June 14, 2017
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Pennsylvania’s Best Wedding Tradition Is the Cookie Table
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A Depression-era holdover in Pittsburgh lets your dessert station double as a party-favor buffet.

It was not until I was a 17-year-old freshman in college, newly arrived in Pittsburgh, that I discovered just how idiosyncratic the city is. Only in Pittsburgh can you save a parking spot by putting a lawn chair on the road. It’s here that your palate is considered refined if your first choice french fry condiment is Heinz, with Yuengling to wash it down. It’s here that phrases like “jagoff,”, “dippy eggs,” and “nebby” sprinkle everyday conversations.

Customs in Pittsburgh are a kind of insular gigantism—unchecked, yet isolated phenomena as a result of social and environmental factors. My favorite example of this might be the wedding cookie table, a tradition in which various cookies baked by both sides of the family are the centerpiece of the wedding reception.

The cookie table came out of the 1930s, when Pittsburgh was taking an economic beating from the one-two punch of the collapse of the coal industry and the crippling Great Depression. Many immigrants found themselves living in relative poverty, raising large families in ramshackle patch houses, poorly constructed homes built for coal-mining families.  For many families of this time, the goal was to marry off their kids to cut expenses—and to do it quickly.

As this economic matchmaking became common, cultures began to cross-pollinate from one household to another. By the time the wedding came around, especially large Catholic weddings, both sides of the family would pitch in to share costs and labor.

Cakes, especially during the Depression, were luxuries that required expensive ingredients—eggs, butter, sugar, and flour. Instead, families began to modify these ingredients to use a more rationed, yet creative way. By forgoing the customary wedding cake due to financial burdens, Pittsburgh immigrant families were inadvertently starting a new tradition.

Today, a staple at any good Yinzer wedding, regardless of denomination, has one table set aside exclusively for the cookies, nowadays a complement to the wedding cake. Imagine an assortment of every kind of cookie, scattered and assorted on cake tiers and large platters.  They can range from simple chocolate chip or shortbread to more complex and decorative, such as the ladylock (also called a “clothespin cookie”) or the pesche con crema, an Italian transplant to the cookie table that resembles a sugar-coated peach and is filled with a simple buttercream. Confectioner’s sugar is smudged on the tablecloth for decoration, and the peanut butter cookies always seem to go first. It’s a nod to immigrant heritage, or rather a blending of many different heritages all on one table.

So how does one go about having a cookie table? First things first: Marry someone from Pittsburgh so you have a mother-in-law to pitch in on the cookies. Though every family is different, it often falls to the matriarchal forces in the family to spend hours rolling out dough, mixing icing, baking, and freezing a few hundred cookies weeks in advance of the big day. From there, others begin to get involved, as aunts and cousins who want to be a part of the wedding will pitch in with a batch here or a batch there. Pretty soon, you’ll have amassed dozens of confections without having to do any of the work.

The cookie table itself should have layers to it. Leave nothing in the shadows by using cake stands stacked on one another and large platters with mounds of cookies overflowing. Some families opt for a sign, which is usually a good idea if you have out-of-towners who are not familiar with this regional custom. The final touch to a good cookie table (no—a GREAT cookie table) is to have pile of cellophane gift bags sitting on the table so guests can end their night by plucking leftover goodies to home with them. It’s a DIY party favor that gives guests the freedom and luxury to indulge their sweet tooth while nursing their hangover the next day.

The cookie table is the best representation of the world Pittsburgh was and what it continues to be: a community built on immigrants whose traditions are a result of continuing to adapt to changing times, while never losing the values they hold closest. Having one at your wedding isn’t a forced tradition like the Cha-Cha Slide or a cash bar, but a nod to the city’s enduring geniality, even during tough times.

Pesche Con Crema

Pesche Con Crema

18-20 cookies

Ingredients

  • For the Cookies
  • 3½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons lemon zest
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, melted
  • For the Buttercream
  • ¼ cup vegetable shortening
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2½ cups confectioner's sugar
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • ¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 drops of orange food dye (or until you achieve the right color)
  • a splash of whole milk (optional)
  • For Assembly
  • 1 bunch of mint leaves, washed and dried
  • 1 tablespoon red sprinkles
  • 1 tablespoon yellow sprinkles
  • 1 tablespoon orange sprinkles
  • ¼ cup sugar

This Italian sandwich cookie is lemon-flecked and filled with buttercream, then rolled in pink sugar and topped with a mint leaf to look like a peach. To make ahead, just keep in a sealed container for up to a week or in the freezer for up to two months, and save the mint leaf until you’re ready to serve.

