During the holidays, family kitchens are ground zero for intense craziness: mixers whirling, timers buzzing, knives flying. So yes, it's understandable that many of us just stay out of way of the experienced cook. Especially when the knives come out and Mama is talking under her breath.
But by staying out, you're missing out.
As part of All Things Considered's Found Recipes series, we asked the Cambridge-based Brass Sisters, the so-called Queens of Comfort Food, about collecting family recipes.
And they say, don't shy away from that holiday kitchen!
Instead, they urge you to gently interrogate your elders about their favorite dishes, and write down those family recipes, before it's too late.
Courtesy of the Brass Sisters
Aunt Ida and Uncle Julie in Winthrop Beach, Mass., in the 1940s.
That's what they did to get the recipe for their Aunt Ida Tucker Katziff's Poppy Seed Cookies, and though Aunt Ida could be grumpy and intimidating, they're glad they did.
"We used to spend every Friday night with Aunt Ida," says Marilynn Brass. For nearly 15 years, they'd chit chat, watch the prime-time soap opera Dallas (the original, when J.R. got shot) and eat.
"We would have a bagel and we'd have turkey," Brass says, "but the best part was when she'd go to her postage-stamp-sized freezer and brought something out and heated it up in her trusty toaster oven."
Ida was a self-taught baker. "She had what we call goldeneh hendts. That's Yiddish for golden hands," Brass says. "Whatever she baked, whatever she cooked came out superb. And I have to tell you, her poppy seed cookies were like manna from heaven."
The cookies were crunchy, with toasty-tasting poppy seeds and a sandy texture, and the Brass Sisters say you couldn't eat just one.
After many years of Friday evenings, Marilynn's sister, Sheila, got up the courage to ask Aunt Ida for the recipe. Not only did she get it, but Ida gave her nieces two special instructions — keep the poppy seeds in the freezer to keep them fresh, and don't overwork the dough.
When Aunt Ida died, the Brass Sisters arranged a special tribute to her: They made copies of the recipe and baked the cookies and shared both with friends and relatives at Ida's funeral.
"It turned out the family and friends sat around talking about Ida during [her] memorial week, reading her recipe for poppy seed cookies and crunching those wonderful cookies!" says Marilynn Brass.
And now you can, too. Here's the recipe from Heirloom Baking With The Brass Sisters.
Aunt Ida's Poppy Seed Cookies
Our Aunt Ida baked this cookie for more than 60 years, to the delight of four generations of our family, transporting them to parties in covered tins. We baked these cookies and served them at Aunt Ida's memorial gathering after her funeral since this recipe is part of her legacy. She always stored her poppy seeds in the freezer to keep them fresh.
Maren Caruso/Getty Images
Dallas with Aunt Ida, the Brass Sisters say.
Poppy seed cookies bring back memories of watching
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup poppy seeds
1 cup peanut oil
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Set the oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cover a 14 X 16-inch baking sheet with foil, shiny side up. Coat the foil with vegetable spray or use a silicone liner.
Sift together flour and baking powder; add poppy seeds.
Separately, whisk peanut oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla in a medium bowl. Add sifted dry ingredients and mix to combine. Chill the dough in the refrigerator one hour, or until firm enough to handle.
With floured hands or wearing disposable gloves, break off teaspoon-size pieces of dough and roll into small balls. Place dough balls on baking sheet about 2 inches apart, or 12 cookies per sheet. Pat into circles with your fingers (rather than rolling or stamping). Bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned around edges. Let cookies cool 1 minute on baking sheet on rack and then transfer cookies to a rack. Cookies will become crisp as they cool.
Store between sheets of wax paper in a covered tin or freeze in a tightly sealed plastic bag or container.
Yield: 60 cookies