I solve the mystery of the lost cookie

Memories of tastes and scents are tricky things. They linger in our minds like a single shoe lost in the back of the closet, useless until we find its mate. We must eat or smell something that reminds us of the original experience to truly recall it.

Whenever I catch the sweet scent of lilies of the valley, for instance, I recall my mother's perfume and a vivid scene of being very small in our old apartment, watching her get ready for an evening out. Do I truly remember that experience? I could not have been more than 3 or 4 years old at the time. Perhaps; or it could be a composite of many memories.

In the case of the "lost cookie," my memory of its taste turned out to be both accurate and mixed-up.

My Italian-American family delighted in what we called "jujuleni cookies." As far as I know, there is no translation. It is clearly a phonetic attempt at spelling by people who were literate in English but not Italian, since there is no "j" in Italian.

Jujuleni are sesame cookies, and they are fabulous. When I was a kid, my mother made hundreds of them at a time and they rarely lasted long. They had that quality that Italian-Americans love in their biscotti and pastries: not too sweet, good with coffee. We kids thought they were just fine with milk or fruit juice. My sister Judy recalls sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of the night to snag a few. Even I, the finicky baby of the family, who rarely ate any cookie that did not include chocolate, devoured jujuleni.

When I was 11, my mom passed away. Dad took over in the kitchen and became a really good cook. He loved to experiment and made a mean pizza. He also made jujuleni. They are tedious to make - fingerlings dipped in milk and rolled in sesame seeds - so it was not a frequent treat. Still, we raved about them, and they became a favorite among my teenage friends. My dad would make big bags of them for us to take on picnics or trips to the beach.

At some point, however, I realized I didn't like jujuleni as much as I once had. I thought I was just growing up. My tastes were changing. Still, these cookies were part of my heritage, so when I went off on my own, I had Dad send me the recipe. But when I made them, they seemed heavy and dry. Was it because I used vegetable shortening instead of the traditional lard? I broke down once and tried lard, but they still didn't taste as good as I remembered.

I stopped making jujuleni cookies for many years. They weren't worth the trouble. Then last year, after Dad passed away, the family recipe box came to me. This ancient metal filing box was stuffed with recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines or written down on index cards. The cookie section of the box had the most recipes by far. There were many varieties of chocolate cookies for me, coconut cookies for Dad - and Mom's recipe for jujuleni cookies!

But there was something different about it: Dad's recipe had more flour, fewer eggs, less shortening. His method was completely different: Dad's cookies were made like pie crust, the shortening was cut into the the dry ingredients. Mom creamed the shortening and sugar, then added the eggs and vanilla, the classic base of most cookie doughs.

I wasted no time. I made a batch of jujuleni in record time, mainly because I could use a mixer with Mom's recipe. The dough was a lot easier to handle, too. They smelled great in the oven.

When I tasted the first one, I called my sister Judy. My mouth already full with a second wonderfully light, crispy cookie, flavored with anise and toasty sesame seeds, I told her, "This is it! This is the cookie I remember!" She wanted the recipe right away.

Jujuleni (Sesame seed cookies)

1 lb. solid vegetable shortening (see note below)
1-1/4 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Anise flavoring
5 cups flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Milk (for dipping)
1 lb. sesame seeds

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Cream together shortening and sugar. Mix in eggs, vanilla, and a few drops of anise flavoring. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a separate bowl. Gradually add dry ingredients to wet mixture to form a soft dough. Pinch off pieces of dough and roll them into small, thumb-sized logs.

Pour milk and a few drops of anise flavoring in a shallow bowl. Put sesame seeds in another shallow bowl. Dip dough logs into milk, then roll them in sesame seeds to coat. (Tip: Use one hand to dip the cookie in milk and the other to roll it in seeds. Otherwise, you'll end up with a lot of seeds stuck to your hands.)

Bake cookies on an ungreased cookie sheet (lined with parchment paper if possible) at 425 degrees F. for 10 to 15 minutes. Cool on racks. Cookies keep well stored in airtight containers at room temperature. They freeze beautifully. Makes 8 or 9 dozen. (Recipe may be halved.)

Note on shortening: Don't use butter and margarine, as this will affect the taste and texture. Use a plain solid vegetable shortening such as Crisco or Spectrum Organic nonhydrogenated.

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