Heirloom Recipes

The Venetian Cookie that Made it All the Way to Guatemala

April  6, 2016

"Open the cookbook. Freak out."

The instructions my uncle had tucked into Russell Norman's Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts) were simple enough—and spot on. After opening the cookbook to the page my uncle bookmarked, and catching a glimpse of the blonde, curved cookies, I—to borrow the term—freaked out.

“Esse biscuits are particular to Venice,” Norman wrote in the headnote to the bookmarked recipe, but the only place I’d ever come across the buttery, crispy cookies was 6,000 miles away, in my grandmother’s home in Cobán, Guatemala, a small town five hours north of Guatemala City.

Shop the Story

The house—where my great-grandmother was born 136 years ago, and where my mother and grandmother both grew up—has barely changed in the 150 years since my family moved from Ireland to the then-small village in Alta Verapaz. Tortillas are still transferred from the metate to cook on the wood-fired stove, and until recently, if you knew where to look in the kitchen the cabinets, you’d find a large sardine can, filled with esse cookies.

The exterior of my family's home in Cobán, Guatemala

When my grandmother was still alive, the cookies I'd find were often still warm. My family's cook would heat them in the stove to evaporate all of the moisture, then layer the cookies into the tin between waxed sheets, to be served at tea time.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“For ten years, I've been trying to find a recipe for these cookies, It didn't help that I didn't know what they were called. As soon as I saw the picture, I knew I finally hit pay-dirt. Thank you for the recipe and the wonderful story.”
— Pete
Comment

“They always set some aside [for the kids] so that the adults would have a shot at them with tea," my uncle remembered. My mom emailed me a supporting memory:

“I remember as a teeny child sneaking into the cookie tin. Those cookies, they were flaky, sweet, but not too sweet, and above all, buttery goodness. Incredible. I can almost taste them.”

But sometime after my grandmother’s death six years ago, many of the traditions that had marked the house for over a century disappeared. Dinners at the hotel across the street ended, annual Christmas celebrations became dispersed among nuclear families, tea time no longer fit into my family’s nine-to-five schedules, and the tins of cookies stopped appearing.

Left: The view from our dairy farm; Right: The hallway and interior garden in my family's home.

No one is quite sure where the original recipe, handwritten by my great-grandmother, nicknamed Doña Lulú, is and the bits and pieces that were passed down orally have been largely forgotten. Until Polpo's recipe brought on a flood of memories, I had nearly forgotten the cookies altogether—I'd been without them for six years.

A recipe for Madeira Cake, written by my great-grandmother

The recipe in Norman’s cookbook could never yield the same, slightly hardened, warm cookies I remember, made with butter hand-churned from my family’s dairy cows. And it begs more questions than it answers: Where did my great-grandmother find the original recipe? Did she ever travel as far as Venice? But it tells a new story, about food's power to bridge oceans and create its own significance, cultures and miles away.

When I made my own esse cookies from Norman's recipe, my Manhattan apartment filled with the sweet, buttery smell that had filled my grandmother's kitchen. And the thought hit me: As far as I was from Guatemala, I was still closer to Cobán than I was to Venice.

Do you have any ocean-bridging family recipes? Tell us in the comments below!

Tags:

8 Comments

Pete April 11, 2016
I took my family to Italy about 10 years ago to introduce them to their relatives near Verona where my father was born. We made side excursions and spent some time in Venice. On one particularly hot afternoon, we stopped in a small bar to cool off, me with my birra, the boys with their lemon Fanta. Two local gentlemen were sitting nearby and offered us a plate of "S" shaped cookies. Instant love. For ten years, I've been trying to find a recipe for these cookies, It didn't help that I didn't know what they were called. As soon as I saw the picture, I knew I finally hit pay-dirt. Thank you for the recipe and the wonderful story.
 
Taylor R. April 11, 2016
Wait these are some of my favorite coffee cookies! A lovely German woman used to make them during the holidays and I remember sneaking them into church! So GOOD. Also, that house looks divine.
 
Angga April 9, 2016
This is really interesting! I know them from my German husband's grandmother and they call them Essles or S'les. She only used egg yolks in the recipe though and no lemon zest. Now I've been making them around Christmas time, like she also used to. I myself come from Indonesia :-D Pretty international cookie!
 
Esther G. April 8, 2016
My Minnesota German-American grandmother always filled coffee cans with Esses for us during Christmas. Hers were flavored with cardamom and lemon zest, no vanilla or milk in them. My relatives are the only other folks I know who make them. I've always wondered where the recipe came from.
 
Abigail K. April 6, 2016
I'm living in Guatemala now and LOVE seeing stories about it on Food52, such delicious food and great produce.
 
Lkbixby April 6, 2016
Somehow I think the recipe didn't mean to call for 250 GALLONS of flour?? Is that supposed to be grams?
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. April 6, 2016
Great catch!! Gallons would be just a little overboard—I've edited the recipe to reflect that it is grams! Thank you for catching that!
 
Caroline P. April 6, 2016
Thank you for this article! I remember these from my childhood when my babysitter, señora Linda made these - sniff sniff. For a long time, I thought they were mexican cookies. I searched for this recipe for a long time... I am thankful that you posted this.