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.

30 Days of Thanks Day 21: An Escape Plan

This is a collection of most of what I will need to bring with me for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Once again, I am headed to my sister Caroline’s house. I will celebrate Thanksgiving with her husband’s family on Thursday.

But the real reason I am excited about an escape from reality will take place on Saturday. That is the day we gather for the annual DiNoto Cookie Bake. Regular readers know how much I look forward to this family tradition, as I have written about it in several posts.

Tonight I am grateful to have an accessible place to run to when I need a break. My brief escape from day-to-day reality also gives my Personal Assistants a respite. How fortunate I am to have a sister who is willing and able to assist me from time to time.

30 Days of Thanks Day 26 – Mary Jane

Today is the annual DiNoto Cookie Bake, a day my family gathers to start our holiday baking. I have written about our annual tradition before in this post. The day started in 1990, while I was living in Australia as an exchange student. My mom was missing “her baby,” so my sisters Donna and Caroline suggested they join her for a day of baking cookies. Twenty-six years later, we still gather on the Saturday after Thanksgiving at my sister Caroline’s house.

My late sister Mary Jane loved baking with her sisters. When we gathered together each year Mary Jane made the Russian Tea Cakes, pecan shortcake balls rolled in confectioner’s sugar, and the chocolate thumbprints, a recipe from our Grandma DiNoto. Mary Jane’s Russian Tea Cakes were perfection – buttery goodness that melted in your mouth.

Mary Jane joined us for the last time at cookie bake five years ago. She arrived with her youngest daughter Karen that Saturday morning, shortly after Mom had finished the first tray of her oil cookies. Before Karen even had even removed her coat, Mary Jane had her apron out and was asking Karen to tie it behind her back. A few minutes later, Mary Jane’s oldest daughter Sara surprised us when she arrived with her family.

That last year Mary Jane, who never ate cookies during our annual cookie bake, tested each and every type of cookie we made, smiling her enjoyment with each mouthful. She rolled the Russian teacakes in sugar, put mini chocolate chips in the chocolate thumbprints, and gave directions to Karen when Karen helped fill the kolachki cookies. Other family members stopped in throughout the day and many photos were taken. It was the last time all six DiNoto girls were together as Mary Jane died one month later.

Cookie Bake 2012, the first year we baked without Mary Jane, was emotional. More than once, we had to take a break to shed a tear or offer each other a hug. But, that year was also full of joyfull moments like watching Emily, Mary Jane’s granddaughter, having a tea party with her Noni, my mom, or laughing when Mom put an apron on Sara’s husband Will. We did our best to soldier on as Mary Jane would have wanted us to, knowing the day has never really been about the cookies. It wasn’t until after lunch that we realized nobody had made Russian teacakes or chocolate thumbrints, the recipes Mary Jane had always been responsible for at our annual Cookie Bake.

Mary Jane was admitted to inpatient hospice a month after Cookie Bake. I spent several hours at her bedside each day for the week she was a patient. As I helped her eat soup the second night, she told me she had always wanted to write a book about her sisters. I sat with tears streaming down my face, her strong hand clasped in my weak grip, listening to her talk about her writing dreams. Then she asked me to make her a promise.

You have to do it for me. You have to write it. Promise me you’ll write the book. And stop crying!

It took me a couple of years to work up the courage, but this year – a year of one challenge after another – I am finding refuge in writing. I have an outline, and I am spending time each day writing some of our sister stories. I hear Mary Jane’s quiet voice in my head encouraging me to write, and I’m doing my best to honor her spirit and the promise I made.

Thank you Mary Jane, for helping me find a purpose for my writing. I hope I tell our sister stories in a way which would please you. I am grateful for the chance to share memories which keep us connected. Although many of them cause me to cry at my keyboard, they also make me smile. We all miss you so much every day, but especially today – a day you always enjoyed when we were together.

Today, as we measure flour, sugar and butter, we remember we are surrounded by that which can never truly be measured. Love and support from family and sisters mean more than the confections we create as a group. We carry on with traditions, relishing memories while welcoming new bakers into the fold. Mary Jane’s son and daughter-in-law are joining us today for their first Cookie Bake, reminding us part of our dear sister is still with us whenever we gather as a group.

