A Love Letter to the Cookie Table
Musings on Italian Wedding Cookies for when the World has gone Mad.
Usually I can take or leave dessert — I’ll almost always choose another helping of savory over a final course of sweet. When I do indulge, and when given the choice, pie is my favorite — it’s at the same time decadent and simple, and I’m a sucker for a delicious pie crust. You’ll never see me choose a slice of cake from a dessert display. That has been ruined for me by the contrast of years of delicious wedding cakes to too many cake wrecks made by my own hand. Of course I’ll always have a bite of wedding cake or birthday cake for good luck — that’s practically a law! Creme brulee, mousse, fruit tarts — all are simply beautiful and perfect in their own way, but I usually say no. Cookies, however, are my downfall. There is nothing quite as satisfying as a perfect cookie: its mere existence offers a wealth of possibilities, something to accommodate every taste, texture preference, and dietary restriction. It’s a decadent mini-treat that isn’t the commitment of a more intimidating dessert. I can never, ever refuse a homemade cookie.
The process of baking cookies can make even the least successful cook feel like a master baker. With a little bit of research and practice, literally anyone can find their unique, specialty cookie. Recipes for the simple, unassuming chocolate chip cookie include variations and combinations of butter vs margarine vs shortening, chewy vs soft, with nuts or without. People feel strongly about their selections and will not be swayed otherwise. Many keep their secret weapons close to the chest, a treasure only to be passed along after the baker has moved to the next life. A quick online search of “Italian wedding cookies recipe” produces 22,500,000 results for a single variety of cookie that is also known as Russian tea cookies or Spanish butterballs — a glorious combination of butter, flour, and ground nuts, rolled in powdered sugar. Absolutely anyone can find their cookie to master.
A Wedding Cookie table is often misunderstood by those who have never experienced one. As confusing as the tradition may seem, those of us who grew up attending receptions with cookie tables can’t imagine a wedding without it. There’s deep nostalgia attached to a table of wedding cookies. My favorite interpretation of how the tradition came to pass is that of the Great Depression. Wedding cakes were expensive and indulgent; to relieve that financial pressure on the bride’s family, relatives and close friends baked their special cookie recipes. It was done with love and in the spirit of community. My Western PA-based, immigrant family embodies that spirit: every wedding invitation receives a response of “I’ll make cookies,” whether or not that guest plans to attend. They’re different from Christmas cookies or after school snacks, not anything like bake sale donations or yet another flavor of Oreos. They’re handcrafted, sometimes done so months in advance and carefully frozen. When I was a child they arrived at the bride’s parents’ home in carefully packed coffee cans and shoeboxes. It was a game-changer the first time one of my cousins offered bags in which to take cookies home from her reception — previously we wrapped them in napkins and stuffed them in mom’s purse.
Our weddings always had several versions of biscotti and pizzelles; we could look at the abundant trays and tell which ones came from which Aunt’s kitchen. They were all delicious, but Aunt Louise’s pizzelle recipe was — and still is — known throughout the family as the best. There were simpler, everyday cookies like Kiss in the dark and peanut butter blossoms, buckeyes and chocolate crinkles; beautiful and time-consuming Italian rainbow cookies and apricot turnovers (a surprising cookie — the dough includes cream cheese, to create a perfect, flaky crust). Orange-ricotta cookies and crumbly rum balls; delicate, crispy wandi, fried and dusted with powdered sugar, layered with paper towels and transported in an enormous box to keep them safe between home and the wedding reception. A mountain of perfect lady locks, in our family most recently crafted by my late, great-Uncle Pete, who chose baking as the task that would fill his time upon retiring from the steel mill. I never had the chance to ask him about the process of mixing the dough, leaving it to chill overnight, rolling and forming it into horns before baking, allowing the resulting pastry to cool just enough but not too much before filling them with buttercream. How similar was the art of producing thousands of tiny cookies to decades of doing whatever was his assigned task in the mill? In comparison, I lack the patience even to allow a stick of butter to soften.
