A holiday memory written for the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas series on Femme au Foyer.
So many of our memories are rooted not in sights and experiences, but in smells and tastes—especially around the holidays. When I think of my Grandma Klara, I immediately think of koldūnai stuffed with blueberries, the combined joy and dread of eating greasy potato pancakes on a hot Florida day, and the smell of day-old kugelis frying in butter. The only thing my grandmother was more enthusiastic about than cooking was getting us to eat.
But when I think of Teta Marija, my grandmother’s older sister, there’s only one food that comes to mind: angel wings. While she made them year round, a special treat whenever we came to visit, they were available in abundance around the holidays.
The powder-sugar-covered cookie is not exclusively Lithuanian (and maybe not Lithuanian at all). In Lithuania, they’re called žagarėliai, but there are recipes for Polish, German, Swedish, and Ukranian versions—just to name a few.
One Christmas season when I was living in Colorado and not able to return home to Michigan for the holidays, I decided to try and make them myself. I called up Teta—we only ever called her that—and asked for her recipe. Teta, who never used a cookbook, rattled it off in her thick accent over the phone while I scribbled my notes.
“Mind the temperature of the oil,” she told me. “That’s important.”
I rolled out my dough and shaped my cookies, and then I heated up my oil. I was 20 and living in a shared condominium with other 20-somethings. We didn’t have a kitchen thermometer. When the oil seemed “hot enough” I tossed in a piece of cookie. It cooked up quickly, and I scooped it out of the pot.
While my test was moderately successful, my cookies were not. I could neither control the temperature of my stove nor get a batch of cookies in and out of the pot fast enough. The result was nothing short of disaster: charred dough, a cloud of smoke, and a greasy mess all over the stove.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the lack of thermometer but the fact that I was trying to work with hot oil at nearly 8,200 feet in Vail—altitude affects temperature and cooking time—that resulted in my failure.
Teta’s health began to fail not too long after my failed cookie attempt, and she stopped cooking altogether. I went for years without another angel wing cookie. Even living in Lithuania, where I could buy them in plastic buckets at Maxima, they weren’t as good as Teta’s.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday back in Michigan, we decided as a family to try again to replicate Teta’s angel wings. We mixed the dough, rolled it out, and folded our wings assembly-line style while reminiscing about Teta and sharing our favorite holiday memories. Working in my mother’s well-appropriated kitchen at a much more reasonable altitude, this time we managed to successfully deep-fry our cookies to a beautiful golden color and when they were cool, we sprinkled them generously with powdered sugar.
The result was pretty good, although memories always taste better, and it felt—I think for all of us—like Teta was there in the room, looking over our collective shoulder. The nicest thing about culinary memories is the ability to conjure up the people and places they represent any time you like, and especially during the holidays.