Cookie recipes for Christmas or any day

This year, as a Christmas gift to my family, I scanned the pages from my Grammy's recipe folio and turned them into a spiral-bound cookbook with the help of The project took several months. But, through it, I feel like I was granted some extra time with the woman who was such an important part of my life. My Grammy is in that portfolio. The binder, held together with duct tape, has been around since my Dad and uncles were in high school. She typed the pages on her old typewriter and fixed the errors with correction fluid. She wrote notes into the margins—reminders about which recipes are best, what substitutions you could make, and what the measurements should be if you want to half or double the recipe. Looking at the recipes she chose to keep around, I see her. For instance, my Grammy was the kind of woman who collected no fewer than three recipes for spinach and bacon salads. 

More seriously, the mix of recipes in this cookbook remind me that my Grammy was first, and foremost, a baker. Of the 315 pages, 106 of them are just bread recipes. If you look at all the baked goods, you've probably accounted for a good 2/3 of the cookbook. This is interesting to me, because while I love cooking, I am still at a level of baking that usually involves opening a box and adding an egg. 

So I've set myself a challenge. Over the next year, I'm going to learn how to bake. And I'm going to learn from my Grammy. I haven't decided exactly how thoroughly I'm going to publicly document this process, but, suffice to say, a few of the recipes that work out particularly well are definitely going to end up here on BoingBoing. To kick things off, I'm starting with three cookie recipes that I baked for the first time yesterday and today—Cowboy Cookies (oatmeal-nut-chocolate chip cookies); Pumpkin-Nut Cookies; and Jam Thumbprint Tarts. 

If those seem like weird selections for Christmas cookies, allow me to provide some context. In the Koerth family, Christmas cookies really meant "everybody's favorite cookies." Grammy knew which cookie each person liked the best. So, at Christmas, there would be as many as 10 different kinds of cookies, each flavor chosen to match a person. You could eat all the different kinds, but Grammy would also have a separate bag of your personal favorite set aside, ready to be sent home with you. My favorite are the Jam Tarts. My Dad loves the Cowboy Cookies. My husband didn't really have a personal favorite staked out yet, but through careful deduction, I've matched him to the Pumpkin-Nut. Grammy did make traditional Christmas sugar cookies—pine trees decorated with green sprinkle needles and Red Hot "lights". But only because my those are my Uncle Richard's favorite. 

So these cookies may not match what you have in mind for the holidays. But that's okay. It just means you can make them anytime. 

Cowboy Cookies 

Cowboy Cookies are cookies for strong, silent loners who either have nobody around to judge them for eating a cookie that is made with two sticks of butter and two cups of sugar, or simply do not care. 



Pumpkin nut cookies

For my own tastes, and those of my husband, I subtracted the raisins and added half a bag of white chocolate chips. You could add more. If you follow the substitutions suggested by Grammy here, you'll end up with something even vaguely sort of healthy. If that's what you're into. 

Notes: The instructions here are pretty self-explanatory. There's only one thing I need to point out. When you mix together the wet and dry ingredients you will end up with a dough that is very different from standard cookie dough. It will be more like a cake or a bread when baked. There's a spongy poofiness to the dough that almost makes it seem like there's yeast in there. Which, to me, begs a question: What the hell is baking powder and what does it do? 

As Wikipedia explains it, baking powder is sort of alterna-yeast. It's what you use to make baked goods a little more poofy and risen when you don't want to have the fermenty flavor that comes with yeast-based leavening. It works because baking powder is really just a combination of an acid and a base, cut with an inert starch. Get the powder wet, and the acid and base react, producing carbon dioxide. Bubbles of carbon dioxide create volume in the dough. Yada, yada, yada ... your Pumpkin-Nut cookies become something akin to individual hand-cakes. 

Also: Because these cookies rise, rather than spread, you can pack them closer together on the baking sheet without fear of them oozing into one another. In the photo below, you can see how closely I baked these extra-large pumpkin-nut cookies. The distance between the cookies didn't change much at all between raw and baked.


Jam Thumbprint Tarts

Here is what I learned from making Jam Thumbprint Tarts: I am an asshole. Specifically, I am the kind of asshole who really, really loves deceptively simple cookies that are, in reality, kind of finicky and obnoxious. Sorry, Grammy. 


