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Fiction

Grandma Novak’s Famous Nut Roll

From: Lanie Novak
To: Aunt Katarina, Aunt Anka, Aunt Svetlana, Kat, Mary Kate, Annie, Lana, Katelin, Katelynn, Anna
Subject: Grandma’s Recipes

Hello, family! As everyone who follows my sister on Facebook knows (and who isn’t reading Kat’s posts? Twenty lashes with a wet noodle, and you bet it’ll be Grandma’s kluski!), last weekend she and I visited Grandma Novak for . . . baking lessons!

Though Grandma’s strong as she ever was (just try to tell her otherwise) she IS getting on in years. Kat and I agreed we ought to get her recipes down in writing while we can. Everyone in the family knows one or two of the “classics,” of course, but can any of us say we’ve mastered them all? I’ve always just made the sugar cutout cookies (as yinz know from my holiday cookie platters, I am the master!!!), and until last weekend I’d never even tried to make Grandma’s legendary nut roll.

Kat’s youngest, Anna, was nice enough to stay over at my place and feed the cats while I was gone. Thanks a bunch, Anna! I figured you could use a little quiet while resting up from your doctor visit.

Kat took pictures and has the whole gallery up on her Facebook (private to family only, but you don’t need me to tell you that!). It’s my job to send you the recipes themselves, transcribed by yours truly from Grandma’s lips.

Kolachky

Grandma learned this recipe from her mother, who brought it over from the old country. She doesn’t make most of the really old recipes because you can’t get the ingredients over here. I asked her to share a few anyway, but she just gave us that snaggletoothed grin. You know Grandma!

She did say the older version of this recipe didn’t use margarine. Her mother switched it up at some point, probably during the Depression. You can sub in butter or lard and make just as nice a pastry. Sometimes Grandma does that after a hunt if she has more suet than she can fit in the deep freeze. (I knew her kolachky tasted a little richer last Christmas!)

Of course the jelly is the same as they used in the old country. I like it best when Grandma dusts her kolachky with a little powdered sugar. It’s so pretty over the dark plum-red jelly, isn’t it? Like something out of a fairy tale.

Kat’s planning to make these for Anna’s high school graduation in a few months. We’ll need to make the jelly too, Kat!

½ cup sour cream
1 pound oleo
5 cups flour
Granulated sugar
Jelly

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix first three ingredients. Roll dough in sugar. Roll out dough approximately ¼ inch thick. Cut into small squares. Place jelly in center of each square. Fold into crescent shapes. Bake for 15 minutes.

Russian Tea Cookies

It isn’t a Novak wedding without a tray of these on the dessert table, each one handmade with love!! My mother used to be an expert at the Russian Teas. I’ll never forget her at my wedding reception at the Elks, standing behind a card table piled with cookies she and Grandma had stayed up all night rolling in sugar. Mike’s family thought she was with the catering staff! (Remember, Kat?)

I suspect even then my mother knew the marriage was a bad idea, but she never showed her disapproval, not even after Mike was gone. She just brought me boxes of Kleenex and foil-wrapped packages of Grandma’s stuffed cabbage.

That was Mom for you. Sometimes you wondered how a tough old bird like Grandma Novak raised someone as sweet and gentle as my mother. Of course Grandma was fiercely protective of her, even above her other daughters. I feel the same way about dear Kat, who takes after Mom in so many ways, and Kat’s Anna.

The variant version isn’t for parties, of course! I’ve never used it because I always worry about getting rid of the leftovers. The older ladies in the family may remember that ugly business when my father tried to walk out on Mom, Kat, and me. Grandma used this very recipe to bring him back, but we didn’t burn the leftovers like we were supposed to and we had trouble for weeks. I’m sure Aunt Anka and Cousin Annie would rather not talk about it.

And that’s why I don’t make a habit of bringing out this recipe. NOT because I’m too lazy to make proper Russian Teas, Mary Kate! I know exactly what you’re thinking!

1 cup butter
½ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 ¼ cups flour
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
¾ cup chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss ¼ tsp. salt over your shoulder. Mix all other ingredients. Form one-inch balls in hands. Bake 14-17 minutes. While still hot, roll in powdered sugar. Roll again when cooled. Leave two cookies on a back doorstep or windowsill. If they’re gone the next morning, your luck will hold.

These cookies make a good gift before the hunt. Leave a few at the bank of any river you might cross, and a few at any gate you need to enter. It takes a little planning but it’s worth it!!!

