Fresh Squeezed Martha!- Vanilla-Bean Spritz Wreaths- 49 eggs, 43 3/4 cups of sugar, 35 sticks of Butter, and 38 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 146 recipes to go!

May 26, 2010

Martha's Vanilla-Bean Spritz Wreaths

André's Vanilla-Bean Spritz Wreaths

Today’s cookie is a holiday favorite. It’s May, just before Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a holiday. I don’t think this is the holiday that Martha had in mind, but it’ll have to do. I was particularly excited about baking this cookie because I’d get to use my new cookie press. I purchased it at the Brooklyn Kitchen (check out my LINKS section to view their website) during a recent trip to NYC. It’s an Italian-made, simple press and I got it for a great price. Spritz cookies are Scandinavian in origin but if you’ve ever been to an Italian bakery during the holidays, you know that they make a damn-good spritz cookie.

How are they made?  It’s fairly simple. Flour, egg yolk, butter, cinnamon, salt, sugar, milk and in this case, the seeds from two vanilla beans are combined to form a dough. This sweet and buttery dough is then placed inside the tube of the press. The next step is simple. Squeeze the handle to make a wreath and repeat sixty times. Bake at 350 and enjoy!  This recipe created five dozen tiny wreaths which I shared with co-workers. They were a bit hit. The sprinkling with a little sugar and cinnamon gave them an extra spicy kick.

Vanilla is one of my favorite flavors. The vanilla plant is actual an orchid. Vanilla is grown primarily in Madagascar, Mexico, and Tahiti. It likes the warm tropical climate. Originally from Mexico, the name “Vanilla,” comes from the Spanish word, “Vainilla” or “little pod.” It is the second most expensive spice after saffron. This is due to the extensive labor required to cultivate this finicky plant. Vanilla grows like a vine across trees in dense tropical environments. It produces few flowers and therefore produces few pods. The vanilla vine will grow as tall as its host plant. To remove the seeds from a vanilla bean (pod) you take a small paring knive and cut a slit down the entire length of the bean. Using the flat end, you drag your knife across the bean from end to end, scraping the oily seeds from the inside of the pod. Voila! You have vanilla seeds. Because I’m thrifty (AKA cheap) I take the bean husk and store it in a bottle of cheap whisky. In a few months, I’ll have a bottle of vanilla extract. You could also throw the husk into a container of sugar and give it a few shakes now and then to have vanilla-flavored sugar for your coffee or tea. I don’t like my coffee to taste like anything but coffee, but to each his own. Who am I to judge?

Speaking of not judging, I am cheating again with today’s post. (how’s that for a smooth transition?) Anyhoo- I am sharing a story I wrote awhile ago. However, I can count on one hand how many people actually read this story. It’s one of my favorites and hope you enjoy it. It’s a bittersweet tale. Many readers have pointed out that my stories can sometimes be a little sad. Well, to use a cookie metaphor, you have to have a little salt in the dough. The salt makes the sweet taste sweeter. So here’s a salty-sweet story for all of you to munch on. Enjoy.

Maureen, the Dumpster, and Me

It was March of 2001 in the ice-encrusted township of Lenox, Massachusetts.  I was rehearsing the role of Friar Lawrence in a local theatre company’s production of Romeo and Juliet (or as I liked to call it Friar Lawrence’s Problems with Verona’s Postal Service).

One Monday, Arthur, the production’s costume designer, invited me to join him and his apprentice, Josh, for a night out on the town. In Lenox that meant heading to the Cornell Inn, the only drinking establishment in the tiny township. It was a small, historic hotel and bar where many of the locals would escape the bitter cold and indulge in a drink… or four. This was Kennedy country after all. I loved touring the quaint villages throughout the Berkshire Territory with Arthur and Josh.  Both of these uniquely talented fellows possessed aesthetics that ran…well… to the extreme.

Arthur, for instance, always draped himself in colorful silk robes with sequined sandals, his long dark hair pulled back in a bun secured by two lacquered chopsticks. His face was always well powdered and his carefully sculpted eyebrows arched dramatically with each of his frequent and exaggerated facial expressions. He was truly a living, breathing work of art that defiantly thrived on the stares and giggles from the more conservative locals.

Arthur’s painfully thin apprentice, Josh, wore no make-up and his face was simple and freckled- like that of a corn-fed farm boy from the American Heartland. The only thing that differentiated him from a resident of Mayberry was his elaborately crafted Elizabethan corset. Josh, you see, was a corsetiere. He took up this niche-costuming arena as a teen and had been perfecting it ever since. He was very proud of this unique skill and he found the best way to market  his wares was through modeling this courageous attire. A ripped T-Shirt bound by a heavy muslin and whalebone corset accompanied by a full-length, bustled taffeta skirt, usually did the trick. On special occasions he would include a collar – Elizabethan, of course. Upon reflection, Josh could have easily passed as the love child of Opie Taylor and Anne Boleyn.