When I began planning weddings professionally I was surprised at how strongly some people — both clients and colleagues — felt AGAINST the wedding cookie table. I’ve seen one side of a couple try to explain, at length, how much the cookie table means to their family, to be scoffed at by the other side. Often one parent of the four is simply dying for something to contribute, so they are assigned the job of wrangling the cookie table. From a logistical standpoint, the cookie table can be a nightmare. The table itself, which is never just one table, takes up valuable real estate in a reception venue. There’s an expectation that every cookie will be displayed at all times. The caterer has to tray the cookies, which is no small feat when there are so many varieties. Usually there are a couple of Aunts assigned to make sure the staff does it to the bride’s mother’s standards. In addition to small plates and napkins, there must be a way for people to take cookies home. We spend hours discussing pros and cons of a box versus a bag, reminding everyone, Italian or not, that the vessel has to be large enough to hold a 3 ¼ inch diameter pizzelle.
A young, friendly couple came to us in our first year of business with a wedding date and a carefully-planned budget. We helped them to design a beautiful, low-key wedding that was heavy on Penn State blue with pops of yellow. They were relieved that we were familiar with the tradition of the cookie table. We assured them that we’d have plenty of table space and display trays. “Don’t tell my mom,” the groom told us, a gigantic smile spreading across his face, “but my aunt’s caramel cups are my favorite!” On the day before the wedding, we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of dozens of cookies. They simply kept arriving. All of my family’s recipes were there, plus some I’d never seen in person: most striking were Italian peach cookies that looked more like a ripe peach than does an actual peach. The tables filled with wedding cookies stretched across the entire room. Our caterer ran out of display trays and had to improvise with dinner plates and cutting boards. With cheerful permission from the couple, I sampled as many varieties as possible — quality control, you know. I kept an eye out for the caramel cups, since the groom insisted.
Clearly I fancy myself as a wedding cookie expert, but I had never tasted a caramel cup before AJ and Jamie’s wedding. It’s possible that it either is not a cookie recipe anyone in my family has tried to master or, just as likely, the visual of that particular cookie didn’t catch my eye at any one of the dozens of family weddings I’ve attended, nor at the hundreds I’ve coordinated. At first glance a caramel cup looks like a mini version of a pumpkin pie with whipped cream: a single, delicate crust, creamy filling, a dollop of sweet, white cream on top. Eaten properly, it takes two bites. It’s too small to require more than that; taking it in a single bite does not allow one to savor the combination of textures and flavors. I braced myself for something sickening-sweet: one cookie, I was certain, would be enough. With the first bite I expected puff pastry, sticky caramel, and Cool Whip. What I got was a thin, lightly sweet cookie crust, tender and just enough crumb; creamy caramel that was the stuff of dreams; topped with whipped cream that had to have been made by hand. Nothing mass-produced could have tasted that good. I’ve searched for that recipe, in hopes that I could recreate it. I’ve read about it enough to know that a mix of wrapped caramels and evaporated milk gives the filling richness and body without taking on the qualities that I was afraid of.
As the evening progressed, we stayed in the background. No one needs the wedding planner to hang around the center of the action. There’s a glorious moment during every reception when the bride and groom are relaxed and happy, all formalities complete, as they dance with friends, flushed and laughing. AJ and Jamie’s gleeful orbit crossed ours. I grabbed the groom’s arm and told him, my smile almost matching his, that I had tasted one of the life-changing caramel cups. His eyes became huge and he shouted, “Aren’t they THE BEST?” A moment later they were back in the throng of guests, our conversation forgotten. I was so grateful for the moment.
Lots of things about weddings changed in 2020. All but very few of our weddings cancelled or postponed, and only one — an Italian-American couple — had a cookie table. The immediate family had COVID tests the week before and quarantined together, baking rather than having extended family do so. We couldn’t allow open, self-serve trays, so the bride and groom chose 5”x5” bakery boxes, pre-packaged with cookies, sealed with a pretty sticker. Somehow the family managed to put every selection from the cookie table — including all of my family favorites — in each box. My newly-beloved caramel cups were there. Before being sealed, the box was topped with a scoop of confetti candy. The table of perfect, white boxes was just as striking as it would have been with tiered trays, stacked with cookies. At the end of the night, the bride’s mom and all of the bridesmaids wished guests goodbye and made sure everyone left for home with armloads of cookies. It was a wistful reminder that no matter how crazy the world seems, how difficult and scary things may be, love and weddings and family traditions offer consistency and hope to hold on to. Love is not cancelled. Weddings will still happen, families will still celebrate, and our ancestors will all be there to guide us along the way.