Saturday, May 13, 2017

Anise Egg Biscuits


Happy Mother's Day Eve, ya'll!  I'm embarrassed to admit that I actually wrote about half of this post in March and just never finished it.  At the time, the Mini just had a few sleepovers at her grandparents' houses, and was so excited.  Our parents help us out a ton, watching the kids on work days - so you would think that it wouldn't be as much of a novelty for Min to sleep over.  But nope, she loved every second, and it made me nostalgic about my own childhood sleepovers with my grandparents.

I guess its fitting that I post this at a time when we honor the mothers and mother-figures who impact our lives... right?

Ok. So before I ever slept at a friend's house, I stayed overnight with my grandparents.  Those will always be my first memories of a "sleepover," though they continued for many years into my childhood.

It's no secret that the best grandparent sleepovers (and just general encounters) are the ones without your parents. This way, your grandparents can fully spoil you to both your, and their, heart's content.

Yes, I'm a parent now, and sometimes I do get agita over some of the things our parents do with our kids.

Things like feeding my then-18-month-old son an ungodly amount of fish sticks "because he just kept eating them."

Things like letting my then-3-year-old daughter sleep on the living room couch until Mr. Vittles and I returned home at 11 PM "because she wanted to."

Things like giving my now-4-year-old daughter whipped cream on crackers to eat "because by the way she asked for it, we thought it was something you give her."

<Sigh.>

It doesn't help that Mini is super smart and purposely tries to push boundaries and see what she can get away with.  I'm also probably just jealous that I end up being the stick-in-the-mud bad guy with the rules and the no's all the time.  Nonetheless, I'm not that far removed from being a youngster that I can't still appreciate how freaking awesome it is to stay with your grandparents. Grandparents are the best.

Since I had divorced parents (and later, step-parents) from a pretty young age, I was lucky enough to have four sets of grandparents growing up - and trust me, they all spoiled the living daylights out of me!  But on the topic of grandparent sleepovers, I will focus on my dad and mom's parents.

My dad's parents, or "Yaya and Poppa" as I called them, lived in the same apartment in a Connecticut city for most of my childhood.  In fact, they lived there around 50 years before they were finally convinced to move to a stand-alone house (and safer neighborhood).

Yaya & Poppa, 1990

The apartment wasn't the biggest, but it was cozy.  They shared it with a white cat named Snowy, and a little brown dog named Cocoa.  Cocoa (or "Tutu," as my grandfather inexplicably called her) did not like to eat dog food.  Legend has it that Yaya dropped a meatball while cooking one day, and Cocoa sampled the goods.  Once she discovered the glory of "people food," she never looked back. She also never stopped smelling unnaturally awful, as dogs apparently are not meant to eat pasta fagioli on the regular.  (Just a tip for all the dog owners out there, in case you were wondering.)

Me & Cocoa aka "Tutu"

I slept in their back bedroom where there was a twin bed and a little TV, but I always watched television with Yaya in the living room before bed.  We would probably watch a Lifetime-type movie or an uplifting show like "Touched by an Angel."  She was a night owl and loved to sleep in, just like me.  Poppa was inevitably out there too, probably grumbling about the poor choice of television programming (his idea of a good show was more along the lines of "Lassie" or "Walker, Texas Ranger.")  But he had little choice, because the couch was also his bed.  By the time I came along, Yaya had enough with his snoring and banished him to a separate room.  I think he usually slept in the spare room, but when I was there he slept on the couch.

At some point during my stay, I knew I would have to make a visit to their landlord, a woman named Vera who lived in the apartment upstairs.  When you live in the same place for that many years, I guess your landlord becomes part of your family.  She also never had children of her own, so she sort of adopted my cousins and I as her grandchildren.  Vera was a tiny, elderly lady, usually in a hairnet, who didn't get out much - so she really looked forward to our visits.  For as sweet as she was, she was also very eccentric.  These days, people would probably refer to her as 'a hoarder.'  Not sure that term was used back then, but I remember she had giant piles of magazines that she would have to move off of the couch for her guests to sit down.  Her apartment looked exactly like my grandparents,' but in all the times I visited her, I never got past the front living room. After a bit of chatting about school & the like, she would hobble to the kitchen and come back with a cup of cranberry ginger ale for you.  If you were lucky, she might give you a strawberry hard candy or a sheet of stickers she got in the mail from Easter Seals charity.  If you were really lucky, she might even put a few dollars in your little paw before you left.

