The Minneapolis Star Tribune is conducting a cookie contest that is actually, at least at this point, more of a writing contest. We're entering that holiday baking season and so, after spending most of my evening last night getting caught up with my wife (my travel schedule is not family-friendly this month), I decided to work on a contest entry instead of the usual Friday News Digest. Please forgive me for the departure, but it is probably healthy for my brain to put my energies into things like this.
My grandmother was a prudent, dignified, Norwegian woman. The humble mother of three daughters, she found me – her eldest grandson – a source of both wonder and amusement. I used to walk to her house for lunch once a week during grade school where she took joy in spoiling me with pizza, 7-up and a food that was borderline scandalous at my house: Twinkies.
That is, except at Christmas time when all of the Norwegian treats, along with some American adaptations, would overflow her kitchen. Of the stash of wonderful things she baked, none delighted me more than her rosettes, a thin, cookie-like treat that is deep fried and then given a touch of extra sugar on top for good measure. They would fall apart in your mouth, the texture one part crisp, one part doughnut. They were heavenly.
Years after my grandmother passed away, as my young family was starting to create its own memories and traditions, I found a strong desire to add the tastes I associated with Christmas to the music, ornaments and rituals we were enjoying. I began to bake. At first it was just a few simple things, but I found such delight in it – the memories it brought back, the hours of purposeful thought it entailed and the happiness of those we shared these treats with – that I quickly expanded my selections.
When I received a rosette iron as a gift, it seemed only natural to add them to the list of goodies. I researched how to make rosettes and discovered that Grandma used to fry them in a pot on the stovetop. Determined to prepare mine in this authentic way, I discovered how impossible it was to keep oil at the exact temperature needed for them to turn out. The first two years, my rosettes ended up in the garbage, either burned to a crisp or too soft and doughy to form properly. Remembering the endless supply my grandmother produced, my awe of her baking abilities grew, my own confidence the casualty.
In the third year, I broke down and bought a Fry Daddy, a deep fryer that would allow incompetent me to properly regulate the temperature. This worked; the rosettes cooked much better and my success rate climbed. There was just one problem: they didn’t taste very good. Try as I might to convince myself they were okay, I could not bring myself to share them.
I tried a number of different recipes in the following years, all with similar outcomes. As my baking skills improved, it was increasingly frustrating to me that my rosettes – this delicate treat that embodied all of these great thoughts of my grandmother – were so bad. I felt something akin to shame. Some years, pressed for time, I didn’t even bother to try make them.
Then I received a gift out of the blue: my own mother found, hidden among her things, Grandma’s rosette recipe. And it was subtlety different than the ones I had tried, enough so that I was convinced this would finally get me the results I was seeking. Here’s that recipe:
[I apologize, but the recipe is in my baking box, which is in storage....I'm going to pull it out this weekend and, when I do, I'll update this with the actual recipe.]
That Christmas, I waited until the last minute to prepare the rosettes so they would be the freshest, and tastiest, treats on the plate. Only they weren’t. They were terrible. My wife consoled me by eating one and insisted they weren’t bad, but her frame of reference was skewed by never having tasted a great rosette, as well as her sympathy for me. I had failed. After a decade of trying to make a decent rosette, I had no clue what else to try.
At some point in the next year, I looked long and hard at Grandma’s recipe. “Dip in lard…” Lard? In my modern brain, I had automatically substituted vegetable oil for lard. We don’t use lard today, right? Could that be the problem? How do I even get lard? I researched and found out that lard was, indeed, different than vegetable oil and so I went about getting some.
The next Christmas, I worked near an open window after reading that the flash point for lard was dangerously low; if this mess caught on fire, I wanted to be able to quickly toss it out into the snowbank. The big lumps of butter-looking lard melted nicely and, when I dipped the hot iron coated with batter into it the mix, it started to fry perfectly. I began to get excited. This could work.
The first rosette looked good, but as things got going, they got better and better. It was working. They had a sheen to them, a subtle glow that was different than my prior attempts, but the real test would come shortly. When I could no longer wait, before I had even gone through all the batter, I tasted one.
And there I was, once again a little boy, sitting at an old table in a small house, a glass of 7-up in one hand, the memorable Christmas treat in the other, my loving grandmother across the table smiling at my delight.
I started a recipe book for each of my daughters so that, when the day comes, they will have their own copy of how to make our favorites treats. I’ve put little notes in the margins, my own accumulation of insights from the years. Grandma’s rosette recipe is now included, with a special notation at the bottom.