By Joni Sensel
Joni is the author of more than a dozen books, including several for teens, and writes frequently on grief and spirituality topics for Medium. She enjoyed three and a half glorious years with Tony before his unexpected death in 2017.
One of the traits I most adored about my partner, Tony, was his unusual combination of tenderness and toughness. He was physically big and had worked his way through a powerful career but also developed an emotional sensitivity he wasn’t afraid to reveal.
We discovered each other in our 50s, after life trials had burnished us both. I thought of him not only as a soulmate but as my polar bear—giant and fierce in appearance but a furry teddy at heart.
The holiday cookies we baked ritually in our too-few years together captured that contrast. They were a sentimental nod to his late Sicilian dad, who had provided the recipe and performed much of the cooking during Tony’s childhood.
Mixing up these anise-flavored cookies became our only unvarying holiday tradition. We made gigantic triple batches to mail to his adult kids, using his prized 18-quart spaghetti saucepan—another memento of his dad.
Baking is one of my few specialties, so when I saw the stained recipe card in Tony’s handwriting, I raised my eyebrows at one ingredient—Crisco shortening? Really? An entire pound? Not that holiday cookies are ever meant to be healthy, but… yikes. Could we use butter instead, and maybe make them taste better?
Altering Dad’s recipe was not an option, and after eating these cookies, I didn’t question it again. I’m not typically a huge fan of anise flavor, but I had to admit these cookies are addictive. Like Tony, they’re a perfect combination of firm but tender, savory and sweet.
Since Tony’s unexpected death two and a half years ago, I make much smaller batches every year now myself. They’re a touchstone to him in a difficult holiday season.
Tony always mixed the dough by squishing the ingredients in his bear-paw hands, so I do, too. On good days, I think of myself as experiencing the physical world for him now, and baking these cookies is one example. Their twist shape gives me comfort, reflecting for me our sense that we were two halves of a whole. And the season’s spirituality and promise of rebirth give me hope that someday and somehow we can be twined together again.
Tony’s Dad’s Italian Cookies
1 lb Crisco shortening
8 cups flour
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 jar anise seeds
1–2 cups powdered sugar
3–4 drops almond or vanilla flavoring
1–2 tablespoons milk
1. Measure all ingredients into a large bowl (or, if you like, an 18-quart pan). Like Tony did, wash your hands and squish the whole mess in your fingers—or mix in more traditional ways until dough forms.
2. Roll pinches of dough on a floured counter to make ropes about as thick as your pinky and 6 to 8 inches long.
3. Fold each rope in half and twist the two halves together, like lives intertwined. Pinch the ends to hold the twists together forever and seal with the memory of a kiss.
4. Place the twists on an ungreased or parchment-covered cookie sheet and repeat, twining together love and loss, past and present, the old year and the coming new one.
5. Bake at 350° for about 20 minutes or until the edges are golden.
6. Cool completely, then sweeten the bitterness of loss with drizzled-on icing. Immediately sprinkle with tears as necessary. (Sugar sprinkles will look better, though.)
Tony’s cookies may not be as timeless as love, but they keep well if you can resist them. Once the icing is firm, they also freeze and ship nicely when layered between sheets of waxed paper. I’d be honored, and so would he, if they add a loving twist to your holidays, too.