Aside from the obligatory Vera visit, Yaya always had fun activities planned - especially with my cousins, aunts, & uncles.  My cousin Sandi was the same age as me, and Yaya would take us to the park and a restaurant called Ground Round that served popcorn and showed movies.  In the summer, she would take us to swim in her sister's pool, our Aunt Theresa.

Me, Sandi, & Yaya at the park

But oddly enough, all these years later, it's mostly the downtime that I remember.  I would look at the same bunch of pictures that had been hanging on the wall for probably 25 years, and thumb through the old photo albums she kept in the spare room where I slept.  I would marvel at the pictures of my grandfather at the beach, without a shirt on (I had personally never seen him in anything less than an undershirt and pants- never even shorts).  After having a shower, I would sneak a few dabs of Yaya's Jean Nate After-Bath Splash, and feel very fancy.  At night, before I fell asleep, I would stare at the glowing rosary beads she left hanging next to my bed and wonder if they were magic.

And of course, one of my favorite parts of our sleepovers was the fact that she always had the pantry stocked with my favorite snacks, as well as ones I had never even heard of.  Yaya was the first to introduce me to Bugles (aka edible cheesy fingernails, when you put them on your fingertips).  She also made pitchers of Crystal Light lemonade so sweet that my cousins and I all knew better than to drink the last cup in the bottom, unless you wanted to burn off all your taste buds.


Such good grandparents to put on these horrible shirts I bought them

Sleepovers at my mom's parents, who I called "Grammy and Gramps," were different but just as awesome. Oddly enough, though, they also included way-too-sweet Crystal Light lemonade - I'm assuming that was a pantry staple of the times?

Grammy & Gramps, late 80's

In any event, Grammy & Gramps lived close to us, so I was there a lot more often. They moved from Connecticut to New Jersey when I was around 5 years old, and they bought a huge house with a pool. Summer days were spent there swimming until my lips turned blue. I can remember helping my grandfather test the pH of the pool water, as well as the sound of my grandmother's bangle bracelets jingling under the water when she would take her one & only dip of the day.  I would speculate that it had to be at least 125 degrees outside for Grammy to get in there more than once a day.  Gramps, on the other hand, was an avid swimmer and spent countless hours in the pool with me, teaching me all the moves he knew- which included squirting people by squeezing the water with your fist.

For cold or rainy days, Grammy and Gramps had an old pinball machine in the basement, and an assortment of old toys and games up in the attic.  I can still remember how the attic smelled, and how it kind of gave me the creeps (even though it was partly finished, and a perfectly nice attic.)  They also had a player piano, which I loved. Most of the rolls they had for the self-playing feature were Christmas carols, so the family would all gather around the piano and sing carols at the holidays.  I never learned how to play the piano, so the rest of the year I would just plink away, for probably way longer than my grandparents' ears would have liked, trying to teach myself simple melodies.

1992

They had 2 guest rooms, 3 if you counted the attic "bedroom" - but I always slept in the same room with two twin beds.  It faced the driveway, and I can remember the sound of my grandfather's brakes squeaking as he left to play golf in the wee hours of the morning.  When he came home later, he would usually take me for ride to go get the mail from their post office box, but I also loved to go for rides in Grammy's jaunty little BMW convertible, complete with sheepskin seat covers.  And instead of Yaya's Jean Nate's after-bath splash, I looked forward to feeling fancy after a few puffs of Grammy's Estee Lauder powder in her master bathroom.

