12. Cookies Sweeter Than Wine

A little diversion from the process of citizenship recogniton to celebrate a family recipe, one that almost got away! These are not the cookies you often see called crustali, but something quite different. Perhaps Arberesh? I’m not sure. But here is their story in my family.

They weren’t pretty or sweet and they had an earthy red-wine aroma that reminded me of cough syrup, but they were a family Christmas tradition. As a small child, I loved to help my grandmother make the cookies we called crustali or “the wine cookies” and as I knelt on a red-striped kitchen chair, knees sticking to the vinyl, I would try to forget that I hated their taste. To me, they were odd, very Italian and vaguely embarrassing—in a category with the basil my grandmother grew in our Brooklyn back yard. The grownups, however, would lick their fingertips and compared the small, dense cookies to those of years past for outer crispiness and inner chewiness. Big batches would disappear leaving behind only small sticky pools of honey, stained purple with winy crumbs.

How to Lose the Recipe

When my grandmother died, it looked as if that was the end of the wine cookies. She hadn’t written the recipe down and although at fourteen, my hands could perform some of the kneading, rolling and shaping from memory, I had little idea about the ingredients. No one I asked could help.

At my parents’, Christmas Eve 2102. They are the not-all-that-pretty deep red ones, first platter on the right.

How to Find the Recipe

My father missed the wine cookies and after a while, I did too. I missed not liking them. So, after ten years of no crustali, I wrote my Great-Aunt Margaret asking for any family recipes she might have. Her reply covered six pages. Among the recipes was this somewhat cryptic one:

Wine Cakes or Crustali

9 cups flour

6 tsp baking powder

2 wine glass

1 oil

Boil wine, oil together. When cool, add to flour with ½ glass anisette for taste. 1 tsp cinnamon. Mix all well. Roll out thick as a man’s thumb. Put dent in it like cavatelli for impression. Fry in deep oil until done. Try a few first to see if they do not fall apart. Otherwise add more flour. These put in cooked honey until coated. They last a long time. Use slotted spoon when you put in honey.

How to interpret the Recipe

Nine cups of flour was clear enough. “2 wine glass” must mean two glasses of wine, but what size glass? And what was “1 oil”? I tried many variations, examined the thumbs of quite a few men, and learned the hard way that “deep oil” on the stove can be hazardous.

How Not to Improve the Recipe

One year, instead of boiling the wine and oil on the stove, I tried the microwave. After five minutes, nothing boiled. I tried five minutes longer, then longer again. The oil simply sat, deceptively placid in a layer on top of the still wine. Suspicious, I stood as far from the cup as I could, and using a long-handled steel fork, pierced the layer of oil. The roar was immediate, loud and just a touch bladder-stimulating. A jet of wickedly hot wine flew up and hit the ceiling in a large splat. Nothing would remove that stain and it stayed as a reminder of my attempt at recipe modernization until years later when we remodeled the kitchen. The wine-volcano incident taught me to stick with traditional methods for this particular cookie.

How to Honor the Recipe

After several years of experimenting, my crustali were good enough to bring to our Christmas Eve family gatherings. And they kept improving. They’re now a family favorite—even for me. You might enjoy making these unusual treats for a holiday that your family celebrates with food. The oil gets pretty hot, though, so I don’t recommend the Fourth of July.

Crustali: The Recipe 

  • 4 cups red wine (Chianti is nice)
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 9 cups all-purpose flour, more or less
  • 6 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ cup sambuca or really good anisette
  • honey for coating
  • vegetable oil for frying
  1. Boil wine—on the stove—until reduced to 2 cups.
  2. Add 1 cup oil and boil gently for 2 minutes. Cool.
  3. Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl and make a well in the center.
  4. Pour in sambuca and wine-oil mixture.
  5. Using your hands, mix to form a soft dough.
  6. Knead small chunks of dough on a floured board until smooth.
  7. Roll into ¾- inch-diameter tubes.
  8. Cut each tube into 1 ½ -inch lengths.
  9. Place each cut length of dough on the board, and sink your first, middle and ring finger into the piece, pressing in and rolling the dough toward you at the same time. Like cavatelli or gnocchi. 
  10. Heat vegetable oil (3 to 4 inches deep) in a deep heavy pan on medium. Place one cookie into the pot to test. If it doesn’t sizzle, wait a little longer.
  11. Fry about 12 cookies at a time until they float and are deep golden-brown.
  12. Drain on paper towels.
  13. Heat honey in a small pot on the stove or in a 4-cup measure in the microwave.
  14. Toss small batches of the cooled cookies in the honey and remove with a slotted spoon.

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