J.R. Ewing And A Found Recipe For Poppy Seed Cookies

Nov 8, 2012
Originally published on March 26, 2013 5:44 pm

During the holidays, family kitchens are ground zero for intense craziness: mixers whirling, timers buzzing, knives flying. So yes, it's understandable that many of us just stay out of way of the experienced cook. Especially when the knives come out and Mama is talking under her breath.

But by staying out, you're missing out.

As part of All Things Considered's Found Recipes series, we asked the Cambridge-based Brass Sisters, the so-called Queens of Comfort Food, about collecting family recipes.

And they say, don't shy away from that holiday kitchen!

Instead, they urge you to gently interrogate your elders about their favorite dishes, and write down those family recipes, before it's too late.

That's what they did to get the recipe for their Aunt Ida Tucker Katziff's Poppy Seed Cookies, and though Aunt Ida could be grumpy and intimidating, they're glad they did.

"We used to spend every Friday night with Aunt Ida," says Marilynn Brass. For nearly 15 years, they'd chit chat, watch the prime-time soap opera Dallas (the original, when J.R. got shot) and eat.

"We would have a bagel and we'd have turkey," Brass says, "but the best part was when she'd go to her postage-stamp-sized freezer and brought something out and heated it up in her trusty toaster oven."

Ida was a self-taught baker. "She had what we call goldeneh hendts. That's Yiddish for golden hands," Brass says. "Whatever she baked, whatever she cooked came out superb. And I have to tell you, her poppy seed cookies were like manna from heaven."

The cookies were crunchy, with toasty-tasting poppy seeds and a sandy texture, and the Brass Sisters say you couldn't eat just one.

After many years of Friday evenings, Marilynn's sister, Sheila, got up the courage to ask Aunt Ida for the recipe. Not only did she get it, but Ida gave her nieces two special instructions — keep the poppy seeds in the freezer to keep them fresh, and don't overwork the dough.

When Aunt Ida died, the Brass Sisters arranged a special tribute to her: They made copies of the recipe and baked the cookies and shared both with friends and relatives at Ida's funeral.

"It turned out the family and friends sat around talking about Ida during [her] memorial week, reading her recipe for poppy seed cookies and crunching those wonderful cookies!" says Marilynn Brass.

And now you can, too. Here's the recipe from Heirloom Baking With The Brass Sisters.

Aunt Ida's Poppy Seed Cookies

Our Aunt Ida baked this cookie for more than 60 years, to the delight of four generations of our family, transporting them to parties in covered tins. We baked these cookies and served them at Aunt Ida's memorial gathering after her funeral since this recipe is part of her legacy. She always stored her poppy seeds in the freezer to keep them fresh.

3 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup poppy seeds

1 cup peanut oil

1 cup sugar

3 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

Set the oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cover a 14 X 16-inch baking sheet with foil, shiny side up. Coat the foil with vegetable spray or use a silicone liner.

Sift together flour and baking powder; add poppy seeds.

Separately, whisk peanut oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla in a medium bowl. Add sifted dry ingredients and mix to combine. Chill the dough in the refrigerator one hour, or until firm enough to handle.

With floured hands or wearing disposable gloves, break off teaspoon-size pieces of dough and roll into small balls. Place dough balls on baking sheet about 2 inches apart, or 12 cookies per sheet. Pat into circles with your fingers (rather than rolling or stamping). Bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned around edges. Let cookies cool 1 minute on baking sheet on rack and then transfer cookies to a rack. Cookies will become crisp as they cool.

Store between sheets of wax paper in a covered tin or freeze in a tightly sealed plastic bag or container.

Yield: 60 cookies

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In case you're wondering, the queens of comfort food live in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a lot of vintage cookbooks.


SHEILA BRASS: And I'm Sheila. We're the Brass sisters.

BRASS: The one and only Brass sisters.

BRASS: And we love old recipes.

BLOCK: So much so that they've written two books of their own, "Heirloom Baking" and "Heirloom Cooking." With those credentials, we figured the Brass sisters would have a story for our series Found Recipes and indeed they do. It's about a cookie recipe they got thanks to a gentle interrogation. Marilynn starts their story.

BRASS: We used to spend every Friday night with Aunt Ida at her apartment on Henn(ph) Street in Brookline, Mass. We would have a bagel and we'd have turkey, and we'd chit-chat. And she'd criticize the length of our hems...

BRASS: The color of our lipsticks.

BRASS: Yes. And it was wonderful because she loved us.

BRASS: And we loved her, too.

BRASS: We miss her every day. Now, Ida was a special person. She did the most wonderful baking.


BRASS: She did not know how to cook or bake before she got married, so she was self-taught. And I have to tell you that her poppy seed cookies were like manna from heaven. And I don't mean to be disrespectful.

BRASS: They crunch, they much. You can't have just one of them. You can have one, you want another. You can have another, you want another.

BRASS: Now, one night, Sheila took an old birthday card out of her purse and I said, Auntie Ida, I never called her Ida. You know, she was such a...

BRASS: She was too intimidating.

BRASS: Yeah. Fear into me. I said, how about that recipe now? And Ida said, a little grumpy, oh, all right, hold on a minute. And she went to her pad box and she got it out.

BRASS: And we wrote the directions down.

BRASS: Time went on and we have to say that we no longer are able to spend our Friday nights with Aunt Ida. When Aunt Ida passed away, we decided we wanted to do a tribute. We typed out her recipe for poppy seed cookies and Sheila will tell you about the paper we used for printing.

BRASS: It had a beautiful aqua, sky-blue background and then wonderful clouds...

BRASS: White clouds.

BRASS: It was like heaven. And we brought them to the funeral so that all the people could have a copy.

BRASS: All her children and her grandchildren.

BRASS: And friends.

BRASS: Friends.

BRASS: The place was jammed with friends and we baked.

BRASS: Oh, boy, did we bake.

BRASS: How many dozen? 12 dozen?

BRASS: Oh, at least. It turned out that the family and friends sat around talking about Ida during memorial week, reading her recipe for poppy seed cookies and crunching those wonderful cookies. We just think that it would be wonderful at this holiday season if you did do that gentle interrogation of the elders.

And if you were able to make Aunt Ida's poppy seed cookies, it would be a tribute to her and to all the home cooks that you know who have wonderful recipes that should never be lost.


BLOCK: Marilynn and Sheila Brass, the Brass Sisters. And you can find Aunt Ida's recipe for poppy seed cookies and a picture of young Aunt Ida on our food blog, The Salt.



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