Julia Swirski James-Markowski gently laughed at me as I unsuccessfully tried (again) to remove sticky rectangles of dough from the table and fold them into twisted cookies called Chruscikis aka Polish Bow Tie Cookies. We’re at her youngest son’s Gary’s house in Baltimore and she’s shared a 100 year old recipe that her Polish mother, Michealina brought over on the boat to Ellis Island.
Earlier this afternoon Julia, (known as Gram Julia to her five grandchildren and three great grandchildren), made the dough by creating a well in the flour, putting sugar in it and then mixing the two around. She cracked in 3 eggs, added a large dollop of sour cream, the butter, and a teaspoon of vanilla. She incorporated a shot of Bacardi rum and then stirred until the dough became sticky and a little lumpy. She formed it into a ball and kneaded it for 10-12 minutes, adding more flour to keep it from being too sticky.
Chruscikis are a favorite cookie her mother used to make so as she worked, Julia told me about growing up in Brooklyn. The fourth of six children, Julia had a happy childhood even though her family struggled to make ends meet. When she was younger she promised that when she grew up and made her own money, she would buy anything and everything she wanted. Now at 83 years old, she is a strong, independent woman and a self-proclaimed shopaholic. She buys jewelry, clothing, whatever she wants. She lives with her eldest son, Robert and they enjoy visiting Atlantic City and going out to nice dinners. Julia is living the life she always wanted but it took her a while to get there.
As a counter girl at Nedicks in Manhattan, 17 year old Julia sold oranges and sandwiches to the Wall Street money men. She quickly advanced to sandwich making and then became a manager. In pursuit of a higher salary, she left Nedicks and went to work as a food checker for the New Jersey Central Railroad. For three years she sat in the back of the restaurant and as the food came out of the kitchen, she would write it up on the customer’s check. It was here that she met her first husband, Gilbert James. They married when she was 20 and exactly 9 months and 5 days later she had her first son, Robert. Seven years later she gave birth to her second son, Gary.
Julia’s hands moved quickly as she floured the bowl and then put the dough back in. She tore off a handful of dough and rolled it out until it’s a 10 inch wide circle. The dough is thin and delicate. She cut it into long strips and then cut each strip into smaller 2 ½ to 3 inch rectangles. Each circle of dough produced approximately one dozen rectangles. In the middle of each rectangle, she cut a 1 inch slit, then took the bottom corner of dough and pulled it up and through the slit to form the twisted cookie. Her hands moved quickly, confidently. After completing the first batch, she let me try. This is when my fumble-fingers struggled to lift the rectangles from the table. I tore through the dough, destroying the shape. Gram Julia is compassionate and understanding. She nicely took the dough from me and rolled it out again.
While rolling the dough, Julia told me about the time she spent working at the Federal Reserve Bank in NYC, first as a punch card operator and later on the check sorting machine. She was a stay-at-home mom in the early 1950s and then in 1955 she took a job with Guarantee Bank (now Morgan Chase). During her 33 year tenure there, she processed checks as a senior clerk and then managed loans.
Lifting a heavy cast-iron pan she brought from home, and filling it with shortening, Julia discussed her divorce from Gilbert in 1967 and marriage to her second husband Walter. They were married for 25 years and she helped raise his daughter from a previous marriage. She and Walter lived in New Jersey. Speaking of Julia’s home, this might be a good time to mention that not only did Julia bring the pan from her house in New Jersey, she also packed all of the ingredients, the mixing bowls, the table, everything. She is known for her consistent good cooking and wanted the recipe to be perfect-exactly like she makes at home.
The pan is filled with enough vegetable shortening that the cookies float while frying. A paper towel-lined plate next to the stove, is ready to receive the cookies. Testing the oil, the first cookie doesn’t sizzle because the shortening wasn’t hot enough. By the time she is on the 5th cookie, it fried up very quickly. Tongs are used to get the cookies in and out of the pan. When the cookies got a little darker around the sides, they were turned over and fried on the other side. The cookies expand while frying, doubling their size. The first few came out very light and Julia said that they are really meant to help color the oil. The flour came off of them and stayed in the oil which darkened it and insured a beautiful golden color for the rest of the cookies. Once the cookies are finished frying, she removed them from the pan and left them to cool on paper-towel-covered plates. After they cool, they are transferred to a large grocery-store brown paper bag for storage.
Gram Julia plated a bunch of cookies and garnished them with a healthy amount of powdered sugar. She advised me to keep the rest stored plain, in the paper bag and then sugar them right before eating. Otherwise, they will absorb the sugar and become too moist. As we work, her sons Gary and Robert play pool in the basement, checking on us frequently, the smell of sugar frying a siren call. Gary told me, “these cookies, they remind me of happy occasions as a family. In our book, this was a sweet treat.” He and Robert sneak a cookie before we’ve finished making the batch. I take one too. It is crunchy and sweet. The taste reminded me of the pizzelle waffle cookies except these are lighter, more delicate. Gram Julia saw my reaction and said, “when I cook, I make it all with love. If you don’t make it with love, it doesn’t come out good.”
-1 jigger = 1 shot glass
-When making the recipe, it’s fun to add one jigger of rum to the dough and then drink 1 jigger. (Note: if you are a lightweight drinker like me, it will not make twisting the cookies any easier).
-I roll dough the same way I roll through life—full force. There is nothing delicate about my approach. And in making these cookies, as with life, sometimes this can cause extra challenges. Learn from my mistakes. When making these cookies, be especially careful with the fragile dough.
(yields 70-90 depending on how thin you roll the dough)
-2 cups flour (plus a little more as needed)
-3/4 cup granulated sugar
-3 Tbsp melted and cooled butter
-1 heaping Tbsp sour cream
-1 tsp vanilla
-1 jigger Rum
-Enough vegetable shortening for frying (approx 2 cups)
-Mix all ingredients above until it forms a sticky dough.
-Flour table and empty bowl of dough onto table.
-Gently knead dough until it is no longer sticky (approx 12 minutes). Add additional flour as needed to reduce the stickiness.
-Tear off a fist full of dough and put the rest back in the bowl covered with a damp towel.
-Roll out the fist full of dough until it is thin but won’t tear. Gram Julia rolls hers out into a circular shape.
-Cut dough into long 1 ½ inch wide strips, then cut vertically into smaller 3 inch pieces.
-Cut an inch long slit in the center of each strip.
-By now, your rolled out and cut dough should resemble the image to the right.
-Pick up a small rectangle of dough. Take the bottom of the dough and fold it up and through the slit so it now drapes over the other side. Do the same with the rest of the cut pieces.
-Roll and cut the rest of the dough until it is ready to be fried.
-Heat up the vegetable shortening in a skillet and make sure it is hot, but not burning.
-Place the twisted cookies in the oil to fry. The thinner the dough, the faster it will fry. It should only take about one minute to fry one side.
-Once the cookie’s edges look golden brown, flip them and let them brown a bit on the other side as well.
-When finished frying, place cookies on paper towel to cool.
-For storage, place 2-3 pieces of paper towel in a brown paper bag and gently put the cookies in there. They should keep fresh for a week (if they don’t get eaten first).
-To sugar: put cookies on a plate and then sprinkle powdered sugar on top of them. Do not put sugar in bag with cookies and shake – the cookies are delicate and will easily break if you do this.