    For the Cookies

  1. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or a Silpat and preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Sift together flour and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. In a measuring cup, vigorously whisk together eggs, milk, sugar, lemon juice and zest, and vanilla.
  3. Using a wooden spoon, create a well in the center of your dry ingredients and slowly pour in your wet mixture, all the while whisking slowly.
  4. With floured hands, turn dough out onto a floured work surface and shape into a ball. Wrap loosely in plastic wrap and rest in the fridge for 5 minutes.
  5. Take out of fridge and return to a bowl (for easy management of the dough).
  6. Using a cookie scoop, portion out as many balls of dough as you can, keeping a one-inch margin on all sides of each piece of dough (you will have to do a second round to finish off the dough).
  7. When you have portioned out all your dough that can fit on the baking sheets, gently roll each in your hand and press down very slightly to create a flat surface on the bottom of the cookies.
  8. Bake for 15 minutes or until bottoms are golden and tops are very rounded and puffed. Some cookies may crack, but that is okay!
  9. Immediately rest on a cooling rack and continue with your second batch.
  10. Allow second batch to cool before moving on to decorating with icing, sprinkles sugar, and mint leaves.

For the Buttercream

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together shortening and butter until well blended.
  2. With mixer on low, add confectioner’s sugar a little at a time until fully mixed in.
  3. Add remaining ingredients.
  4. Turn mixer up to high and beat until you get peaks and ripples.

For Assembly

  1. When all cookies are cooled, pair up each hemisphere with one that is about the same size or complementary to each other.
  2. Using a small offset spatula, take a small bit of buttercream and add to each flat half of your cookie.
  3. Press the halves gently together and return to cooling rack.
  4. Repeat with remaining cookies and allow for buttercream to harden slightly so they stay stuck together.
  5. While all peaches are drying out a bit, use a small bowl and mix together a tablespoon each of red, yellow, and orange sprinkles. Add a drop or two of food coloring and just the smallest splash or water to moisten the sprinkles. Add ¼ cup of white sugar and mix together into a paste. You have some artistic freedom here, so make them as colorful or as sparkling as you’d like.
  6. Using your hands or a pastry brush, coat your cookies in this sprinkle mixture and allow to dry completely (2 hours). Repeat with all remaining peaches.
  7. Finally, take a sprig of mint leaves and attach to the tops of your peaches for that freshly picked look.
  8. And finally, enjoy! They keep in an airtight container for up to a week, but can be frozen for 2 months. In either case, do not add the mint leaf until you want to present them.

Ingredients

  • cookies
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ cup sour cream, drained of excess moisture
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ⅓ cup white granulated sugar
  • buttercream
  • ¼ cup vegetable shortening
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2½ cups confectioner's sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • a splash of whole milk, if consistency is too dry

These Italian cream-filled cookies, also known as Clothespin Cookies or Cream Horns, are a staple of Pittsburgh cookie exchanges and wedding cookie tables. They’re best eaten fresh, so if you make them for a wedding, be sure to fill them with cream within a day or so of the event.

    For the Cookies

  1. Sift together flour and salt in a large mixing bowl.
  2. In a separate bowl, vigorously whisk together remaining ingredients, which should have no clumps and be slightly yellow when mixed correctly.
  3. Create a well in the center of your dry ingredients and add your butter mixture.
  4. With clean hands, dump dough out onto a floured work surface and knead for 5-8 minutes until gluten has worked up and the dough is springy.
  5. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
  6. While waiting for the dough, you will need to prepare the item you’re wrapping your dough around. While historically it has been old-fashioned round clothespins, you can also use a dowel rod, as I did (mine was 5/8" wide and cut at 9" long). For either option, wrap in aluminum foil.
  7. When dough is ready, preheat oven to 400°F and prepare two baking sheets with parchment paper or a Silpat.
  8. Halve dough into two manageable pieces.
  9. Roll out one half to be 9" x 16", cutting off any excess dough to square off the edges.
  10. Now, cut 1.5" strips from this lengthwise so that you have 6 strips.
  11. Wrap each strip around your dowel/clothespin, overlapping on the turn about a half-inch and pinching the end to secure.
  12. Repeat with remaining 5.
  13. Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until edges are golden and crisp (less bake time for clothespins, as they will be slightly smaller).
  14. Allow to cool slightly and gently remove cookies from dowel/clothespin.
  15. Repeat with second half of dough.
  16. Allow all cookies to cool completely. While cookies are cooling, make your buttercream.

For the Buttercream

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together shortening and butter until well blended.
  2. With mixer on low, add confectioner’s sugar a little at a time, until fully mixed in.
  3. Add vanilla and milk, if needed.
  4. Turn mixer up to high and beat until you get peaks and ripples.

For Assembly

  1. When all cookies have cooled, transfer buttercream to a pastry bag fitted with an icing tip.
  2. Take one cookie at a time and fill completely with icing.
  3. Repeat with remaining cookies and dust with confectioner’s sugar.
  4. These do not freeze as well, and I recommend making not more than 2 days in advance for best results.

Brett Braley

Brett F. Braley is the writer, baker, and photographer behind FigandBleu.com (@figandbleu). His work centers on traditional American desserts, combined with new flavors or techniques.

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