Make your primary dent shallow. Otherwise the dough will start to break apart. A soft press of the thumb will do it. Don't worry if this isn't big enough to hold jam. You'll widen and deepen it later. 
This is what the second denting should look like. If you've ever made a clay pinch pot, it's a lot like that. You don't want to leave the bottom too thin ... widen the hole, don't just deepen it. It's okay if there's cracks on the edges of the cookies. They do that. 
Apply jam immediately after removing from the oven. You want the cookies nice and warm so the jam can sort of melt into them a little. Once they're filled though, leave them alone for a while until they've cooled down completely. You really, really want to give them every opportunity to firm up. It helps the structural integrity. Here's the half batch of cookies made from non-chilled dough, filled with apricot preserves. 



  1. Number one baking hint: do not pack or tamp down your flour when measuring–always spoon your flour into the measuring cup so that it rests lightly and fluffily in the measure and then use the edge of a knife or similar straight-edge to level it. The extra flour that comes from packing or tamping can be fatal to an otherwise perfect recipe.

    1. This is a series where I am expecting to be corrected constantly … and, in fact, hoping for it. I’m about to run out, but I’ll edit this asap in accordance with comments like yours. Thank you!

  2. Good on you for taking it on, it’s also fun to learn the chemistry. Best of luck.

    Quick freeze doesn’t equal overnight fridge.  Anything like that, someone has wondered and tried the same shortcut.    You can always search for it.  My latest use of the ubermind was fixing dry gingerbread.  Had always assumed it was a lost cause. But simple syrup saved it, just 1:1 sugar and water, bring to a boil, let cool, and dribble some on.  Tasted much better.  You can also flavor the syrup.

  3. I made these with my Grandma, almost forty some years ago, but we put a Hershey’s kiss in them instead of jam. 

  4. A better way for the flour: get yourself a scale and when you make the recipe next, measure as you did before, but then weigh it, using grams. If it’s an odd amount, say 237 grams, then use 240 the next time. A few grams more or less won’t make a difference, but weighing things, including sugar, butter, etc., makes the recipe work *every* time.

  5. The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum is an excellent book on baking.  The cakes in it are *not* easy to make, but the process of learning how is certainly fun.  She wrote her master’s thesis on sifting.  This is not a joke.  

    She explains the chemistry behind leavening and offers advice on when (and when not) to sift.  It’s worth owning just for the introduction where she tells the story of breaking off an engagement because her intended blew off her education as frivolous.  As if.  

  6. For a real sugar/fat  rush, try the thumbprints with a dollop of butter cream frosting instead of  jam. But let the cookies cool a bit before hitting them with the frosting. You can even color the frosting per the current holiday for a festive sugar high.

  7. That’s a solid endeavor.  I also love cooking, but am a fairly amateur baker.  I did, however, learn how to make gluten-free bread pretty well when I was dating my ex who is gluten intolerant.  I’ve been meaning to get into baking more, but I always end up being lazy and just buying bread from the store.

  8. 45 minutes in the freezer != in the fridge overnight becuase the point isn’t to get it cold, it’s to let the flour particles hydrate completely, this takes time. If you try a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough you’ll notice that the dough darkens in colour quite a bit overnight.

    1. I did not know that! (I did know that peppernut dough is easier to work with after being chilled overnight.) Huh. Learning new stuff every day.

  9. The nostalgia and tradition of baking is one of the hardest things for me to ignore about going Paleo/low carb/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. I now easily pass up bread, crackers, and pastries in the store, but when my mother-in-law offers a dinner roll, man, I am sunk.

  10. The baking aspect of this post is really great, but what has the most resonance with me is the book itself.

    You see, this year, I wrote a book, to give as a gift.

    It started out when my sister told me she was giving her 9-year-old daughter her first CD player, which was a hint that this year was a good year to give her CDs.

    I first thought about putting together the ultimate set of mix CDs, to get her interested in all sorts of things, but I felt that a bunch of burned CDs would be a somewhat flimsy gift.

    So I thought that, to justify the set of CDs, I’d write a book to go with them.  I went with the subject “History of Rock”, and wrote 9 chapters covering the subject, from the origins of Rock & Roll in the 40’s all the way up to a few of the main popular waves of Rock in the 90’s.

    In the end, I had about 15,000 words, assorted with pictures I found and selected from Google Image Search.  Wikipedia helped a lot for the chapters where my already extensive knowledge was insufficient.

    It took me about 2 weeks to write the book itself, another 2-3 days to insert all the pictures, and I had the whole thing printed and bound like an actual book (since I was giving this to a child, I felt spiral-bound would be too fragile.)

    And the cool thing is, every song mentioned in the book is on one of the 10 CDs I’m packing with the book.

