As a Western Pennsylvanian, Groundhog Day has been a part of my upbringing. My hometown is just 15 minutes away from Punxsutawney, PA and the country’s most famous marmot, Punxsutawney Phil. Disclosure: I’ve never been to the actual ceremony. Don’t be appalled; it’s like being from New York and never going up to the Empire State Building. Why bother? It’s always around you. No need to experience it. You live it.
When I moved to San Francisco in 2001, I learned that West Coasters don’t know much about Groundhog Day, so I decided to throw a party for my friends, complete with quizzes and games (any excuse to drink, right?). I went to the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce website to buy tchotckes and prizes, and found a cool novelty item: cookie cutters shaped like groundhogs, in three different sizes! The cookie cutters came with a recipe for “Groundhog Cookies”, so I bought a set and made the cookies for the party. They were a big hit, and the following February 2nd there were requests for more. A tradition was born.
The cookies are not only easy to make, but quite delicious. They are a spice cookie containing cinnamon, ginger, cloves, molasses, eggs, butter, sugar, flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. I prefer to underbake them a bit so that the cookie comes out soft instead of crunchy. I’ve used the recipe with other cookie cutters, sometimes adding a cream cheese frosting, but consumers prefer the groundhog shape. For an eye, I use a red candy, which is a nice contrast against the brown cookie.
Since my friends seemed to enjoy them, I decided to start making and bringing them to work for my coworkers. Over my 14 years in the Bay Area, I had three different employers. That means that about 75 colleagues enjoyed cookies and learned about Groundhog Day. I jokingly referred to myself as Punxsutawney Phil’s “San Francisco Groundhog Ambassador”, with the job of spreading awareness and advocacy of this beloved yet quirky holiday. I found the most loyal supporters at my last job, where one year I forgot to make the cookies and got a lecture from one of my coworkers (jokingly, of course). They fully bought into the spirit of Groundhog Day, so when I left last March, I bestowed upon them a parting gift: my cookie cutters. I gave them to one of the department’s best bakers so that they could keep the tradition alive.
Fast forward 11 months later. Punxsutawney Phil has transferred me to the Rome, Italy post, where my first task is to educate a department of Italian, French, German and Serbian coworkers about Groundhog Day. Phil didn’t warn me about the difficulties of baking in Rome: my oven is a convection oven in Celsius, I had to go to a specialty organic store to find molasses and ground ginger, and cloves are whole. I had never seen a clove whole before. They look like thick miniature twigs. Plus, my apartment has no measuring cups and spoons.
Again, I didn’t decide to live here because I thought it would be easy. Groundhog Ambassadors love a good challenge.
I went online to look for measuring tips, and found a great blog post with pictures of what 1/4 cup, 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon look like in the palm of a hand. I used this technique and mixed all of the dry ingredients together. For the cloves, I attempted to smash them with a mallet to grind them, with no luck. But the blender comes with a coffee grinder blade, and that did the trick. I then creamed the butter and sugar with a mixer, added an egg yolk (free-range, too!) and molasses, and then poured in the dry ingredients. The dough was much softer than usual, but the color was right. Once it had chilled, I rolled it out and cut out the dough with the groundhog cookie cutters that I bought while home for Christmas. The only kitchen item I had to buy was a baking sheet, which was only 4 euro.
The red candy eye was a problem; no grocery store had them, and I looked at several. But this is Italy, after all, so after much searching I found shiny silver decorating balls, perfect for my biscotti di marmotta.
Yesterday, February 2nd, I took the cookies to work, wrote my intro email explaining the holiday and the treats, and sat back and waited. The first reaction was gratitude. Our office doesn’t have a baking culture, so I don’t often see homemade goods sitting around. People politely took a cookie, thanked me, and found the holiday quite amusing. And hey, who doesn’t like cookies on a Monday?! Two of my colleagues loved the movie Groundhog Day so they were most enthusiastic about the treats. The three of us live streamed the celebration online to hear the prediction: at 7:25am EST, he saw his shadow. Another six more weeks of winter. After reading my parents and sister’s texts these past few weeks about the snow and cold temperatures, this came as no surprise.
I waited until Phil announced his prediction to email my colleagues back at my former job in San Francisco to wish them a happy Groundhog Day from Rome and tell them how much I missed them. As I was preparing to leave, I began to receive email replies as they arrived to start their work day. One email contained the following attachment.
It wasn’t the fact that I had left a legacy, or educated them about a silly holiday. What made me smile with gratitude was realizing that I shared something that was enjoyed by so many. And as I stumble along through the social scene here in Rome, Groundhog Day will now and forever remind me of this mantra: Share. Laugh. Eat. That’s what Groundhog Day is really all about.
As I wished my European colleagues a good evening, I noticed that there was one lone groundhog cookie still sitting on the tray. “Okay,” I announced. “This will NOT do. Never leave a groundhog cookie behind. Who wants it?”
Politeness got the best of them, so I wrapped it up and presented it to a colleague to take home to her daughter Isabella, an adorable 4 year-old. This morning I asked what Isabella thought of the cookie.
“Did she save it like you thought?” I asked.
“Oh no! She took one look at it, exclaimed ‘A squirrel! (Uno scoiattolo!) and bit off its head.”
It’s a start.
Happy Squirrel Day, everyone.