Mary Jane and Denise - Photo of the author, a woman in a wheelchair, and her sister. Both women are wearing green Santa hats and holiday aprons over red shirts.
Mary Jane and I, matching and sporting aprons made for us by our sister Donna. Photo courtesy of S. DiNoto.

Sister Email

I am the youngest of Sam and Dolly’s six daughters. “The sisters” are the women I turn to for support, guidance, affirmation, information, and love. Susan, Mary Jane, Donna, Sandy and Caroline (and I suppose I need to include me too) all bring unique insights to every situation, even though we come from the same background. Each of us have different strengths and skills.

For example, if you want all of the sisters to know something, tell Sandy. She is a pro at disseminating information in a timely and efficient manner. If you want something organized – a party, your pantry, your dining room table – call Susan. If you want a laugh, just wait until you get the perfect birthday card from Donna. I truly don’t know how she does it year after year. Caroline, or “Crinnie” as we call her, is a pro at crafts and makes the best jams and pickles. And Mary Jane was always honest but never in a spiteful or mean way. As for me – well, I’m good at public speaking and explaining medical information in a crisis. You’d have to ask the others how they would describe me.

Over the years, we have adopted different technologies to stay in touch. For several years, all of us except Crinnie communicated by sister emails. Someone would start a note to the rest, and everyone would respond as time allowed over the course of a day or two. There were several emails which ended, “Now if only Crinnie had email we would be all set! I’ll call her to let her know what’s going on.” One of us would pick up the phone to pass along the latest and then respond to the rest of the group with any new input.

Around 2009, Crinnie joined the new century when she got the internet at her house. She quickly learned how to connect to email and ‘reply to all.’ Within a few weeks, she had learned about emoticons. “I can put a smiley face in, too. Aren’t you all impressed? :-)” Of course we were.

Sometimes the sister emails are used to coordinate sister gatherings. The flurry of notes planning our annual DiNoto Cookie Bake, held at Crinnie’s house on the last Saturday in November, occasionally starts in mid-October. The emails include a list of needed ingredients and our assignments, along with locations of good sales. We should be getting an update from Crinnie any day now.

These days, most of our messaging is done via text. A sister, usually Donna because she is an early morning person, will start a conversation early in the day about a topic. The rest of us will chime in as we are able. Even if we are replying to just one sister, we reply to all and it is up to the recipients to know when a sister is talking directly to you. Often, the topic will change without warning. I often say these strings of texts would make for an interesting study in sister dynamics to an outsider who is not familiar to us.

To illustrate, I offer you this actual series of texts from July which started with a question about chocolate crinkles. Hey – we’re cookie bakers. What did you expect?

Susan: I read the recipe for chocolate crinkles on Sandy’s blog. Then I checked my recipe. Maybe I copied wrong all those years ago, but I only use 1/4 c of oil, not 1/2 c.

Donna: My cookie book recipe calls for 1/2 cup

Me: I’ve never made crinkles.

Donna: (Photo of crinkle recipe in cook book) Some batches are better than others, don’t know why.

Donna: WHAT!!??

Susan: Try using 1/4 cup of oil!

Me: Never. Mare always made them so I never did. Sara makes them now, so I don’t!

Donna: I will because sometimes the dough feels soft, even after having been in fridge overnight.

Donna: Good for you Denise.

Susan: I made some tonight and rolled them in granulated sugar because I felt they would be too delicate to transport if I used confectioners sugar. They reminded me of those chocolate Archway cookies.

(Archway is a brand of cookies which were sold in the store my father managed)

Donna: And they are yummy! The Archway cookies. Remember the guy that rented the garage from dad?

Susan; Yes. And he was reported to the police by a busybody neighbor who thought it was illegal or some sort of Mafia activity.

Donna: Seriously? I don’t remember that, funny.

Susan: True. Because the delivery truck came at night. I remember the police coming to the house to talk to Dad. I’ll ask him on Friday. I’m going to take him up to the VA hospital.

