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The Healing Power of…Cookies

When I was sick with breast cancer, mom knew if we all came together to bake taralles, it would restore my strength like nothing else.

Mother and daughter in the kitchen

The competition was on. My grandmother, Nona, as we called her, plopped the big ball of dough onto the table, and my older sister, Arlene, and I each tore off a piece.

Our small hands rolled the golf-ball-sized chunks into long, thin strips we twisted into tight knots and placed side by side on the cookie sheet. “Your cookie’s too small,” Arlene teased. “Yours is too big!” I shot back.

Mom came over and gave each of ours a close inspection. “Good job, both of you,” she said. Then she placed her own perfectly sized, perfectly shaped cookie onto the sheet next to ours. Mom’s taralles always put ours to shame.

Maybe you never heard of taralles. They’re a braided Italian cookie with a hint of orange, frosted with a vanilla icing.

Ever since my siblings and I were very little, growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, we made them with my mom and Nona for special occasions—especially at Christmas. It’s a recipe passed down from generation to generation.

I wish everything that got passed down could be as good as those cookies. But four years ago, I discovered a lump in my breast. Like my mom and hers before her, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I was working in California, far from my family, climbing the corporate ladder. My doctor recommended a lumpectomy, and a full course of chemotherapy.

Before long, I lost my hair and my vitality. My worries surrounded me. Did the lumpectomy remove the entire tumor? Will I need a mastectomy?

Mom came to the rescue. Seventy-five years old, she flew across the country to stay with me. Every morning she woke me up and accompanied me to my treatments. “I know you’re scared,” she told me. “I was too.” Each day, we held hands and closed our eyes in prayer. God, I prayed, please help me find the strength to fight this.

One day when I was really down, Mom said “Why don’t we bake taralles?” Cookies? I thought. I probably won’t even be able to stomach them. First Mom cleared the table. With her hands she mixed the flour, sugar and eggs.

Soon the dough was smooth. I broke off a piece, remembering those competitions my sister and I always had. I twisted the strip into a knot and placed it on the cookie sheet. Mom eyed it critically. “Perfect,” she said. We put the cookies in the oven and waited.

The next step was my favorite—adding the icing. “You and your sister loved eating it directly from the bowl,” Mom said. I dipped a finger in and tasted the icing. The creamy mixture dissolved on my tongue. “Delicious.”

The next six weeks, Mom and I made taralles and other family favorites. I invited friends and neighbors to make taralles with me. With every visitor, every meal, I realized yet another person who was praying for me, giving me support. They possessed all the strength I could ask for.

The next Christmas, I was celebrating my first year of survivorship. I gave each family member a gift they loved—a book of our favorite recipes.

Every dish reminds me that no matter where I am or what obstacles are in my way, my family is always there with me.

Try the Taralles!

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