So, off we went to the Cornell Inn, Arthur draped like Madame Wong  and Josh like Duchess Opie.  I, on the other hand, wore jeans and a plaid shirt.

In the theatre world Mondays are generally the day of rest.  Unfortunately nightlife is scarce at the beginning of the week.  When we arrived at the Inn we found just a smattering of locals.  A few familiar faces dotted the room. They included the production manager and some of the tech staff. They had claimed a table in the corner earlier that evening and were  speaking in loud and fluently drunken dialects. Arthur and Josh entered with their usual low curtsey acknowledging the applause and eye-rolling of the bemused patrons. With a flourish, they claimed their space at the head of the tech personnel’s table.  I opted to sit at the bar and watch a little of the local news since I had no television in my meager cell at the theatre and was eager to see what was happening in the world outside of Massachusetts.

After my drink order arrived and I had settled into the warmth of the dark and smoky room, I relaxed. I took a deep sip of tepid merlot, watched the news flicker before me,  and sensed eyes staring at me from across the bar. A small crooked head tufted with white, tangled hair hovered above a patch of smoke and a half-consumed Turkey and Seven. Expressionless, she drew aggressively on her dark brown Moore cigarette. I nodded politely to her, which solicited no response. I returned my gaze to the television and the dull news of the day.

I could hear Arthur’s tittering of coy laughter from behind his black silk fan, a regular accessory to his ensemble.  I was about to abandon my seat and head over to join the group when I felt a tap on my left shoulder blade.  I turned, and there stood the old woman drooping above the ground staring up at me without any real expression or interest.  She held two fingers up to my face and pulled herself up to the stool next to me with a grunt.  She had a companion with her who remained seated across the carved, mahogany bar. She was a marginally younger woman with long, dark-gray hair and thick eyebrows. I shot her a glance as if to say, “Help me. Your friend scares me.” Reading my puzzlement, she smiled at me with thin painted lips. “She wants to play charades!” –she called out from across the room. My eyes darted to Arthur and Josh who were eagerly signaling me to indulge the old woman with a round.I thought to myself, “Ah, what the hell?” -and so with a nod, I agreed to play.

The old woman snapped into action with jerky, yet remarkably focused gestures. I responded quickly as to not draw out the awkwardness of the situation and get back to my friends.

“Two words…”

“A Play…”

“First word…”

“One Syllable…”

“Sounds like…”

“Hear”-“uh…beer, deer, jeer, peer…Peer!?  Okay Peer…”

The old woman continued.

“Second word…”

“One Syllable…”

“Sounds like…”

“uh… you’re mailing a letter…uh….uh…. sent!…sounds like sent…”


“Gynt!  I’ve got it!  Peer Gynt!”

“Shit!  You’re smarter than you look, kid,” –the old lady boomed.

She held up her small cocktail glass shaking the ice that remained. The vigilant barkeep swept it away from her hand and replaced it with what imagine was her fourth or fifth for the evening. I eyed Arthur out of the corner of my eye and he returned an impish smile. He rose to his feet and crossed the room towards me with great attention spent, of course,  on dramatic hand placement. He bowed reverently before the wheezing old lady, inspiring her to a coughing fit. “She thinks she’s Myrna Loy, for chrissake” she chortled, squelching her cigarette in the now empty glass. “André, I would like to introduce you to Maureen.”, Arthur pronounced with highly affected grandeur. I shook Maureen hand. She looked at me.  She looked at Arthur. She looked back at her friend at the bar and then exploded in laughter.

“This little shit doesn’t know who I am!” she exclaimed.

I had heard there were a few retired celebrities nestled in the quiet comfort of the Berkshires and I did note there was a familiarity to her voice and mannerisms. My mind raced. I remembered when I was a young boy I saw an after-school special based on Ray Bradbury’s short story, I Sing the Body Electric which had been changed in typical Hollywood fashion to the friendlier and far less provocative title- The Electric Grandmother. It’s a fantastic story that has always haunted me. Three children who had lost their mother in an automobile accident receive a coupon for one custom made electrical grandmother.  After visiting the factory run by an eccentric Wonka-esque scientist they receive an Egyptian sarcophagus containing Maureen Stapleton.

Jesus! That’s who was standing before me!

This was the woman I used to fantasize about having  as my own personal robotic grandma. She could record everything you ever said and play it back to you when you had grown older so you could appreciate who you were as a child.  She could reach into her pockets and pull out freshly baked muffins, each containing a fortune with words of wisdom inscribed on them. When I was old and gray and not able to care for myself she would reemerge from granny storage to sing lullabies and stroke my wrinkled brow. Even during my teen years, I had seen her appear in the film Cocoon, further strengthening her role as my fantasy grandmother.  She portrayed a loving grandparent who would never die and who spent her retirement traveling around the universe with friendly glow-in-the-dark aliens and Jessica Tandy. She was my personal fantasy of the perfect grandmother. Unlike my real grandmother, she would never complain or get angry, expel gas or constantly tell me that God was angry with me… and, unlike the woman standing before me, she would certainly never refer to me as a “little shit”!

