Words by Taylor Wroblewski
[Editor's note: This is the first in a series of memoirs about local food and drink. Contact us if you'd like to submit a story of your own.]
I was five years old when I walked into my first Polish bakery.
The smell of almond paste and frosting overwhelmed my senses as an older Polish woman yelled orders from behind the counter to the bakers in the back. We packed into the small store like sardines and I held onto my grandma’s hand for dear life, terrified that I would lose her in the chaos of the hungry crowd.
Impatiently, we waited in line as my grandma described each pastry to me: some had chocolate, most had too much sugar, all were delicious. Our favorites included chruściki, a light and airy cookie; kuchen, flaky dough filled with almond paste; and pączki, the Polish equivalent of a Boston cream donut. We would come home from the bakery, full from free samples, and immediately start cooking dinner for Christmas Eve.
I was barely tall enough to reach the kitchen counter, so I used an old stool in her apartment to watch her make the cookies. She beat egg yolks together for what seemed like years. My grandma - who we called 'Meme' - was too proud a woman to use electric beaters. She whisked the eggs by hand until they were the color of lemon and the consistency of Cool-Whip. We mixed the dry and wet ingredients together and then rolled the dough out until it was practically transparent. My eyes followed her hand as she cut the dough into rectangles and folded it into the familiar shape I loved to eat. Meme called the chruściki “angel wings” because of their shape and texture. After the cookies were fried, I was in charge of dusting them with powdered sugar (although it was never just a dusting, it was more like a mountain of powdered sugar - a very, very large mountain).
My attention span was never long enough to watch the entire process. I constantly got distracted by other things in the kitchen, cartoons on television or presents under the tree.
I was 10 years old when I tried to make chruściki for the first time. The egg yolks were not the color of lemon, nor the consistency of Cool-Whip. The dough wasn’t transparent, nor did it taste as sweet. We sat around the Christmas tree that year with one less family member, eating little blobs of thick dough covered in powdered sugar. The next morning, my dad drove us to the Polish bakery to pick up a fresh batch of chruściki - only to find out it was closed. Over the years, I was able to piece the recipe together with haphazard memories and lots of practice.
I was 20 years old by the time I perfected making chruściki on my own. I folded perfect angel wings and slowly dipped them into the hot oil. I gently dusted the fried cookies with powdered sugar, and then I started to cry. I was proud, but it was bittersweet. I like to believe Meme was smiling down at me, following my hand as I cut the dough into rectangles.
I will be much older when I teach my children how to make chruściki. I will be able to teach them about Polish traditions and pass along stories about Meme. I will take them to a different Polish bakery and let them sample the desserts with too much chocolate and sugar - and she will be smiling then, too.