When I was a kid, Christmas was never a thing in my house. That comes with the territory of being a Jewish family in the suburbs of New York City, I suppose, where we were never alone. We were surrounded by plenty of kids who celebrated Christmas, of course, and we even had our moments of jealousy, but Hanukkah was a-okay. Eight days of presents and candles and yummy fried foods? That should be great in anyone’s book. But Christmas did sneak in while we lived on Long Island, thanks to our neighbor Rosanna.
Every December, Rosanna would make her famous Christmas cookies: strips of dough, cut into diamonds, twisted, fried and doused with powdered sugar; a holiday staple in her native Italy and possibly the most perfect cookie ever made. And she made them not only for her own family, her kids returning from college, her husband returning from the merchant marines, but for her neighbors — her friends — as well. It was always a treat to stop by her house while she was cooking them — we would get a few warm, along with a story or two, and then a bowl of them to bring back to our families. She even made them for Halloween, tucked in those little treat bags with cartoon ghosts and witches on them and handed to the local kids who would ring her doorbell for trick or treat. Those were still the days when neighbors were loved and trusted. Everyone loved Rosanna. She was the epitome of generosity, of warmth.
My memories of her are, unfortunately, rather fuzzy, like an over-exposed photo taken with the wrong settings and a shaking hand. I remember her blonde hair, always pulled back into a ponytail, the plumpness of her waistline and the fullness of her bosom, her apron, her accent. I remember the worried look on her face when her house caught on fire in the middle of the night one winter, as she stood in our kitchen while the firemen worked hard to put out the flames across the street. I remember when they razed the remains and she lived in a trailer while they rebuilt. I remember her new housewarming party, and playing in her beautiful garden full of vegetables and roses that warm summer night.
But mostly the cookies. And they’re not just what I remember of Rosanna — they are among the fondest memories of my early childhood.
When we were about to move, Rosanna came over to our kitchen and taught my parents how to make them. They — or maybe we kids — couldn’t imagine not having them in our new lives in New Jersey. Truth be told, I think it took us a few years before we actually made them ourselves. And when we did, we still called them Christmas cookies, but we made them for Hanukkah. They are, after all, fried, and this is the holiday of that miraculous oil.
The now-yellowed sheet of paper on which my dad took notes looks something like this:
6 tbs sugar (⅔ cup)
6 tbs oil (½ cup)
as much flour as necessary (about 4 ½ – 5 c)
Remember when I was talking about how little old Italian ladies never seem to need a proper recipe? That’s what this was. I actually just think it’s a beautiful artifact of the old world. My great-grandma’s coffee cake recipe, our family’s rugelach recipe, my grandma’s Passover noodle recipe, are all like that, too. A box of this, a can of that.
When I made these cookies by myself for the first time, I called up my brother to ask if he remembered which measurement we would use when we made them together. He had no idea. My mom couldn’t remember what the measurements in parentheses were except that maybe Rosanna said one amount and my dad measured it out and it was actually the second amount, though I can’t quite picture him scooping oil back up and actually measuring it. I’d hazard a guess that Rosanna learned from her mother, who learned from her mother, who learned from her mother, and if there ever was any proper measuring they maybe did it on a scale. But even more likely, they just made them so many times that they just knew what amounts felt right.
So after a bit of fretting and debate, I settled on the original proportions, 6:6, and I started on the low end of the flour spectrum. Once kneaded, rolled, cut, shaped, and fried, they were exactly as I remembered. I’m eating them here on my bar stool-height kitchen chair as I type and I’m kicking my legs like a kid. That’s how these make me feel. They’re crunchy but thick and delicate in the center, if that makes any sense at all, almost like a crunchier doughnut. Even without yeast or baking soda or baking powder they poof up a bit while they cook, blurring the fluted edges. And despite the minimal amount of sugar in the dough, they’re perfectly sweet, especially from the powdered sugar dusted on top. Okay, heavily dusted on top. And then tossed to coat completely. And then maybe dusted with more.
What can I say? These cookies bring out six-year-old Sarah. And this time of year, I really, really miss her. She’ll be eating these tonight after lighting the menorah and eating latkes with her Christmas-celebrating fella, kicking her legs and toasting Rosanna.
Rosanna’s Christmas (and Hanukkah) Cookies
yield: um, a lot. 200? Maybe more? Just. A lot of cookies.
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
⅛ teaspoon salt
4 ½ – 5 cups all-purpose flour
More neutral oil for frying
Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar, oil, vinegar, vanilla and salt. Stir in 4 ½ cups of flour until almost fully incorporated. Use your hands to knead the dough for several minutes until it comes together. If it’s too sticky, add a bit more flour. You shouldn’t need more than 5 cups total.
Divide the dough into thirds. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the first piece of dough into a round that’s about 1/16-inch thick. Using a pastry wheel (straight or fluted) or a pizza wheel, cut the dough into ¾-inch strips. Next, cut the strips on the diagonal into pieces that are about 1 ½ inches long. Cut a slit in the center of each piece. Take one corner of each piece and fold it into the slit, pulling it through and back up. Place each piece on a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with a clean towel to prevent them from drying out, and repeat with the remaining dough. It’s okay if you layer the pieces on top of each other — they shouldn’t stick too much.
Fill a pot with a neutral oil — I used canola — until it measures about 3 inches. Over medium heat, bring the oil to about 375 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can check by inserting the handle of a wooden spoon straight down into the oil. If bubbles begin to rise around it, it should be ready. Still, test it with one sacrificial cookie. It should fall to the bottom but rise to the top within 15 seconds or less — if it doesn’t, your oil is still too cool. The hotter your oil, the quicker the rise. With a slotted spoon or, better yet, a wire skimmer, flip the cookie over when the bottom begins to turn golden. Remove when the other side is golden as well, and drain on paper towels. The whole process shouldn’t take more than 1-2 minutes.
Fry the cookies in batches. I was able to get 12 at a time in my pot without overcrowding. Once the cookies are dry, but still a little warm, sift confectioner’s sugar over the top and toss to coat, and enjoy.