“You just ate a chrusciki,” I say to my father, eyeing up the telltale powdered sugar on his shirt.
“Well,” he says, shrugging. “What’s wrong with that?”
Absolutely nothing in my book.
It is my Uncle Charles’ 90th birthday party, and we’re at a rental hall in White Marsh. There’s been crab soup and fried chicken, all provided by a caterer, but the plate of chrusciki, the fried cookies also known as bow ties or angels’ wings, are my cousin Joann’s doing. The chrusciki are perfect, thin as potato chips, slashed through the middle and twisted through themselves, their sharp corners softened by a dusting of confectioners sugar. They are labor intensive and addictive, and we devour them without shame.
On my Polish father’s side of the family, no special occasion was ever marked without a tray of chrusciki. On Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday, chrusciki were piled high on paper plates that left dusty traces of sugar on the dining room buffet. And for every wedding— including mine and my sister’s— my late Aunt Stella, Uncle Charles’ wife and my father’s sister, produced a platter that sat beckoning, rustic and angular, next to a soft, frumpy traditional wedding cake.
I’ve eaten dozens of chrusciki but have never made them. “Too much work,” says my mother, not Polish, but half Slovak, who made them once with her mother. “You have to roll the dough so thin,” she says. “And your grandmother fried them in lard.”
My cousins, daughters of my father’s sisters who have now taken up the task of making the chrusciki, have invited me to learn from them, but somehow our schedules have never overlapped. Frankly, I’d been resigned to being a chrusciki eater rather than a chrusciki maker. Then I met Adele Reidy at a friend’s house.
Adele has lived in Baltimore for more than 50 years, but she still considers Chicago home, especially the South Side where she grew up in a Polish family of Wysockis, Dyniewiczes and Kaczkowskis. And when Adele learned I was Polish, she immediately ran down the Polish food she grew up with: galupki (stuffed cabbage), pirogi, czarnina (duck’s blood soup) and chrusciki.
“Chrusciki are my father’s favorites,” I explained.
“Well, we should make them some-time,” she urged, and each time I saw her, she reminded me of our potential chrusciki date, until we finally made one.
I join Adele one morning in what she calls her “retro” kitchen. A white linen tea towel dusted with flour, ready for rolling dough thinly, lies on a countertop, and in a metal pot on the burner a white lump of Crisco melts slowly into a golden viscous liquid. A small magnet on the refrigerator door marks the room as a “polska kucina” (Polish kitchen).
“In my mother’s family, cooking was an art,” says Adele, as she hands me an apron and opens a binder of recipes assembled by the women in her family as a wedding gift for a cousin’s daughter. Even so, the chrusciki recipe is not from her mother, but from “Anga,” a woman described in the cookbook as “right hand” and “a Lady Friday” who often helped out in Adele’s home. “Anga could do anything,” Adele confides, and her chrusciki were “the most delicate chrusciki imaginable.”
We begin by beating egg yolks with a wire whisk darkened with age. Adele measures in sour cream and sugar by the tablespoon and then opens a bottle of Canadian Mist for a tablespoon of whiskey. “You can use whatever whiskey you have around,” she advises. (My cousins use rum.) Our hands collide as she adds the vanilla, and a good splash beyond the called for half-teaspoon goes into the batter. No matter, we think, but as we add the flour, scooped into a metal cup and leveled off with a knife, it’s clear that we’re going to need a little more dry to counteract the wet. “Adding flour is an iffy thing,” counsels Adele. How much you use depends on the flour itself, the weather— or maybe how much extra vanilla you accidentally add to the batter.
“Another quarter-cup of flour?” she asks, as I begin to knead the dough with my hands because it’s too sticky to manipulate with the whisk. “Let’s do it by tablespoons,” she says as she adds a little at a time.
“I often think some of these recipes are not for first-time cooks,” she murmurs as the dough finally comes together, for here we are well-seasoned home cooks challenged by a little dough. But not for long. Adele deftly rolls out the dough with a stocking-covered rolling pin, reaches for the small metal pastry wheel and begins cutting the dough into vertical rows and then into diamonds. She takes a knife and cuts a vertical slash in the middle diamond and pulls one pointy end through the opening and then hands one to me for frying. I slip the pastry into the fat, which bubbles like champagne, turn it once and pull it out with the aid of an ancient pickle fork. In less than 30 seconds, I have a chrusciki, a little thick and smelling faintly of vanilla, but a chrusciki. It’s not potato chip thin, but it still tastes good.
We continue the process, Adele rolling and cutting and me frying until we have a pile of cookies that we sprinkle with confectioners sugar and stack into a silver basket Adele and her family have always used for that purpose. I take a photo, and it feels like a special occasion, even if our chrusciki aren’t quite what they should have been. “Even bad stuff fried has good moments,” I say consolingly.
Polish food has yet to become fashionable. Despite the efforts of the primly Polish Martha Stewart and her late mother, (Big) Martha Kostyra, despite Mrs. T’s, Fells Point’s Holy Rosary Parish, the Krakow deli, and Ze Mean Bean, pirogis have not become as common as ravioli. Galupkis are not the hip alternative to stuffed peppers, and czarnina will need a very good agent (or an artisan soup monger in Brooklyn) before it catches on. But chrusciki have always seemed a no-brainer to me: how can you go wrong with dough and hot oil and confectioners sugar? Even if you do happen to go a little wrong, they still taste awfully right.