote.

Could this cookie be replicated?

“There are plenty of recipes out there on Google, but none of them look like what my Nanny used to make, so I’m not even sure it’s the same cookie,” Langeveld said.

After a little internet sleuthing, The Commons found an alternative fried, knotted Danish cookie. Could Langeveld’s grandmother have been making klejner, not kringler?

“Yes!” she said.

Here, in honor of Beverly Langeveld’s grandmother and all the lost recipes we all remember fondly, is a recipe for klejner (pronounced “kliner”) adapted from one posted at about.com. Perhaps it can be a starting point for reimagining her grandmother’s version.

¶2 eggs

¶{1/4} cup superfine sugar

¶1 Tbsp. cognac or brandy (optional)

¶3 Tbsp. butter

¶{1/3} cup heavy cream (whipped to stiff peaks)

¶2 cups all-purpose flour

¶1 tsp. freshly ground cardamom

¶{1/2} tsp. baking powder

¶{1/2} tsp. salt

¶vegetable or canola oil for frying

¶confectioner’s sugar

Cream the eggs, sugar, and brandy (if using).

Melt the butter and stir in. Gently fold in the whipped cream. Sift together the remaining ingredients; lightly mix into the batter the dry ingredients to create a soft dough.

Refrigerate at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight.

Roll the chilled dough out on a floured counter to an 1/8-in. thickness.

Using a fattigman cutter or a pastry cutter, cut the dough into diamond shapes (approximately 1{1/4} in. wide by 3{1/2} in. long).

If you use a pastry cutter, cut the dough first into 1{1/4}-in. strips and then cut across these diagonally to form diamonds. Use a knife to cut a {1/2}-in. slash in the middle of each diamond). Twist one corner of each diamond up through the center slash to make a knot.

Heat 2 inches of the oil in the bottom of a heavy pot to 375 degrees F. Insert the knots and fry until golden, turning occasionally. Remove and drain on paper towels.

“It’s all about the frying process,” commented former Commons reporter Fran Lynggaard Hansen, no stranger to Danish cuisine. “You need excellent quality oil, and do a very quick fry.”

Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar and serve immediately.

If preparing ahead, store in an airtight container without sprinkling with sugar. Reheat and sprinkle before serving.

The recipe makes 48 cookies.

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