The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

In Absence of Snowflakes, Just Make Your Own

By Kim Bellware in Miscellaneous on Dec 25, 2010 2:30PM

Fullscreen capture 12242010 30452 AM.jpg
Grams adds powdered sugar to her snowflake-like cookies while donning her favorite "Buon Appetito!" Italian flag apron.

Seven years ago my Grandma Margurite called to tell me about the “nice kid” who came to talk to her one afternoon, the one who left with a shirt box full of her famous pizzelles. Further into the conversation it became clear that the “nice kid” was a reporter from the city’s newspaper and had come to profile her for being a sort of cookie doyenne of the town’s Italian community. In sending him and his photographer off with their own packages of cookies (and a baggie-full for them to eat in the car), my grandma cemented her confectioner’s legacy while unwittingly helping the reporters compromise their journalistic ethics.

These pizzelles—lacey, anise-flavored cookies shaped like snowflakes and dusted with powdered sugar—are kind of a big deal: their siren song has led many to abandon diets, gluten allergies and diabetic warnings (as well as ethical boundaries if you’re a reporter) and have been a family Christmas staple my entire life. During the Christmas season, the cookies are as ubiquitous as the snowflakes they resemble. Every car trunk, closet and container I open from Thanksgiving to New Year’s has boxes and boxes of the little cookies hiding out. I’ve spotted them near the Herby Curby for the garbage man and in the mailbox for the postman. No one gets less than a shirt box’s worth, perhaps because my grandma knows the pizzelles tend to disappear ten at a time.

Pizzelle making season in the family runs from Easter until Christmas, with production kicking in to high gear around Thanksgiving. Next to her gin rummy scores stashed in her china cabinet, Grams keeps a grimy sheet of folded paper that holds her year-to-date tally. An average batch of dough makes roughly 80 cookies, but my grandma, a child of the Great Depression, scrapes every last bit of dough to boost her end yield. Perfecting the size of dough balls to avoid any excess squeezing through the edges of the pizzelles maker is like a game to her, and of course, no one in the family can do it as well as she can.

In the season of endless parties, gift exchanges and relatives dropping in, the cookies are the ideal treat: not too filling, perfect for pairing with coffee or eggnog, sweet enough to pass for a dessert but not so cloying that it spoils your appetite. Telltale powdered sugar on clothes is pretty much a given during the holidays, and evidence of inconspicuous pizzelle consumption has outed many a closet eater or “cheater” (those who skim pizzelles off of other people’s boxes).

As a kid, every holiday tissue-lined boxes would stack up in the sunrooms of both my parents’ and my grandparents’ house. I would help my grandma and my aunt gingerly fill each box with even columns of cookies while taking care not to break the fragile edges; the promise of unlimited pizzelles awaited me if I did my job well. Grams would alternate between sitting and standing at her little two-at-a-time pizzelles iron, cranking out anywhere from 100-600 pizzelles in a setting. The products were spread on her kitchen table to cool, and the better behaved of the grandchildren (that was always me) had the privilege of finishing the cookies off with a dusting of sugar, making it snow all over the table.

Just last night I made pizzelles at my grandma’s, happy and grateful that she’s still around to be the torchbearer of this Christmas tradition. In her 60 years of making pizzelles, she’s burned through three irons, experimented with nearly a dozen different flavors, and made an innumerable number of folks feel special through the simple act of sharing with them her signature creations. While Gram’s knows she’s good at what she does, she’s nonetheless modest about it. Her profile in the paper—and the phone calls from fans that followed—amused her. Outside of keeping the tradition going, she explained that what she does is nothing complex:

“I put a teaspoon of dough on the left side of the iron just above the center, a teaspoon of dough on the right, I close it, say a “Hail Mary,” and it’s done. It’s easy. It’s like an assembly line.”