VARIATION: Use ¼ tsp. salt and do not throw any over your shoulder. While cookies are still warm, crush one under your heel. Eat another cookie while picturing your desire. You will have a strong scent of your quarry and companions for the hunt. Leave the rest of the cookies on your back doorstep. If any are left the next morning, burn them (in the fireplace or an open fire, NOT in the oven!) at once.

German Tarts (Tassies)

I’m not a big fan of nuts in desserts (except for Grandma’s nut roll, but that’s something special!). I just don’t see what the big deal is. Even so, they’re useful in many of the old recipes. Grandma likes to use hazelnuts in her tassies, but she says almost any kind of nut will work.

Kat loves nuts. You could say she’s “nutty” for them!! She got chatty while mixing the filling and let slip that she miiiiight be looking for some special Grandma advice on top of the cooking lessons.

Grandma’s memory is a little scattered lately, but she remembered that Kat’s never been out on a hunt. Oh, did Grandma used to scold me for going out on my own, way back when! Hunt with a sister, she’d tell me, so you leave two footprints like an ordinary person. Well, this isn’t the old country and we have sidewalks anyway, but try telling Grandma anything!

Where was I?

Oh! So it turned out Grandma knew all about Anna’s trouble. She said Anna came to her about it. Good work, Anna, that was the right thing to do! Grandma was happy to help, of course. Especially when she found out it was the AP math teacher at North Hills. You can’t leave someone like that around kiddies, she said.

Grandma thought Anna ought to take care of it herself, but Kat put her foot down there. Like you haven’t been through enough already, sweetie! When Kat and I promised we’d go out together as sisters, Grandma said it was all right. She got her old stone mortar and pestle down from its place on top of the fridge and showed Kat how to crush nuts very, very fine.

1 cup flour
3 ounces cream cheese
1 stick oleo
1 cup chopped nuts
1 tsp. vanilla
¾ cup brown sugar
1 tbl. softened margarine
1 egg, beaten

Mix flour, cream cheese, and oleo. Refrigerate for at least one hour. Meanwhile, mix remaining ingredients to create nut filling.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Press chilled dough into mini-muffin tins, then add filling. Spit twice into each tart reserved for special use and mark with a deep thumbprint (don’t want to mix them up!). Bake tassies for fifteen minutes.

Thumbprint Cookies

This is one of the pretty cookies I always admired but never bothered to make myself. Even last weekend, with Grandma helping me every step of the way, I had trouble mixing them right. It’s such a trick to go from a hard beating to those quick, delicate strokes near the end. But Kat took to it like a duck to water! She got all Mom’s cooking genes, I don’t mind telling you!!

Even Kat had to use the KitchenAid to mix up her dough. Grandma does it ALL by hand. At her age! She said it keeps her arms strong. A woman needs one arm to be as strong as a man’s two, she said. That way she can make do with one and leave the other at home to guard her heart. She kept switching the bowl from arm to arm, beating the dough just as hard with her left as her right.

It reminded me of a few years ago, when Grandma broke her arm after one of her nights out. She had to have three pins put in, remember? Didn’t slow her down one bit, and after a couple of weeks the pins started itching her and she yanked them out herself. She brought them to the doctor in her big suede purse. Everyone who thought the injury would put an end to Grandma’s hunts sure had egg on their face! (You know I’m just teasing you, Mary Kate.) What I’m saying is, Grandma’s a model for us all. This is what the kids Anna’s age call “squad goals”!!!

1 cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
2 eggs, divided
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups sifted flour
½ tsp. salt
1-1/2 cups nuts
Jelly

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg yolks and vanilla. Beat well. Add sifted flour and salt. Mix well. Roll into one-inch balls.

Lightly beat egg whites. Dip balls into egg whites, then roll in nuts. Place onto ungreased cookie sheet, about one inch apart. Bake five minutes. Quickly remove from oven and imprint thumb lightly. Return to oven and bake an additional eight minutes.

Cool, then fill indentations with jelly. After the cookies have been eaten, you can always find the one who ate them by biting your thumb.

Cutout Sugar Cookies

My favorite! As much as I enjoyed making all these recipes with Kat and Grandma, there’s no replacing the cutouts as my go-to baking specialty. (They’re crispy, not burned! Right, Anna?) They’re so easy, and you can do so many things with them. All it takes is a little creativity.

½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
½ tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
2 cups flour

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. If the cookies are for a certain person, burn a slip of paper with that person’s name in the heated oven.

