Thursday, December 31, 2009

Holiday Cookies, Cookie Nostalgia, It’s a Small World After All, and In a Patisserie Long, Long Ago and Far, Far Away

Grab a glass of wine (or a cup of coffee, okay, or a cup of tea), sit back, put your feet up, relax. This is going to take a while.

It never fails. It is a rule of nature. As soon as you throw away something, or put it in the garage sale pile, or in the Goodwill box, you are going to want or need it. For years – for decades – I had a pile of little slips of paper with the beginnings of what I thought would make someday for brilliant (okay, clever) “social essays,” observations about everyday things we all experience – you know, like Jerry Seinfeld’s old stand-up routines. Finally, a few months ago I decided that surely, all the subjects are now obsolete. So I tossed them. And, of course, last night I tore the house apart looking for them. Well, for one in particular. The one about Madeline Lanciani and her mocha truffle pyramids or her chocolate mocha triangles or whatever the hell they were called. See, I can’t even remember without that little slip of paper. Never mind. Let’s move on.

Cookies seemed to loom larger this holiday season than years past. I think when times are difficult, small things – like comfort food, like cookies – take on additional significance. I baked a lot of cookies this year, including five new varieties. My friend Jane, who has spent many hours during the past year converting old family slides to digital format, piled on the nostalgia by reminiscing with her sister Susan, and then Susan on her blog, about the royal icing-decorated gingerbread cookies that a neighbor named Mrs. Schweer used to make for them when they were children back in the Midwest. Without the recipe, which Mrs. Schweer has apparently taken with her to her grave, Jane searched on the internet for recipes she thought would approximate the original and attempted to recreate both the cookies and the icing. That is a daunting task, believe me, and I have a great deal of respect for the fact that she would even give it a shot. I got caught up in it all and searched through all my cookbooks for what looked to me like the most traditional gingerbread recipes. I’m hoping “when things calm down,” Jane will try at least a couple of the recipes she’s garnered so I can taste them. I don’t particularly love gingerbread but now it’s the principle.

I have a small, cozy gathering of friends at my house each Christmas Eve and Jane’s partner, Gill, always mixes up a big batch of Nanny’s Nog, a good, old-fashioned, liquor-laden concoction that is very delicious and lasts long into the new year. This year, he also made his famous artichoke and cheese dip and something yummy called Opulent Chicken that was loaded with sherry and thus, the opulence. He came up in the afternoon of Christmas Eve day (oh yeah, I haven’t mentioned my trip to the Kula San emergency room – long story short, I had a horrid allergic reaction to shrimp – first time in 30 YEARS! – endured the night, was taken up to the ER by friend Geri, got a shot, bought some Benadryl, made it through Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Christmas Night, was forced to rest on Saturday and Sunday, saw my own doc on Monday, got another, much more powerful shot, took a few prescribed antihistamines and a.o.k.) to use the Kitchen Aid to whip the egg whites for the nog. I suggested that he take the bowl home with him instead of transferring the perfectly peaked whites to another bowl. No use tempting fallen egg white fate. Of course, he forgot to bring the bowl when he came for the party and, at the end of the night, he left a bunch of tea towels, pot holders, like that. Good thing we live only a gulch apart. Well, the weekend came and went (swollen and itchy). Monday there was no time to make the exchange. I knew I wouldn’t get home ‘til late in the evening Tuesday so I went over there Tuesday morning, figuring I’d also get a cappuccino out of the deal. Gill did realize “the onus was on him” to get the Kitchen Aid bowl back to me but what the heck, it’s the holidays. Jane had a tin of cookies Susan had sent her and, believing that I am something of a cookie expert, removed the top to reveal, truly, some of the most gorgeous Christmas cookies I have ever seen.

Believe me, the photos do the cookies no justice whatsoever. Jane confessed she’d already finished all the gingerbread. I ate a Christmas tree (cookie) – it was an absolutely delicious, classic sugar cookie. “Is it good?” Jane asked. “I don’t know, I read on their website they use all good ingredients, nothing artificial.” Definitely good, better than good. We discussed the pros and cons of different consistencies of royal icing – the one that decorated these cookies seemed pretty perfect to me. I looked at the top of the tin – Duane Park Patisserie on Duane St. in lower Manhattan. I’d never heard of it but made a mental note to go there – definitely – the next time I’m in town.

By the time it gets to the week in between Christmas and New Year’s, I’m anxious for all the hoopla to be over. I spent a couple of days cleaning out the old, getting ready for the new in the office, enjoyed a couple of quiet, reflective dinners with friends, a movie. On Wednesday morning, I noticed a post-it note near the office computer that had the words “Duane Park Patisserie” written on it. I went to the website, looked at the luscious photo galleries, read a couple of press clips and then I saw it. Madeline Lanciani. Madeline Lanciani is the owner of Duane Park Patisserie. Yes, the same Madeline Lanciani.

Back in the early ‘80s I worked for Madeline Lanciani – and for her then-husband, Joe – when they owned Patisserie Lanciani around the corner from my West 12th St. apartment. It was a difficult time in my life. My mother had died not too long before, my financial situation was precarious, and…you get the idea. I loved walking over to that bakery in the wee hours of the cold morning, smelling the espresso the bakers were drinking and feeling the warmth of the ovens. And then, when the sun had been up for a couple of hours, Madeline would come swirling in and the most vivid recollection I have of her is waving around a ruler and screaming about how the mocha truffle pyramids (or whatever the hell they were called) had to be EXACTLY the same height “EVERY SINGLE TIME, EVERY SINGLE ONE. I INVENTED THEM,” she screamed. “THESE ARE MY MOCHA TRUFFLE PYRAMIDS (or whatever the hell they were called) AND I SAY HOW TALL THEY’RE GOING TO BE, EVERY SINGLE ONE, EVERY SINGLE TIME!” (Or something very much like that.)

In fairness, her then-husband had a not dissimilar demeanor. I remember him once flinging a sheet pan – filled with pastries – across the bakery. It was absolutely stunning! And in fairness, too, Ms. Lanciani has had an extremely successful culinary career – she was the first woman to work in the kitchen at the Plaza Hotel in NYC – and I’m absolutely sure she’s mellowed since those days way back more than two decades ago. She is an amazingly accomplished pastry chef/baker/businesswoman and, frankly, I wouldn’t mind running into her at Duane Park Patisserie when I go there next spring. As a matter of fact, I’m going to ask for her.

Okay, that’s it. That’s the end of the story.

You have, undoubtedly, had enough of end-of-the-year/end-of-the-decade lists and predictions – god knows I have – so I’m just going to send happy, healthy, prosperous, peaceful new year wishes across the waves (or across the gulch, as the case may be). And I predict it’s going to be a very, very good year for cookies.


  1. Hi, Bonnie: I'm writing to tell you now much I enjoyed this very funny post. Of course, I know the cast of characters AND the cookies. Indeed, I had a madeleine (as in Proust) moment myself on visiting the Duane Park Patisserie to fetch the cookies of which you write to discover Ms. Lanciani--though my recollection is not a patch on yours. (We frequented the Patisserie Lanciani for many years--little did we know what went on in the kitchen!)

    Have a very happy, and, shrimp-wise, uneventful New Year--and thank you, too, for scouting out and sending Jane some gingerbread cookie recipes,

    Jane's sister, Susan (a/k/a

  2. I am looking forward to my "throw down" with Ms. my dreams. I'll keep you posted on my next gingerbread attempt with the recipes you have both provided!

    Happy New Year 2010