I met author Diana Abu-Jaber several years ago when she had a book-signing at a local independent book store, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. My friend Jan Tramontano had interviewed her for the Albany Times Union and asked if I would like to join her and another friend, Kathe Kokolias, at the signing. I didn’t buy that particular book – it was a mystery/suspense novel, something I don’t usually read much of – but I’ve read three of Abu-Jaber’s other books: two novels and a memoir, all spiced nicely with food and recipes. I especially loved the memoir, The Language of Baklava (Pantheon, 2005).
We had such a great time at the reading/booksigning! Since she’s originally from Syracuse, NY, her parents drove down to Albany for the event, so we got to meet two of the “highlights” of both Baklava and one of her novels, Arabian Jazz (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), which was fiction based on her American/Jordanian childhood. Her father was particularly entertaining, evoking lots of laughter. So, when I discovered Abu-Jaber on Facebook, I Friended her right away. It was there that I saw her posting for these cookies over a year ago – in a link to a short piece of hers published in Good Housekeeping magazine in late 2010.
Diana’s GH story, “Wurstcakes: A Sweet Holiday Tradition,” includes a sub-title that glides the reader into the narrative: When I was 8, my grandmother was the source of all sweet things. I think those words would intrigue anyone who holds onto special memories of a grandparent. I know it caught me (my particular memory covers making apple pies with Gramma Boyd)! Right then, I decided I was going to make these cookies – but didn’t get around to it during the 2010 holidays. A year later… they were on my Must-Do agenda.
If you follow the link above (click on the GH story’s title), you can read both Diana’s article and her grandmother’s recipe, which I cut in half for Christmas 2011 because I was making so many other treats (I’ve included my halved version on this blog). I laughed when I read how her father even slipped into this bit of memoir (more than once). She wrote that her grandmother’s “…Wurstcakes were slim as communion wafers, and even Dad – who was addicted to their crunch – referred to them as her ‘Catholic cookies.’” I loved reading about personal memories surrounding these simple baked treats. Unfortunately, my own first attempt at Wurstcakes did not render “slim as communion wafer” results (probably takes practice), although quite delicious anyway.
Incidentally, my family got a few laughs out of the name itself. As I pointed out the cookies on the Christmas Eve after-dinner platter, to enable easier selections for people, I noted the Wurstcakes and explained, “…these are the Wurst cookies.” I watched confusion immediately plaster across a few faces. “Worst cookies?” “No, no. They’re called Wurstcakes. German or Bavarian or something… not w-O-r-s-t.” They finally got it when I further explained that you roll the dough into sausage-like shapes, like bratwurst, and refrigerate it for a while before slicing. That’s fair warning, dear readers: if you make these wafer-thin lovelies, beware how you introduce them!
This is where I usually write about how I changed a recipe that I used as my guide. Well, the only change to this one was when I halved it. (In the article, Diana says its yield is “Enough for the whole family… and then some!” I decided I required less than that, at least this time around.) Also, she suggests options of either decorating with an almond slice (before baking) or, after baking and cooling, using a simple icing of confectionary sugar and water. I happen to like buttercream frosting, which tasted wonderful on them (although I did the almond thing on about half the batch – and these were heavenly when dunked in either my morning hazelnut decaf coffee or an evening chai latte!).
Here’s an interesting aside: I printed my copy of the recipe in November 2010. In it, measurements for flour and brown sugar appear in poundage terms, which I imagine is the way her grandmother baked—as they did (and still do) in her former homeland. When I returned to the story online today and clicked further to the recipe, I realized that flour and brown sugar measurements have been converted to cups (which is not quite as accurate as weighing ingredients, I understand, but it’s how Americans are used to working with recipes). Also, the instructions for making the confectionary sugar/water icing are included this time around. (OK, confession-time: I didn’t choose to do that icing because I would’ve had to “look it up,” not having used it before; whipping up a batch of buttercream is like second-nature to me and that’s really why I went that way…) So if you want the “in your cups” version, make sure you follow that link… and you’ll also get directions for the icing.
By the way, Diana’s latest novel, Birds of Paradise (W.W. Norton, 2011) includes a pastry-chef mother, so food once again plays into the writing; and the main character in another well-enjoyed (by me) book, Crescent (W.W. Norton, 2004), is a half-Arab woman chef in a Lebanese restaurant. Check out Diana Abu-Jaber’s website for synopses of all these great reads!
BAVARIAN WURSTCAKES (with thanks to Diana Abu-Jaber & her memories of her grandmother, Grace Belford))
Yield: about 3½ to 4 dozen
- 1 lb. all-purpose flour
- ¼ lb. brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in ½ tablespoon water
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon (I use Roasted Saigon cinnamon)
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- ¼ teaspoon ground clove
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter
- Mix together dry ingredients (flour, brown sugar, spices).
- Stir soda/water mixture into dry ingredients.
- Add eggs and butter, mixing all ingredients together.
- Knead well by hand.
- Divide dough into two fat “sausages,” each about 1½” wide (circumference).
- Wrap tightly in plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate overnight (or up to one week).
- When you expect to bake the cookies, pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
- Take out wurst rolls one at a time, as you slice cookies for baking (keep the other refrigerated until using – they cut better when cold). With a sharp knife, cut dough into 1/8-inch slices and place on lightly greased cookie sheets, about 1 inch apart.
- If adding an almond as a decoration, push into center of cookie at this point.
- Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly browned (but check at 8 or 9 minutes, just in case!).
- Transfer to wire rack to cool completely.
- Remove other wurst roll from fridge and repeat with remaining dough.
- When cooled, frost or ice at your own pleasure (or not).