Martha’s Got Grit!- Italian Polenta Cookies! -206 eggs, 156 1/4 cups of sugar, 152 1/2 sticks of Butter, and 192 cups of flour used so far- 60 recipes to go!

April 2, 2011

Martha's Italian Polenta Cookies

André's Italian Polenta Cookies

“What is a grit?” – That was one of the bizarre questions I was asked when I first moved to New York in the Fall of 1986. This question was raised by a classmate of mine, Norman from Queens. I had a difficult time believing that someone above the age of five would have no idea of what grits were. It was at that moment I knew what the term “Cultural Divide” meant.

Martha’s recipe for Italian Polenta cookies is really no different than any other simple pressed butter cookie recipe with the exception of an added dose of corn meal to the usual dry ingredients of flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.  That said, this addition gives this cookie a bit of  grit to its texture and the unmistakable flavor of sweet corn. They’re a simple but quite delicious cookie. Sweet and buttery with a salty bite.  I ignored Martha’s suggestion to pipe these through a pastry bag with a star tip, choosing to implement the cookie press I procured a year ago from the Brooklyn Kitchen (see the link to the right) during a business trip to NYC.  The cookie press had a template that I thought would give a corn-like appearance to the cookies. I don’t know if I was successful or not. Take a look at the photo above and let me know what you think.

I baked up a batch of these for an office birthday party where they quickly and magically disappeared. My co-workers said they detected a bit of lemon in the cookies. The recipe actually called for a bit of lemon zest, but having no lemons in the cupboard, I used orange zest instead. No one could tell the difference. Feel free to use that tip. Citrus is citrus when it comes to the fruit’s zest so you can use them interchangeably if you find yourself lacking the specific citrus.

Growing up in the Parochial school system of Southern Louisiana afforded me the chance to learn about competitiveness from an early age. That’s not to say I’m a competitive person… Who am I kidding?… I’m ridiculously competitive.

My first real experience with competition came in third grade when the little sisters of Saint Thomas More announced auditions for the annual third grade nativity play which would be presented in the school’s cafeteria. I had seen the nativity the year before with the rest of the second-graders and it was magical afternoon. The cafeteria had been converted into Bethlehem, a fantastic desert town made of brown craft paper and tempera paint. Tin foil stars dangled from the acoustic ceiling swaying peacefully against the jets of  forced air from the vents above. A lovely manger, just tall enough to occupy the tiny cast, was built by a group of handy dads who covered the simple wood frame with dead branches from their yards. Pine, elm, maple and oak branches extended out in all directions from the tiny wooden A-frame. This was theatre and I loved it.

Then the performance began. One of the nuns read the story of the birth from the gospel according to Matthew and the kids pantomimed  the events described bypassing the need for memorization and recitation. Little Mary and Joseph  dragged a poor kid in a donkey costume down the aisle to a cardboard door with a tiny sign that read “INN”. Little sad Mary and Joseph pantomimed knocking. The little Inn-Keeper shook his head to indicate no vacancies but kindly pointed to the manger at center stage where little Mary, Joseph and the Donkey joined a cast of other poor third-graders dressed in all sorts of animal costumes. There were camels, cows, sheep, pigs, goats, and ducks. It looked a bit like a deranged version of Charlotte’s Web.

Then came the shepherds with even more kids dressed like sheep. Angels, too joined the group. Lots of them. The ladies auxiliary must’ve lost their minds making so many damn wings and halos. Then there came the piéce de résistance, the three kings of the East. The costumers went all out on these guys. Tin foil crowns with little jewels glued on them made from old Mardi Gras beads. Long capes constructed from black and noisy hefty bags. Each king carried their gift of gold, frankincense and myrrh- or in this case, a tin foil box, an old brass tea pot and a decked out empty bottle of Jack. They were led by an angel with an enormous foil star on the end of a metal baton borrowed from the junior high twirlers squad.

The three tiny wise men entered as the kids sang “We Three Kings of Orient Are…”. The audience applauded and a kajillion photos were shot with intrusive flashes from a kajillion disposable flash cartridges sitting atop a kajillion wondrously compact instamatic cameras. This must be what it’s like to be famous, I thought to myself.

That’s when I knew what I wanted to be doing next Christmas.  I wanted to make that walk down the aisle in a flood of flashes and applause. I wanted a long plastic cape and a tin foil crown. I wanted to carry a foil coffer of gold. I wanted to work that cafeteria runway like a pro. I was going to be the best damn wise man the little sisters of Saint Thomas More had ever seen.

As soon as we got back to our classroom my year-long campaign began. I began baiting teachers with questions.

“So, do you think I could be one of the king’s in the nativity play next year?”

“Do you think I have what it takes to be a king in next year’s nativity play?”

“Which king is the most important?”

“Were they wise men or kings? Which is it?” (This would, of course, affect my eventually interpretation of the role.)

Finally in the Winter of my third-grade year the sisters announced auditions. I had trained myself for this moment. I knew that I wanted to be Melchior. I liked the name. It had a better ring to it than Caspar or Balthazar. As far as I was concerned Melchior was to the Magi as Diana Ross was to the Supremes.

Sister Barbara had all the kids line up according to height and began handing out parts. Wait a minute! This was the audition? No emoting? No pantomime? No interview? Just choosing kids by height so they’d fit the costumes from last year? This isn’t very professional or fair, I thought to myself.

My mind raced. How tall were the wise men from the year before? Quick! Think! Think, before you end up in a pig costume!

I inched up on my toes a bit and stood a straight as I could and moved myself on tiptoe towards the end of the line with the taller boys in the class.  The sisters were assigning parts rapidly with one pointing to student after student and calling out the role while another sister scribbled it down on her clipboard.

Donkey… Duck… Angel… Sheep… Cow… Angel… Angel… Shepherd… Mary… Joseph… Etc…

The sisters approached the end of the line where the taller kids stood, including myself on tiptoe. I held my breath and prayed a silent prayer that they’d choose me to be a king.

“Eric, you’ll play a king.”

“…and you too, Corey.”

“…And let’s see, uh… André, you’ll play a…”

“A king!?” – I exclaimed excitedly.

“Sure. You can be a king.”- Sister Barbara said with a chuckle.

At the performance I worked the runway. I developed a unique walk in the garbage bag cape so it would emit as much noise as possible ensuring that all eyes would be on me. I mugged for the cameras and over the course of the next few years I spoke fondly and often of my brilliant turn as Melchior, the most dynamic of the Magi trio. He was the most important, I explained, because he brought gold to the baby Jesus and people can always use gold much more than frankincense or myrrh.

Two years after that famed cafeteria performance of the Nativity story, or as I took to calling it, Melchior’s Entrance into Bethlehem, my sister was cast as Mary, mother of God- Queen of Heaven.


When it comes to the nativity Queen trumps King.

I fold.

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