Baking with Sam

Three years ago today, at about this time, I got the phone call from my sister Caroline telling me our father had passed away. Last year I joined a local memoir writing group and I have been sharing pieces about my family cookie bake. This is the piece I shared this month and now I share it with you. Dad – not a day goes by that I don’t miss you or think of some piece of advice you gave me. Thank you for continuing to spark laughter.

Kolachki

According to my sister Caroline, also known in my family as Crinnie, my father is responsible for introducing kolachki to our family. Dad discovered kolachki at a church potluck supper. He loved church suppers because of the variety found in the many dishes. I don’t remember how old I was the first time I heard him say, “If you go to a church potluck and leave hungry, it’s your own fault Denise.” The kolachki Dad first encountered were most likely served on a cookie platter after a funeral. Crinnie remembers Dad coming home and telling Mom he had discovered a new cookie for her to make.

Like many cookies, there are multiple variations of kolachki from different counties in central Europe. Some are made with cream cheese dough but our family recipe uses yeast. Polish kolachki are often filled with fruit but we make our kolachki filled with nuts and honey, like Hungarian recipes.

Kolachki dough is flaky and light. You can cut the dough in diamonds and wrap the corners over the filling (our usual method) or you can make a log of the dough and nut filling and cut the cookie slices. Whatever method you use, it is important not to overstuff the cookies or the nut mixture will cause the dough to split open.

“Don’t be skimpy on the nuts – put more in,” Dad used to say as we added the filling for the kolachki.

“How many times have you made these?” Mom would reply with a frustrated sigh.

“You should be able to taste the nuts!”

“If you put too much filling in, they won’t stay closed. I’m telling you. I make these every year. You can taste the nuts.”

“Maybe if you pinch them harder…”

“I’m pinching them!”

These types of conversations happened with other cookies as well. As Chief Quality Control Professional, a title my brother-in-law Paul created for Dad, Dad became a self-proclaimed expert on topics such as the proper amount of dough needed to make a good crust for pecan tassies, the optimal amount of filling for the chocolate thumbprints, and the best consistency of oil cookies.

Dad was not present for the first decade of cookie baking. It wasn’t until our cookie bake moved to Crinnie’s house in 2002 that Dad decided to join the festivities. After years of consuming cookies, Dad was now going to become a baker. He showed up that first year with his big green apron, carried in Mom’s baking supplies, sat at the table and said, “Where’s the coffee Caroline?”

Dad’s baking skills took a back seat to his plumbing ability for a few years thanks to Crinnie’s kitchen sink. It’s not clear what the problem was, but the entries in our family cookie journal refer to Allen wrenches and trips to the hardware store as the cookies were baking.

Dad dropped Mom off and then went back home to get tools to work on Crinnie’s sink. Must be he fixed it because he spent the next 2 hours doing dishes. (2004)

Once again, Dad needed to fix Crinnie’s faucet. Didn’t this happen another year? (2006)

This year, baking was done in shifts so we could all take turns visiting Dad in the hospital. We all missed him. Paul asked who would wash the dishes! (2007)

Happy to have Dad back with us again this year. Dad asked Caroline about fixing her sink. Good thing she keeps an Allen wrench close at hand!

Dad enjoyed watching all the chaos that is our annual cookie bake. He would chuckle as “his girls” argued over whether the printed recipe was already doubled or if it required alteration. He rolled up his sleeves and helped roll cookie dough into balls whenever my arms got too tired to continue.

One of our collective favorite memories of cookie bake with Dad happened in 2011, the last year Mary Jane was alive for our annual celebration. Dad was pleased to have all six of his girls together for one more time. Instead of focusing on Mary Jane’s declining health, we embraced the holiday. Donna made new aprons for all of us, including Mom and Dad. Sandy brought us colorful Santa hats. Dad’s hat was green felt with red accents. He wore his hat and apron all day as we baked tray after tray of cookies.

Baking took a backseat as we paused to say farewell to Mary Jane in the late afternoon. Her energy was fading and she was facing a two-hour drive home. Dad escorted her out to her car where they embraced for a long time before loading the backseat with boxes of cookies.

Coming back into the house, Dad slumped in his chair and wiped the tears off his cheeks. All of us were crying, knowing Mary Jane would never be back for cookie bake again. We hugged and sniffled, passing the tissue box around the table. Eventually Dad left the table and went to the bathroom. He returned shaking with laughter instead of sobs. The rest of us stopped crying and looked at him with quizzical stares. It took him a few minutes to find his voice through the laughter and speak.

“All day long I thought there was something wrong with my hearing. I’ve been hearing ringing in my ear. Did you know the hat has a bell on it? I’ve been hearing that damn bell all day!”

Dad’s admission broke the spell for all of us and we joined him in the first of many laughs about that hat. He continued to joke about his hearing at each cookie bake thereafter, including the one we celebrated a month before he died in 2016. Dad’s Santa hat, as I call it, now sits on the Christmas decoration in the corner of Crinnie’s home office. We still laugh about this story every year when we argue among ourselves about the preferred amount of kolachki filling. No doubt, Dad would tell us to add more nuts.

An elderly man wearing a red and green elf hat and an elderly woman wearing a blue apron smile at the camera. He is seated at a table and she is standing. They are making cookies.
Dad with his hat, helping Mom with cookies. Photo courtesy of Sandy DiNoto.

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