Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Tillie's Chocolate Bit Cookies

Holiday baking is upon us. I tend to associate Chanukah with two cookies: snowballs and rugelach. Both are cookies my Nana Tillie made, and later my mom and I. But there's one more cookie from Tillie that I hadn't thought about in years--chocolate bit cookies, a layered treat with a cookie base, topped by chocolate chips, then brown sugar merengue, and finally chopped walnuts. One bite gives you a crisp cookie popping with sweet chocolate, then comes the snap of the merengue and savory warm crunch of the nuts. It's heavenly. When I came across the recipe on a couple of index cards clipped into in a denim cookbook she made for me decades ago it caused a reflexive smile.

And then I realized I had to make it.

Tillie used to send me these Chocolate Bit cookies wrapped in wax paper, along with the snow balls and her other legendary sweet, mandelbread, all packed tightly in a shoe box--mailed first class all the way from Arcadia, Calif. to Manhattan, NYC, where I was living and working after college. They would arrive at the mailroom at The William Morris Agency, where I worked, the box wrapped in a brown paper grocery bag. If I was lucky, by the time the mailboy (yes, then always a guy) delivered the box to me the tape and twine were still intact and the cookies still cookies, not crushed into crumbs. But I never got many home. Once I opened that box, it would be a free for all among my friends and co-workers. That box's arrival always was bittersweet. I loved the treats inside but it would make me weepy with homesickness.

My Nana passed away many years later, after I returned to L.A. and I got her to make me that little cookbook. The chocolate bit cookie seemed to have died with her. My mom and I annually make the snowballs and mandelbread. I still love making rugelach. But for some reason the chocolate bit cookies hadn't stayed in play.

But they're back now!

I actually have two versions of the recipe--one handwritten by Tillie and the other in the calligraphy my mom was focused on back in the '80s. They were slightly different. Tillie used Crisco, Mom used butter. The number of eggs was a little different. And so on. I figured the best way to tackle it was to have Mom come over and make them with me.

That's what we did last Sunday afternoon. For my mom, reading recipes isn't good enough. It's all about the feel. She's very insistent that you have to internalize the texture when making these and other cookies. And these cookies have a special meaning to her. Tillie made them for her when she was a child.

For this cookie, the layers can seem a bit intimidating if you haven't made them. Tillie even acknowledged this on her index card, at the end of the recipe.

"This may sound like a difficult cookie--but it is not," she wrote. "Enjoy--enjoy. Nana"

She's right. It's not. We fiddled a little, compromised a little. Instead of all Crisco or all butter, we used a 3-to-1 ratio to get the butter's richness and flavor and the crispness you get from shortening. We added an extra egg white to have more merengue, doubled the amount of walnuts, and tried a slightly longer baking time. I think we ended up with a cookie Nana would enjoy. Mom certainly did!

Tillie's Chocolate Bit Cookies
(printable recipe)
Yield: About 30 squares, depending on how you cut them

12 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons shortening, like Crisco
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups AP flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ounces chocolate chips
3 egg whites
1 cup brown sugar, sifted
2 cups walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped


Pre-heat oven to 350°.

Cream together butter, shortening, and sugars. Slowly add the egg yolks, water, and vanilla.

Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add to butter mixture. Mix well.

Pat cookie Fill a small bowl with water and wet your fingers. Then use your fingers to press mixture into a 10 X 15-inch cookie sheet. The water will keep the dough from sticking to your fingers. Spread chocolate chips evenly over the dough and lightly press in.

Beat egg whites and slowly add brown sugar. Beat until the whites form soft peaks.

Dot merengue mixture on top of chocolate chips and cookie dough, then smooth evenly with an offset spatula.

Sprinkle chopped walnuts on top of merengue.

Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Cool and cut into squares.

Note: These cookies are freezable, but the merengue texture won't be as great after defrosting. Also, my mom tells me that if you are eating them a day or so after baking, heat them very briefly--like 7 seconds--in the microwave to freshen them.

Happy Chanukah!

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