I grew ten years older that evening as fragments of my fantasy grandmother fell to the floor, blew down the hallway, out of the door and into the cold, dark Berkshire night.

“Did you know I once knocked the shit out of Burt Lancaster?” she asked.  She was sufficiently soused at this point to regale me with a tale from the “glamour days”. Arthur excused himself, having heard these stories many times before.  I, on the other hand, was new meat and needing initiation into Maureen’s Wacky World of Woeful Whiskey Tales. She continued,“I had just come to Hollywood and the studio had hooked me up with a date to a party. I don’t remember who the hell the party was for or who was hosting it but it was the first time I ever drank.”

“That must’ve been some party,” I thought to myself.

“Humphrey Bogart was my studio escort.  A real gentleman.   First class all the way,” she said proudly. “I was quite the looker then and so innocent. I was getting really, really drunk when I noticed this guy wearing sunglasses.  It was eleven o’clock at night for chrissake!  Sunglasses!  That really ticked me off.  I thought it was so pretentious like who does he think he is? So I went up to him and slapped him squarely across the face.”

Maureen paused to see my reaction. She proudly exclaimed-“That son-of-a-bitch was Burt Lancaster. The asshole!.” She laughed heavily, coughed, belched and went on.

“Years later in the seventies I got a call from my agent saying that I was wanted for a part in the movie Airport. ‘I can’t do it,’ I said. ‘Burt Lancaster is in it and… oh screw it…that was so long ago I doubt he remembers’

My agent interrupted, ‘Maureen, listen to me, honey. He remembers’.”

She almost fell out of her chair, hacking with her own amusement. I laughed, still in disbelief as to where the evening had taken me.

As the evening waned, I took a quiet moment to ask her if she remembered working on an after-school special called The Electric Grandmother. She stared back blankly –“You sure it wasn’t Jean Stapleton?  People get me mixed up with that bitch all the time.” I smiled and shrugged.  I knew that she was ashamed for having made what would be considered a B-Film for television. She grabbed her purse and signaled for her companion. “Okay.  Time to go,” she commanded.  “Hey- Help this old lady to her car wontcha?” -she asked while fumbling for her gloves. I helped her with her coat and escorted her out into the night air following the jingle from her tall and rugged companion fumbling with the keys.  I found out later from Arthur that the silent friend’s name was Susan and she was Maureen’s assistant, confidante, and most importantly, her designated driver.  Before reaching the car, Maureen grabbed my hand and leaned down behind the Cornell Inn dumpster.

“Are you alright?”- I asked.

“I will be in a minute. Don’t let go.”- she grunted from a half-squat position.

I thought, during this most surreal moment in my life, about my fantasy grandmother and how fate had put us hand-in-hand on this cold, dark Massachusetts night and how a bit of a childhood fantasy came tumbling down that evening.

Rising from the steamy puddle she had just produced, she grasped my arm tightly to regain her balance. I led her across the slippery ice-covered parking lot to Susan’s car. She stared up at me and I leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek.  She placed her arms around my neck and held me in a warm and sad embrace.  I could smell the liquor and smoke on her coat.  “I had fun kid,” she said as she closed the door.  Susan put the white Cadillac in drive and off they went.  I never ran into Maureen again.

In December, 2005 my real grandmother passed away at the age of 94 and March, 2006  claimed Maureen at 80.

Grandmothers are not electric.

They do expire.

They are both missed.

5 Responses to “Fresh Squeezed Martha!- Vanilla-Bean Spritz Wreaths- 49 eggs, 43 3/4 cups of sugar, 35 sticks of Butter, and 38 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 146 recipes to go!”

  1. Martha in KS Says:

    Andre, I recemtly made a similar cookie for my niece’s graduation party using Martha’s spritz recipe. She loves sunflowers, so I colored the dough yellow & piped enough dough so only a small opening remained in the center. Immediately after I removed them from the oven I popped on a chocolate disk (the kind you use for candy-making). They looked like tiny sunflowers & were the hit of the party. Next time I’ll try this recipe.

  2. Alyse Says:

    I totally remember that after school special. I loved it b movie or not 🙂

  3. Russ Says:

    I loved this story and I loved ol’ Maureen in “Nuts”. She broke my heart in that.

  4. Mary Gemmell Says:

    I remember Maureen as the mother in “Bye, Bye Birdie.” She would say, “It’s good enough for a mother.” What a hoot. It is one of my favorite movies. She slepped through the whole thing in a fur coat and weird shoes.

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