(That dorky title is from my dorky husband — he thinks it’s brilliant.)
When my husband’s grandmother received her 100th birthday phone call from President Reagan she was still living in the apartment building her father won in a poker game in 1910. (You can check out the attached classic Chicago six flats at 1206 and 1208 West Lexington, in Chicago’s Little Italy.) She dressed neatly every day – hose, heels and a shirtdress from her collection bought at Chas. A Stevens, a State Street retail institution that’s gone with the Chicago wind.
Annunziata Rovai’s cooking was legendary. Even in her nineties, living alone, she prepared a real dinner every night. From her I gained my pizza prowess, tasted my first polenta and learned the finer plot points of The Guiding Light, to which she showed as much devotion as she had for Wednesday night bingo in the church basement.( That was before her arthritis made the trip down the stairs impossible.)
Christmas was quiet in the second floor front apartment when we moved into the third floor rear. Her fourteen course fish and seafood Christmas Eve dinners –mountains of cream puffs for dessert – died in the fifties when Nonno died. (Nonno knew the ‘Ville. When my in-laws bought their lot, which is now part of the park next to the Albright Studio, he’d take the train on a Saturday and tend to his tomato plants.)
Nonna maintained two inviolable Christmas customs. We’d deliver a bottle of red vermouth from her to the nuns next door at Our Lady of Pompeii, and she’d make cookies. I stood one day with her and watched, measured and wrote. This is my favorite, known in the family as “Nonna’s Nutty Crisps. “
It’s a power butter cookie recipe, and don’t attempt it with anything that Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. You can sub pecans or almonds for the walnuts, but I prefer the slightly buttery flavor of the walnuts. Do not stint on the powdered sugar – sieve it on in snowdrifts while the cookies are still slightly warm.
1 c. butter
6 T. sugar
2 t. hot water
2 t. vanilla
2 c. flour
½ cup chopped walnuts
1) Cream butter and sugar with a hand beater until fluffy.
2) Mix in the remaining ingredients
3) Drop the dough from a teaspoon onto a greased baking sheet.
4) Bake at 350 degrees until “Very light gold” as Nonna said. Check them after eight minutes.
5) Let them cool for five minutes then dredge them with powdered sugar. A blizzard of powdered sugar.