Me: I remember “helping” George, the Archway man.

Donna: That’s his name, was trying to remember. Going to bed, will be in touch.

Sandy: Betty Crocker recipe online uses 1/2 cup. Tried to send link.

Sandy: Yes. Chief Payne asked Dad what was being delivered there. Dad asked him, ‘What do you think?’

Sandy: Dad told him if it was anything more he’d be driving a nicer car!

Donna: Too funny. Dad really does have a good sense of humor.

Crinnie: You’re baking @ 9:00 PM?

Susan: Yes!

Sandy: I was baking at 9 PM too last night. Tried a new lemon butter cookie. Tried to use a cookie press but it was a disaster so I rolled cookies out.

The discussion continued for the next week, although in between we talked about Mom’s skin tear, Dad’s appointment, the aprons my sister Donna made us, and the truck my brother-in-law drives for work. Then, two weeks later we got this message from Susan:

You know the old rule – always be sure you have all the ingredients before you start. Well, I ran out of vanilla so I added mint extract to the chocolate crinkles. Very yummy!

This just goes to prove that all the people who ever said the DiNoto girls never finish a conversation are wrong! It may take us weeks to circle back to our original topic, but we DO come to a conclusion. Eventually.

Ready, Set, BAKE!

I am not a fan of television. When my television was stolen in 2010, I lived quite happily without a replacement for a month. I don’t have cable or a subscription to an internet service like Netflix or Amazon Prime. When I do turn on the television, I’m either watching PBS, hockey, college basketball or Jeopardy! 

But, like most people, I have a guilty pleasure television show. And it happens to be a reality show.

I stumbled upon The Great British Baking Show (broadcast in Great Britain by the BBC as The Great British Bake Off) last year during a snow day. I watched in fascination as the contestants toiled in a tent over their baking stations. Each task was timed, leading to the perfect reality show drama. Would they finish? Would the cake rise evenly? Would the chocolate temper?

The show is hosted by Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc. The finished products are judged by cookbook author Mary Berry and artisan baker Paul Hollywood. The contestants are amateur bakers who face a variety of challenges each week. There is a signature bake, a technical bake and a show-stopper bake. At the end of every episode, one baker is named star baker. And someone is sent home weekly until the end of the season when one winner is selected.

I love to bake and come from a long line of cookie bakers. While I would never consider entering a baking competition, I have no qualms about binge-watching the episodes as I work on a crochet project. Yesterday I watched the first four episodes of the most recent season. The finale will air next week on BBC, but we won’t get the final episode here in the United States until the end of next month. I have my theories about who will win based on what I’ve seen so far, and I’m trying to avoid any spoilers.

One of the main reasons I like the show is the great quotes related to baking often said by the hosts, judges and contestants. For example, in episode 1, Paul describes Rob, a contestant who happens to be a scientist, saying, “He’s not a scientist. That guy’s a baker.”

This caused me to shout, “But baking IS science! It’s chemistry in your kitchen.”

Paul redeemed himself at the end of the episode. After tasting Rob’s cake, Paul complimented him on his flavor combination and texture, saying “You’re a true scientist.”

However, it was Glenn who had the best quote of the afternoon binge-watch session. Before being eliminated in episode 4, Glenn explained why he bakes.

“Baking is not food on the table. Baking is love. That’s why we do it.”

Yes! It is exactly why we bake. When you give someone a homemade treat, you are giving them love. At least, that is what I am doing when I give out cookie trays at Christmas.

Baking is science. It is knowing which leavening agent to use to obtain the desired results. It is knowing how to develop gluten and how long to proof your dough.

But if baking were just science, we wouldn’t get excited when co-workers bring a batch of cookies into our office. If baking were just science, we wouldn’t start salivating when we walk into a house and smell bread in the oven.

Baking is love. And I love watching other bakers share their love – even if they are on my television screen.

The photo shows a long table covered with paper. There are multiple wire racks on the table, each rack contains dozens of a variety of cookies.
Each year at Christmas, my family makes dozens of cookies to give away. Photo courtesy of S. DiNoto.