Cream butter and sugar. Blend in eggs and vanilla. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, salt, and baking powder. Blend dry ingredients into wet ingredients. Whisper a name over the bowl. Form dough into several balls to work with.

Roll dough to about ¼ inch thickness. Make cookies with favorite cookie-cutter shapes. (HINT: dip cutter in flour to keep it from sticking.) If making cookie people, use cloves to pierce the part of the body you wish to affect. Or remove parts with a butter knife. (HINT: pulling off the legs will cause lameness during the hunt.) If the cookies represent you, alter as desired. (HINT: slice down the middle, each side equally strong. Push a cinnamon heart into the side that will stay at home).

Other cookie shapes have other uses.

Bake on greased cookie sheet for eight to ten minutes. Cool on sheet for a few minutes, then remove. When cool, ice decoratively. Cookies will be especially effective with dabs of Grandma’s jelly.

Grandma’s Famous Nut Roll

This isn’t really hard, but it takes time and experience before you get the knack of it. (This is where I bow out and have a glass of wine while Grandma and Kat take over!) The nuts need to be ground very fine, and you almost can’t have too much filling.

This recipe makes 8 good-sized nut rolls. As we all know, Grandma loves to bake them in big batches and freeze for later. Her deep freeze is always packed with nut rolls and stuffed cabbage, unless she’s cleared out room for a hunt. And nothing preps you for the hunt better than one of these rolls, let me tell you! I still remember how that wholesome sweetness sustains you after you leave your heart at home.

I made the mistake of telling Grandma I was a little past my prime for hunting. Did she ever laugh at me! There she is, at her age, still going out with her children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, and from what I hear they can barely keep up with her.

For this hunt, though, Grandma is staying home. Before we left, she took down two of her good copper pots, the ones Mary Kate got her for Christmas the one year, and put them on the stove. Save me the teeth and the ears, she told us, and gave us that snaggletoothed grin.

She knows I used to forget, and then she’d run out of jelly.

For the Dough

5 cups and ½ tsp. flour
½ lb. softened butter
½ tsp. salt
4 tbl. and ½ tsp. sugar
1 cup warm whole milk
3 eggs
1/3 of a 2 oz. cake yeast (or 2 tsp. dry)
¼ cup warm water
additional flour as needed
suet (Crisco if not a hunting batch)

For the Nut Paste

4-5 lbs. walnuts ground very fine
½ lb. butter
6 egg whites (save yolks)
1 tsp. lemon juice
3 cups sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. vanilla
some milk as needed

Mix yeast and warm water in a cup. Use your fingers to make sure all the yeast is dissolved. Then mix ½ tsp. flour and ½ tsp. sugar into the yeast mixture and let stand for several minutes until thick and bubbly.

In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar and salt. Cut in softened butter until crumbly. In a separate bowl, beat eggs into milk. Add the liquid to the flour mixture and mix with a fork. Add the yeast mixture. Stir together until moist and sticky. Can you stir with one hand as well as the other? Add flour as needed, up to another cup, until dough is “just right” (NOT helpful to us amateur cooks, Grandma!). Work dough until elastic.

Rub suet inside a bowl. Place dough in bowl and rub suet all over dough as well. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Dream of the smell of that suet, well-aged from the previous hunt.

To make nut paste, melt butter until “red” (Grandma’s words—I think she means hot but not burned). Mix all other ingredients in a bowl. Add melted butter. Add milk to moisten if needed.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

While waiting, make the other preparations for the hunt: take off your jewelry, put on your red cloak, open your eyes wide.

Using a knife, cut dough into eight equal pieces. On a surface covered in flour and powdered sugar, roll out one section at a time into a sheet, making the dough as thin as possible. (Important!) Spread ample filling on dough. Roll the smaller edge into the larger, forming a roll, and place seam-side down on cookie sheet. Brush with egg yolk. Cook 2-4 rolls at a time for 30 minutes each. Brush baked roll with melted butter to keep moist.

Cool—wrap with plastic wrap and foil—easily frozen.

(P.S. to Anna: Grandma invited you special to the next baking session.)

Share a roll with your hunting partner. Split in two. Leave your heart at home.

Shaenon K. Garrity

Shaenon K. Garrity

Shaenon K. Garrity is a cartoonist best known for the webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse. Her prose fiction has appeared in publications including Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Escape Pod, Drabblecast, and the Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies. She lives in Berkeley with a cat, a man and a boy.