Every week, we’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes -- dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.
My father was raised by wolves. This is what my mother tells people.
Actually, he and his four brothers were raised by a single father in a housing project in Buffalo, New York back in the 50's. Their mother died when they were all very young, and while my grandfather worked long days at the bank, the five boys were left to their own devices to scale aqueducts, sled across barely-frozen lakes, and wreak havoc on the neighbors' victory gardens.
Any motherly affection these wolf cubs experienced while growing up came from aunts or friends of the family. One time a young, pretty social worker came to the house to speak to my grandfather. My Uncle Richard, who was two at the time, looked at her in awe and asked, "Can I kiss you?"
Handily, my grandfather was one of 14 children, all living among the German immigrant community of Buffalo. One of his sisters was Aunt Clara.
Aunt Clara married another German from Buffalo and inherited this recipe from his German mother (putting the recipe's origins somewhere in the late 1880's). She baked the cookies diligently each year for Christmas and hid tins of them under her bed so that her children wouldn't sneak too many.
When my mother married my father, these cookies became part of our family tradition too. Coming home from school on bleak December afternoons, I would find trays upon trays of these strewn about the kitchen, and I would offer to help frost them, knowing that it meant sneaking a few for myself along the way.
Part of the magic of a recipe from the 1800's is that it does not contain very much sugar. The cloying sugary overkill I often associate with sugar cookie cutouts is absent here, replaced by a mellow, buttery bite of delicate vanilla, followed by the faint crunch of seeds and the refreshing echoes of anise. After a holiday meal, give me a cup of tea, a clementine, and one of these cookies, and I will be filled with content.
Makes about 40 cookies
2 sticks of butter
1 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon of baking soda, dissolved in 2 tablespoons of water
3 teaspoons of anise seeds
3 cups of flour
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.