Some things you can only learn by feel. Making lemon knot cookies is certainly one of those.
First of all, these Italian cookies are super temperamental. You are making a cookie dough which will have to become springy and stretchy almost as if you were making pizza. The reason the gluten needs to develop is that this will get rolled into a snake shape, knotted, baked and glazed with lemon juice and powdered sugar. There are about a million points along the way where the whole process can go terribly wrong.
The weather can be bad. If the air is too dry, if the humidity is very low or the heat has been on too much, the dough will break apart as soon as you try to roll it into a snake. Add more liquid to make it stretch, and you could end up with a gluey mess instead of something malleable. Overcorrect with more flour and you have crumbs that will never come together.
So, assume that you get a good, moderately humid day to bake. The dough comes together just right, or so you thought. You grab a ball of dough to fill the palm of your hand. To get the right amount, you imagine you are trying to cup as many grains of rice as you can, fingers folded over your palm so none escape. The dough should fill that space. As you begin rolling out the snake you realize it is just a tiny bit too powdery and it will not stick at all to the kitchen table but scoots back and forth like an air-hockey puck, refusing to roll out. You need to wet the dough, or your hands, just a tiny bit. Too much and the dough will smear.
You now need the right amount of pressure worked evenly along the rope so that one end isn’t thicker than the other, so there aren’t lumps. Once I fan my fingers along its length as far as they will reach, the rope is long enough and the right diameter. As you try to knot the rope you need to make a gentle loop and thread one end through, watching for breaks along the length of it. If it begins to split it will pull apart from itself, like loose bark on an old tree and it is ruined. You have one more chance to smush it together and reroll. If that attempt fails you are done, because reworking it again will make it tough and dry and inedible.
While they bake you have to be careful not to leave them in too long. They are supposed to be quite pale. In fact, if they start to get golden brown you’ve most likely let them go too long. The only solution for those cookies is a good cup of coffee or tea. However, underdone cookies are just soggy and dense as the places where the dough knots on itself stay wet much longer then the edges.
When it does work out, you are rewarded with a light, almost-cake cookie that tastes faintly sweet and faintly of citrus and it will remind you of your Nonna if you are lucky enough to be part Sicilian. And when relatives ask for your recipe you’ll feel proud when your father reminds them that it isn’t just the recipe, it is also the cook who matters.
Occasionally I don’t want a recipe that is fool-proof, I want a recipe that takes a good deal of attention. I want a recipe that takes problem-solving and technique, grace and patience. I want to get frustrated and stare sullenly into the flour-powdered air. I want to do something that does not involve can openers, coupons, crock-pots and a timetable. I want to take on something challenging that is totally frivolous, and ultimately rewarding.
I keep waiting for a long humid day, one that can absorb the time and effort and irritation that will surely come with these cookies-that will give me the time to let my kids mess around trying to master all the tricks you have to master to do this right. Hopefully, at least once I’ll be able to before this summer is out. It is worth it.