My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2017
Cindy Acosta was out of town when her sister texted her. “Look what I found!” the message from Jeaneen Rouse said.
A small but important part of the Rouse family Christmas tradition had been rediscovered. Going through a stack of recipes as she packed to move into her new home, Jeaneen found her recipe for Mom’s Cocoons. It had been missing for years, and along with it, part of their childhood Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, “we used to leave (Cocoons) with a bottle of Coca-Cola for Santa,” Jeaneen said. “I don’t know why we left Coke. I guess we thought Santa wanted the best. Maybe he was tired of milk?”
“I was so glad she found it,” Cindy said. “We are going to keep up the tradition, to start it again. It’s been a long time since Mom did them.”
As the only girls in a family of six kids, Jeaneen and Cindy made Cocoons with their mother, Joyce Rouse, and Jeaneen’s godmother, Celina Rodrigue, whom they called Nanny. Celina was the wife of Wilfred Rodrigue, a close friend of their father, Anthony Sr., who worked with him at the store before it was even called Rouses.
Their mom and Nanny would set a baking date. “I always looked forward to it,” Cindy said. Cindy says they made double batches of the cookies — for the Rodrigues as well as the Rouses.
“I had four older brothers,” she said. “You know how boys eat.”
When the girls were allowed to help shape the cookies, they often would have to redo them if they were deemed too big or too small. The women were extremely particular about how the cookies looked, the sisters remember. The girls’ main job was passing the cookies through bowls of powdered sugar.
There was no heavy-duty mixer, and Jeaneen remembers how the buttery dough moisturized their hands after they had mixed it. (“It’s a lot of butter!”)
Instead of baking racks, they cut open paper bags from the family supermarket to place the cookies on for cooling. They were everywhere, Jeaneen remembers. Their mom had just one oven.
The process was labor intensive, since the cookies must be dipped in powdered sugar twice. The first coating partially melts into the cookie. For the second dipping, in the Rouse family, a fresh bowl of clean powdered sugar, sifted to make it fluffier, was always used.
Buttery and delicate, the cookies were so popular with the family that their mom would have to put some in a tin and hide it, to guarantee that the Cocoons would be part of a sweets platter on Christmas Day.
“She liked to have a cookie platter: Pecan Cups, Cocoons, Italian Anise Cookies, Fudge, that kind of thing,” Jeaneen said. Cindy recalls that it included her mother’s Pralines, too, as well as Italian Fig Cookies made by their aunt.
Cocoons are a version of a cookie popular around the world for Christmas and other special occasions. They also are known as Russian Tea Cakes, Mexican Wedding Cookies, Sand Tarts, Snowballs, Kourabia, Melting Moments, Butterballs, Nut Butter Balls, Napoleon Hats, Moldy Mice, Italian Wedding Cookies and by many other names as well.
The nuts in the recipes can be hazelnuts, walnuts or almonds, but in this part of the country, it’s our beloved pecan. The cookie has just a few ingredients, but they are firmly in the tradition of rich baked goods for special occasions, using the best butter, sugar and expensive nuts for special treats.
Food historians cannot pinpoint it, but think perhaps this cookie originated in sugar-rich medieval Arabian cuisine, subsequently migrating to Spain with the Moors and then spreading throughout Europe. Baking historian Nick Malgieri has speculated that the recipe went to Mexico with nuns, who were known for baking in their convents. Vanilla and pecans are staples of baking in Mexico. Recipes for Mexican Wedding Cookies started to appear in American cookbooks in the 1950s.
Almost all the cookies with other names are shaped into balls, or occasionally crescents. As far as I can find, only in the South are they called Cocoons and shaped like the silken cases spun by butterflies and moths.
None of the many stories on the universality, history and names of these cookies mentions “Cocoons.” In fact, I never heard of them until I moved to Louisiana, which makes me think they may be a Creole/Cajun/South Louisiana variation of a worldwide favorite. (Anyone with a clue about this cookie, please email me!)
Recipes for Cocoons appear in Ursuline Academy’s Recipes and Reminiscences of New Orleans, first published in 1971, and in the NOPSI cookbook, From Woodstoves to Microwaves, which contains the recipes tested and then distributed on streetcars and other places by the New Orleans Public Service Company, the one-time electrical utility provider for the city.
When Joyce Rouse started to have trouble standing for long periods of time, she gave her recipe box to Jeaneen and told her daughters to take over the baking.
Then the recipe disappeared. For years.
The Rouse brothers asked, “Where are the Cocoons?” Jeaneen says.
This year, finally, Cindy and Jeaneen will bake the little white cookies again.
“We will continue the tradition with my daughters, Caroline and Madalyn,” Jeaneen says. “I am passing this on to them.”
Cindy plans to make more with her daughter-in-law as well. Her sister is the real baker, she said, but now that she’s got a small grandson, she just may bake cookies more frequently.
This year, when the Cocoons return, the group will bake them in three ovens in Jeaneen’s kitchen in her new home in Thibodaux.
They’ll use cookie racks for cooling instead of brown paper grocery bags. But there will be lots of butter. And tradition.