Each year at Christmastime, my family has come to expect that I will make a family recipe for a cookie called kolacky that my Grandmother made when we were all young. It's a Slovak recipe that has taken me years to perfect. My Grandmother never worked from a cookbook and tended to measure with her hands and whatever spoons she had around, making duplication near to impossible. I watched and learned though, and have to say that my kolacky, while definitely not Grandma's are pretty darn close these days.
The ingredients have changed over time. I used to be able to find refrigerated cake (live, active) yeast in the grocery store. Today I can't even order it in the gourmet specialty shop. So I have by trial and error, learned to improvise with active dry yeast and a combo of sugar and warm water, added at just the right point in the recipe. The dry yeast does not rise as the old stuff did, but it comes close. And I think that where I use butter today, Grandma may have started years ago using shortening (lard) instead. In fact, when my son and I were in Slovakia a year ago, a relative of Grandma's served apple cakes to us that were made with lard and tasted like my past. I think the milk products of today are different too. Sour cream and milk bought in the supermarket are not like the milkman used to bring when I was little. Or the eggs that came from the "egg lady" either.
So of course I am stuck using current available ingredients and inprovising the recipe a bit. I got ambitious, in fact, this year. I decided to not only try to make Grandma's kolacky, but try for the buchty too. That's a small yeasty sweet bread "bun" with a filling inside like plum, apricot or cottage cheese/raisin. I made them a year ago and the result was like rocks - just not good. So I went online and found two Slovak ladies demonstrating their buchty technique on You Tube. It helped! Again I fudged with Grandma's recipe based on last year's results and I have to say, the end result this year is remarkably better, and close to Grandma's, albeit much smaller in size. (I have to get the forming of them in hand before they are Slovak perfection.)
And of course I couldn't stop there either. My mom provided me with Grandma's sugar cookie recipe a year or two back. I've made these too - and they were good, but not even close to the flaky cookies she made. So I have adapted that recipe too and will try tomorrow to duplicate this favorite of mine. She always had sugar cookies in her cookie jar. They had crumbled sugar cubes on top with slivered almond pieces. Yum!
I still have to find time to make regular cut-out cookies and decorate them. THe family has come to expect those too. Not sure why I go to all this bother and stress myself out with all the baking every December. I end up getting so tired and cranky that I didn't get anyone's help in the kitchen while slaving away. The truth is, though I WILL be tired, it is satisfying to me personally to have both attempted and made Grandma's treasured recipes. The traditions of family are still intact through me, in this way. My house this week has smelled just like Grandma's house always smelled to me - of fresh baked goods in the oven. So I will push on and endure the fatigue and frustration of the mess in my kitchen for those few comments Christmas day when cousins or brothers will bite into one of MY creations and declare it as good as the "originals".
If only. I strive to get closer to her each year though baking. I miss Grandma - a simple, wonderful, kind-hearted woman that I really admired. I hope my baking will continue to keep our family together in years to come and that some day my grandchildren may say they remember all those smells from MY kitchen. :)