Mollie Cox Bryan is a freelance writer and the author of Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley (Ten Speed Press, 2006), a narrative cookbook about the life of the amazing Mrs. Rowe and the history of her 60-year-old restaurant in Staunton, Va., including 175 family and restaurant recipes. Bryan grew up in Pennsylvania, but currently lives in Waynesboro, Va. with her husband and two daughters. She has penned a family column for the Daily News Leader in Staunton for seven years.
Cream-filled lady locks, snowflake-shaped pizzelles and chewy nut cups are as likely to be at the top of some brides' wedding checklist as dresses, centerpieces and color schemes.
The must-have cookie table is a tradition reflecting the diverse ethnic communities of steel-mill towns, especially in western Pennsylvania.
It certainly left an indelible mark on my wedding. My husband and I have been married for 15 years, and the mere mention of the "cookie-table misunderstanding" during our wedding preparations can still lead to a marital impasse. My husband and his western Maryland family had no idea what they were getting into.
The cookie-table tradition and its recipes come down through the maternal line, and the bride's aunts, cousins and grandmothers do the baking. My mother invited my future in-laws to participate in the ritual, but they must have thought they heard wrong since no cookies were forthcoming.
So the night before the wedding, my Aunt Jo baked the 24 dozen cookies we were expecting from my in-laws. By then, my mother, sister and other aunts had already made their 20 dozen cookies (not deemed enough) and were too busy with last-minute preparations to bake more.
No one would have known of the potential shortfall. At the reception, silver-plated trays and fancy plates overflowed with a vast array of cookies.
The lady locks, with fluffy cream oozing out the sides, reminded me of the many times my mom and aunts sat at the kitchen table wrapping the dough around aluminum-covered clothespins. Once baked, the women deftly pulled the clothespins out of the cookie, leaving an opening for the cream. Of course, they also caught up on the latest family gossip as they worked the dough and squeezed cream into the tiny cylindrical holes.
There were plates of cherry squares, the thin, white, cakey cookies with their dark contrasting cherries.
As on most traditional cookie tables, my reception offered an assortment of nut cookies – date-nut pinwheels with swirls of cinnamon and dates, and nut cups, mini-muffin-sized dough cups filled with heaps of sweetened nuts.
Fruit cookies filled with apricot, pineapple and prune were on display. And there were Italian pizzelle, anise-flavored round and flat cookies, pressed into snowflake shapes by a pizzelle iron.
Since there were no cookies left over, my Aunt Jo clearly saved the day.
My family of WASPs assumed that it was our Italian and Eastern European neighbors and friends in the Pittsburgh-area steel-mill town where we lived who gave us the wedding cookie tradition.
Our instincts were correct, according to Pamela Speis, an archivist at Mahoning Valley Historical Society in Youngstown, Ohio, curated a museum exhibit about wedding cookie tables. We were not, however, alone.
Pennsylvania is not the only state with this tradition, her research showed. New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and New Jersey all share some version of the wedding cookie table.
"In general, the cookie table was known to Catholic Italians, Catholic Greeks, some Eastern Europeans — again generally Catholic — and a few Jewish individuals. Distribution definitely followed industrial areas that were settled by those ethnic groups," she said.
My hometown of Aliquippa, just outside of Pittsburgh, fits in this group. Descendants of immigrants attracted to work in the once-booming mills and coal mines still make up most of the population. The community is a melting pot of culinary, cultural and religious traditions.
Though I admit to a pang of disappointment that the custom isn't unique to Pennsylvania, I've no authentic claim to it. My family adopted many of the rich customs of our ethnic neighbors and friends. We shared weddings, births and funerals — the stuff of community life, always defined by food. Turns out, the good stuff gets passed around from group to group and state to state.
Still, I often tease my husband about his deprived childhood in western Maryland. He grew up only a few hours from my hometown and yet didn't know the sheer delight of eating the homemade pierogies, gnocchi or baklava of my youth. Nor did he or his family know about the importance of the wedding cookie table.
"You can't have a wedding without cookies," Dee McGee, a 73-year-old family neighbor, said to me recently. "Why, I've never been to a wedding without them."
My homespun wedding — complete with handcrafted centerpieces — was my second marriage, and I harbored no unrealistic expectations. But the hopeful Pennsylvania girl in me could not begin the future without those cookies: a touchstone of my past, lovingly made by women whom I had known my whole life. I expected the cookie table to awe and inspire. And it did.
The cookie crust of lady locks is flaky and holds a heavenly cream. When I was a child, I loved sucking the cream out first, then enjoying the flavorful crust.
Makes about 4 dozen
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup warmed, not hot, milk
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 .06-unce yeast cake or ¼-ounce yeast packet
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup milk
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup solid shortening
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350.
Wrap wooden clothespins (the straight, simple ones – no metal or hinges) or dowels with aluminum foil.
Blend flour and butter by hand or in electric mixer until it gets crumbly, like pie dough. Add remaining ingredients and mix at low speed.
Roll the dough to ¼ inch-thick on a floured board and cut into half-inch strips. Wrap loosely around aluminum-foil covered clothespins or dowels. Let rise for 30 minutes.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until dough looks firm and has slightly darkened in color. Remove from oven, let cool enough so that you don't burn yourself when removing the lady locks carefully from dowels or clothespins.
While cookies are baking, make the cream filling.
Combine the milk, salt and flour in a saucepan and cook until thick, stirring constantly until mixture sticks to your spoon—about the consistency of pudding.
Cool the mixture, then one at a time, slowly stir in the sugar, shortening and vanilla. The cream should be smooth and airy.
Fill cookies with the cream by using a pastry bag, pastry tube or a plastic bag with one corner cut off.
"Why do you want to use this recipe?" My mom asked when I told her I was writing about Pennsylvania wedding cookies. "It's so simple." Precisely. I love eating the cookie — just to get to that delicious, slightly soggy, cherry center. The traditional recipe calls for cherry pie filling, but you can also make it with canned bing cherries.
Makes 15 squares
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 medium eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 15-ounce can of cherry pie filling or bing cherries
1 tablespoon powdered sugar for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour an 11-by-15 ½-inch baking sheet.
In a mixer, combine mix all ingredients except cherries until smooth.
Spread mixture evenly on the baking sheet.
Spoon the cherry pie filling or cherries in five rows across the width of the pan and three rows down the length of the pan, giving you 15 cherry pools.
Bake for 25 minutes, or until the center is firm, the color is lightly off white, not quite tan.
Set aside to cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar for a festive look.