From Granddaughter to Grandma

Sweetened condensed milk, crushed tea biscuits, ground walnuts and chocolate powder. Just four ingredients. There’s a fifth one, granulated sugar, to sprinkle if you like it. It’s a simple recipe that doesn’t require any technique or advanced skills. It doesn’t even need an oven. You just need to mix everything together, roll the dough into small marble-sized balls with your hands and then sprinkle them with sugar. That simple.

I was about 10 or 11-years-old when I made that recipe for the very first time. A recipe from a children’s cookbook that my aunt gave me. The walnut truffles immediately became a hit with my family. I made that recipe a few times; I don’t know how many. Page 43 of that little book is the witness of my earliest and messy culinary adventures. Around the words “Walnut Surprise” written in printed red letters, there are scattered yellow stains and even a rough circle with remnants of the mixed sweet dough. A three-decade-old culinary fossil.

My mother became a fan of the truffle and wrote down the ingredients and the preparation steps in her recipe notebook. Sometime around the second half of the 1980s, she took over as the official candy-maker, especially to serve them at Christmas or New Year’s Eve parties. My family had a tradition to always serve walnut desserts for celebration lunches and suppers. Cream of walnut, walnut cake, walnut pavé. It was kind of sacred, although walnuts were not easy to find in Brazil during that old times. They were not even suitable for a tropical Christmas. Perhaps for that very reason, the walnuts were an expensive and exotic luxury, a guilty-pleasure that we could afford once a year, with the taste of foreign and snowy lands.

The flavor of the walnut truffles could change from Christmas to Christmas, even though the ingredients and the method of preparation were the same. Each year, when I took the first bite, I could sense how the Brazilian economy was doing. If my tongue felt a small tender piece of walnut wrapped into the cookie dough moistened by La Lechera, the top condensed milk brand, I could tell that we were living through fat times. Inflation under control, our currency strengthened, unemployment almost nonexistent. And I knew it all would reflected directly in my parents’ little shop for better.

During times of worse economic scenario, we still had the walnut goodies at the Christmas or New Year’s Eve table. However, there was only a scent of nuts in the middle of those dried out balls made of biscuits, condensed milk and chocolate powder. All ingredients were from cheaper brands. Not only did we decreased the quantity of walnuts to half but we also had to change the type. No more tasty, delicious and good looking walnuts. The ones that we could afford were the damaged leftovers from the previous Christmas season. Perhaps the joy of eating the walnut truffles during the hard times was even greater. The sweet treat represented our resistance and hope for better days.

Over the decades, this recipe has made a reverse hierarchical path. My mother was succeeded by her mother in the making of the walnut candies. My grandmother also kept a recipe notebook, with separate pages for Sweets and Savory, and she proudly wrote down the recipe introduced to the family by her granddaughter. For years and years, she always consulted that simple recipe book before adding, with beautiful handwriting, all the truffle ingredients to the grocery shopping list. This ritual took place during that time of the year when she noticed that only a few pages were left from the Sacred Heart of Jesus annual calendar hanging on her kitchen’s wall. That religious calendar was my grandmother’s way of tracking time.

The walnut truffles were the last recipe Grandma made a few months before she died. That last day of 2013, in the middle of the afternoon, I popped into my Grandma’s kitchen. I found her sitting at the round table, in that old metal chair with a brown padded backrest. I pulled out one of the other three empty chairs and sat down to keep her company. Over the floral tablecloth, there were breadcrumbs, a mug with a coffee stain, three or four little black ants inside the uncovered sugar bowl, and a deep bowl with the walnut truffle dough. She had already mixed the ingredients. Only the final parts of the recipe were missing: rolling the balls and sprinkling sugar.

After talking about one of her favorite subjects, the weather, Grandma asked if I would mind helping her rolling the dough. She said that she sat down to rest for a while. She was gathering strength to finish the recipe. Her hands felt weak. She also confessed that she thought about not making the truffles that year, but she had changed her mind after
the request of her only great-granddaughter, my niece, who was also a big fan of the walnut candies. Despite her body’s ailments, she couldn’t say no.

During that hot December afternoon, I became a grandmother and she, the granddaughter. She looked like a frightened girl, afraid of ghosts and strange monsters. I could offer her my sweetness and maturity, which are ingredients that grandmothers have to spare. I tried to comfort her, making her feel safe and forgetting her illness for a moment. And between a silly conversation and a more serious one, I rolled the walnut truffles, and she sprinkled sugar before putting them in small paper candy cups. Pink cups, the favorite color of the girls we will always be.