On summer days off from school, I loved to watch The Price is Right.  At night before bed, we watched Wheel of Fortune - Grammy was a whiz at the puzzles, and thought Vanna White was "really something else" with all those dresses.  And every day at lunch, Grammy had to watch her "story,"which was the soap opera "The Young and the Restless." I can still remember the theme song perfectly, and it transports me back to sitting on a bench in their kitchen, in a damp bathing suit, munching on a sandwich in front of their tiny "portable" TV.

But much like trying to make small talk with an elderly, hoarding hermit, not all memories were glorious. With all the time spent outside, I remember plucking a preposterous amount of holly leaves off of the bottom of my bare feet.  Yowza.  I really hope the holly trees predated the pool, otherwise that was a terrible landscape decision.  Also, Grammy frequently stocked her fridge with processed "cheese food" slices that my mother basically considered poison, as well as lactose-free milk (which wouldn't be a huge deal in 2017, but Lactaid in the late 80s/early 90s was pretty brutal).  Let's just say I was less than thrilled whenever Grammy announced that dinner would be a "toasted cheese sandwich" (as she called grilled cheese) and a glass of milk!

Grammy & Me, 1985

If I could force down enough of the toasted cheese, though, I was typically rewarded with ice cream, sherbert, or one of my favorites - creamsicles. Interestingly enough, I always looked forward to breakfast the most.  I was a terribly picky eater but I ate almost any kind of fruit, and Grammy would slice a grapefruit in half, meticulously cut the sections one by one, and top it all off with a sprinkle of sugar.  I rarely ate grapefruit at home so I thought it was fun to scoop out each individual piece with her special spoons - but the best part was the end when you squeezed what was left of your grapefruit half into the bowl and drank the juice.

Another one of my favorite parts of breakfast there was Roman Egg Biscuits by Stella D'Oro.  Grammy usually kept them in a glass jar on the counter, and they were so yummy.  I recently got a craving for them, and made it my mission to find a copycat recipe.  I actually think the manufacturer stopped making them, but I wouldn't be able to eat them now anyway being gluten free.

I never really found anything that was a "copycat," but the interwebs kept pointing me to a Greek cookie/biscuit that seemed very similar.  So I gave it a shot and added a little anise flavoring to make it more... er, Roman?  I don't know.  But it seemed like a good idea, and I'm glad I did.


At this point, I haven't had a roman egg biscuit in so long that I can't really judge how similar they taste.  But these seem pretty close, and either way they are damn delicious.  Great with tea or coffee.  I shared some with my dad and stepmom, and they really liked them too.  My stepmom admitted she was wary of the anise, but said it was more subtle than she was expecting and a nice twist.  You could always use strictly vanilla, though, if you are unsure.

More importantly, I wish I could go back and have a sleepover with my grandparents again- such happy memories.  I am so thankful my kids will have their own memories with their grandparents! Having lost nearly all of my 8 grandparents at this point, I can say that time spent together is truly priceless.  Whipped cream crackers and all!

Anise Egg Biscuits

6 T. butter
1/4 C. white sugar
1/4 t. pure vanilla extract
1/4 t. pure anise extract
2 eggs, divided
1 C. all-purpose flour (I used Cup 4 Cup gluten free flour so it should work with any regular flour)
pinch salt
1 1/2 t. baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Grease or line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat butter until light & fluffy.  Add sugar & beat a couple minutes on medium speed. Add one of the eggs, and beat well.  Beat in vanilla and anise.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt.  Add dry ingredients to butter mixture and stir to form a soft dough.  (If dough cannot be easily handled, add a bit more flour until desired consistency is reached).

Lightly flour a work surface and hands.  Break off 1-inch lumps of dough, and roll into ropes about 7-inches long and 1/4 inch in diameter on floured surface.  Cross the ends, and cross ends again, forming a braid.  Place biscuits on cookie sheet 1-inch apart.

Beat remaining egg, and brush onto biscuits for glaze.  Bake in preheated oven 13 to 16 minutes, or until golden. Remove from oven & let cool 2 minutes on sheet, then transfer to cooling racks.  Makes about 18 biscuits.

Recipe adapted from Allrecipes.com

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