Sunday, December 11, 2005

Vanilice: Serbian holiday cookies

[Note: I found out later that my memory was off. The "family friend" was actually a relation. She was my aunt's mother. That is to say, my cousins' grandmother. Specifically, she was the mother-in-law of the brother of my mother. I also found out that the cookies she made are called "vanil grancle" (pronounced VAH-neel GRAHNT-sle). There is such a cookie as a vanilica, but I had confounded the names. Use the search tool at top of page to find other posts I've written about this topic, including the real vanil grancle family recipe. – This note added 12/21/2008, VK]

Today I brought a platter of these cookies to the James Reeb Unitatian Universalist Congregation's Holiday Bake Sale. I wrote up the recipe, and the story of how I came to the recipe, and took it along. I sold the cookies for 50 cents -- 3 for a dollar -- and the recipes for a buck!

The cookies sold out. Selling the recipes made it so I could raise more $$ for the church than with just the cookies alone!

One parishoner is part Croatian. She remembered vanilice as her favorite cookies, that her grandmother used to make. She said she had tried to document her grandmother's cooking, but everything was done by feel and experience. All the amounts, she said, were either "Some" or "A little bit." She told me about how, many years after her grandmother had died, she visited an aunt who made her a whole batch of vanilice, knowing they were Mary's favorite, and gave them to her. Mary said it brought tears to her eyes.

Below is the text that I charged people a dollar for. Now you can read it for free.

(Pronounced va-NEE-leet-seh)

These festive, delicate cookies are a Serbian favorite around the winter holiday season, which, for Serbs in America, can stretch from the buildup to “American Christmas” on December 25 through Eastern Orthodox Christmas on January 7 and even Serbian New Year's on January 14! I remember a friend of our family who would make several hundred of these every year, freezing them in batches weeks in advance.

The finished cookie is a circular, powdered-sugar covered, jam sandwich of sorts. The top layer of the sandwich features a “window,” a round hole through which the jam can be seen. Very pretty.

This is one of the few traditional Serbian cookies that is like the kind of cookie we are accustomed to in the U.S.: an individually shaped and baked sweet biscuit made from a fairly stiff dough. Most bite-sized sweet treats in the Serbian tradition are bars cut from pans of baked batters, often topped with meringues and sprinkled with nuts, or sometimes phyllo leaf layerings.

To my surprise, I couldn’t find a recipe for these in my Serb-American cookbook, a classic published by the Serbian church in Milwaukee in the 1970s. On the Internet, all the recipes but one were in Serbian or Croatian, with the measures in metric, and it was slow going for me with my faltering way with the written language to decipher that they weren’t what I was looking for. The one recipe in English was also not the variation that I was familiar with. It didn’t even contain vanilla – and that’s what the cookie is named for! So I tinkered with recipes and came up with my own recipe that yields an authentic rendition of this classic holiday treat.

Hardware note: You will need two sizes of cookie cutters to make the rounds and the windows in half of the rounds. Scrounge about the house for bottle tops that will yield pleasing results, as I did for years – or do yourself a favor and invest a few dollars in a set of round pastry cutters at a kitchen supply store or Web site, or a restaurant supply store. These will serve you well for the rest of your life!

1 1/2 stick butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour

Powdered sugar
Apricot jam or other kind of jam

Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Work in the flour. The result will be a dough about the stiffness of pie crust.

Roll out to about 1/8" thickness. Use plenty of flour on the board, and sprinkle flour atop the dough so that the pin doesn’t stick. Cut the dough into rounds about 1 3/4" in diameter. Into half of the rounds, cut a hole of about 7/8 " in diameter. These will be the cookie tops. Keep re-rolling until all the dough is used.

Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 300° F for 10 minutes. They do not need to brown at all. Do not overbake. Let cool before handling. They are crumbly and fragile while still hot.

Spread about 1/4- to 1/2 tsp of jam on the rounds. Atop each round, place one of the rounds with a hole cut into it.

Dust each cookie with powdered sugar. To accomplish this, put about a three-inch deep layer of powdered sugar into a bowl or deep dish. Lightly drop each cookie into the sugar, first bottom down, then top down. Gently knock off any extra clumps of sugar.

Arrange on a platter. These are better at least a day later, when their flavor has had time to develop. Yield: about 3 dozen cookies.