Evan’s brother’s 55th birthday came and went only a short time ago. Always game for a good party, his wife, my dear friend, had us gather for a surprise lunch. And surprised he was.
As part of our gift to him, we gave him Houdini’s Fruit Cookies. He loves these cookies. I can’t imagine why anyone would want a cookie devoid of chocolate, but he does love these fruit filled babies, so I made them for him.
Actually, I make these cookies often and I make them most often when he is about to appear on our doorstep, or we on his. They’re easy to make and, notwithstanding their woefully chocolateless state when made according to tradition, I must admit that they are delicious.
The recipe was Evan’s mother’s. Though she died before I had the luck to meet her, it always feels like she’s baking with me, satisfied that I’m using her recipes.
I love using Houdini’s recipes, which we keep stored safely in a tin box on a shelf above the stove. It’s as if she were standing next to me, grinning her beautifully toothy grin and poking me gently with her elbow, as I watch Evan’s face when he tastes the brownie batter I’m mixing or breathes in the aroma of the marble cake that’s baking, and he says he remembers the taste or smell from his mother’s kitchen. The smile I so adore drifts across his face and he says, “That’s it.” I bet she adored that smile, too.
Evan, The Namer of All, dubbed his mother Houdini in tribute to her happy escape, as a young woman, from New Jersey. There was a time in life, when Evan was a teenager and young man, that it was mostly just the two of them, each looking out for the other. He speaks lovingly, though realistically, of her, remembering with tenderness and amusement the qualities he so admired in her.
I think he is a lot like Houdini. He shares her love of animals, and her passion for words and writing. Neither one of them, I suspect, ever turned away from a homeless cat or a stray person, or sidestepped an even mediocre play on words. Evan took care of his mother when she became ill with what would be her final illness, putting his own life on hold in many ways. He moved her into a house on the water, and there he lived with her. I’m sure he maintained other relationships, but I’m sure, too, that his primary focus during that time was Houdini, and the care and feeding of her body and soul.
Although he seems haunted by the loss of her too early in both of their lives, he keeps her near with what feels, to this invested bystander, like pure happiness. He beams when one of her recipes is reenacted in our kitchen. He doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the success of the recipe and he’s never interested in the strict adherence to the letter of her laws. He has said more than once that he thinks she would have loved the experimentation and tweaking, and would have relished the triumphs and failures alike. She would be happy, he says, to see puddles of chocolate in place of clumps of fruit in her fruit cookies, and creamy milk chocolate dumped for rich dark chocolate in her brownie recipe. Playing in the kitchen with me, Houdini would have laughed, I suspect, at my need to touch absolutely every dessert with chocolate, and I pretend that she would have indulged me without flinching.
It’s funny how those cookies bring her into a gathering much the same way that memories and stories do. I think that’s one of the reasons we so love food and its preparation—it reminds us of things, moments, people. Acts so simple as nibbling on cookies made from the recipe my mother used when I was small helps me relive happy times and revisit comfortable places. Lingering in a kitchen warmed by an oven baking a favorite treat fills me with a tranquility little else can and preparing a dish I loved to eat as a child creates a sense of well being so often absent from this adult world.
And Houdini’s Fruit Cookies, made according to tradition (with fruit, not chocolate), played a part, I like to think, in bringing her to our table while we sang, ate and drank in celebration of her first child’s 55th year.
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 cups unbleached flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
¼ cup citrus juice
1 teaspoon good vanilla
1 apple, peeled, cored and finely diced
1 cup almonds or pecans, finely chopped
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
1. Cream together the butter and the sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
- Mix together the flour and baking powder, incorporating them fully. (I do this by placing a strainer over my mixing bowl and putting the flour and the baking powder in the strainer, and then straining the dry mixture into the wet mixture. The flour and baking power are fully incorporated this way. You can use a good old-fashioned sifter, too.) Thoroughly mix together the flour and the butter mixtures.
- Add the juice (I usually use either pineapple or orange juice, though any citrus will work) and vanilla, and mix well.
- Divide the dough into 4 balls. On a lightly floured surface, roll the first ball into a rectangle, about 1/8 inch thick.
- Spread jam on the surface of rectangle, and sprinkle ¼ of the chopped apple and ¼ of the nuts over the jam. Cover lightly with cinnamon. Roll the rectangle, pulling one long edge toward you to make a long tube. Repeat with the remaining 3 balls. (Frequently, I forget to sprinkle the cinnamon on the apple mixture. When this happens, I sprinkle it on the rolled tube. It works just as well and some people like the look of the cinnamon on the outside of the tube. It's your call.)
- Place 2 or 3 tubes on a baking sheet with the raw edge up. (Leave about 2 inches between each tube. Not to worry, though, if they end up touching as they expand during baking. Separate with a knife as soon as they come out of the oven and they'll be fine.) Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the crust is a golden brown and the jam is bubbly and oozing.
- As soon as you remove the tubes from the oven, use a sharp knife to cut each roll, on an angle, into approximately 1 inch pieces. (If you wait until the tube has cooled before you cut it into pieces, you’ll end up with a pan full of crumbs.) Allow pieces to cool on racks.
As you may have gathered, these are also delicious with melted chocolate (I use dark chocolate) slathered on the face of the dough, chopped almonds or pecans sprinkled over it. Of course, you’ll omit the jam, apple and cinnamon.
Blueberries, in place of the diced apples, make a delicious cookie, too, but use fresh. The moisture from defrosted frozen blueberries makes the dough too wet.
I'm not a fan of beige. I don't like beige clothes or walls or food. However, as beige as these cookies are, they really are delicious.