    A few friends even suggested that I look into getting the thing published, but I feel that I would need to rewrite most of it, to bring it to a level of quality that I feel would compare with what I see in stores.  As it stands now, the writing feels (to me) about as good as what a bright high-school student might be able to write, with just a few touches that go past that level (plus the length, which is way more than I would have been able to keep writing when I was in high school.)

    But I like that I was able to prove to myself that I was able to write such a book in such a short time.  I normally write fiction, and I now understand why some of my favorite writers who write both fiction and non-fiction seem to like writing non-fiction more (or at least, why they tend to find it easier to write.)

    It also made me realize how popular music tends to come in waves, with each new wave acting as a reaction to the extremes of the previous wave, and how, in the past decade or so, these waves have started to get mixed-up, to the point where all the different styles and sub-genres of Rock seem to be at least semi-popular, all at the same time. 

    The so-called mainstream is becoming less and less important, when every music lover can easily find the kind of music he or she likes, and avoid what “everybody likes”, to the point where there’s no music that “everybody likes” (except The Beatles).  The Internet has made it possible for popular music to apparently transcend the classifications of the music industry, and become so varied that it’s almost impossible for anyone not to find something to like.

    I already knew some of this before I wrote the book, but the idea really crystallized as I wrote each subsequent chapter, with Punk Rock being the response to the excesses of the more pretentious and bombastic prog and stadium Rock acts, or how Grunge was another reaction to a new wave of excesses perpetrated by the remnants of the 80’s New Wave bands, and especially of the Hair Metal bands. 

    The final realization came when I saw how the cycles accelerated in the 90’s (Grunge giving way to Third Wave Punk and Ska Punk within just a few years, for example) and how I can’t identify what “current” style of Rock is the “main” one, right now, due to overwhelming variety.

    Right now is a great time to like Rock music, provided you’re not stuck with just commercial radio.

    1. It does sound interesting. You could always push it out as a low cost ebook if you’re not certain it’s up to a full book. (Together with a list of the CDs). I’d buy it…

      1. It’s in French, for one (I live in Québec, as does my niece).  Also, it was written with a pre-teen to early teen audience in mind.  And lastly, like I said above, it was written pretty quickly, so the style is somewhat inconsistent.  I think most adult readers would feel that it doesn’t go into enough detail to be interesting.  While I was telling a friend of mine who probably knows more than I do about Rock History, he interrupted me, and implied (politely) that I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know.  I know for a fact that there’s very little in the book that he doesn’t already know.  In fact, anyone in his 30’s or older who’s had an interest in “Classic Rock” wouldn’t learn much from that book.

        Also, I sequenced the CDs myself, from many different sources (including my own music collection.)  I very much doubt the same set of tracks could be obtained commercially in that particular grouping — the licensing alone would preclude such a project.

        The other thing is, I like the idea that, in its current form, at least, the book is unique.  I don’t plan on making more copies, unless I rework it significantly.  So it will be a doubly-special book for her.

        My suggestion is, pick a subject you’re familiar with, and pick someone you know who you think would be the right audience, and then write the book for that person!  It was such a fun (though sometimes mentally-exhausting) project that I’ll probably do it again in a few years, why my other niece (who is only 5, right now) reaches about the same age.  I’ll have to see what her interests are, at that point.  One subject I know enough about to write something she might like (if she’s into that subject by then) is a book about astronomy and astrophysics.

          1. That’s actually a big part of why I’d be hesitant to open Grammy’s cookbook up for anybody to buy (as some in this thread have asked for). Some of her recipes are cut from newspapers and magazines. Others were typed up, but labeled as having come from various places that might have a copyright on them still. I don’t want to dick around with that. 

  11. Also shortening != butter.  Shortening usually means Crisco, sometimes lard depending on how old your recipe is.

    They are somewhat interchangeable, but will give you a different consistency in the final product.  Typically for a cookie creaming the sugar and fat will give you a lighter more cake like cookie, while starting with a heated more liquid butter will give you a more chewy result.

    Also many people tend to like more brown sugar than white, but that’s really personal preference.

    I highly recommend Cooks Illustrated or America’s Test Kitchen, they are more or less by the same people and are both excellent.  Very step by step with logical explanations for why what works and what doesn’t.

  12. Maggie, invest in a good set of cookie sheets if you intend on continuing.  My father swore by his dark, craptastic, scraggly, rusty-looking sheets, but once I went to Crate & Barrel and got 2 good aluminum pro sheets, my cookies ALWAYS come out perfect on the bottom.  To me, they’re the best investment you can make in your cooking baking future.  It took a few tries, but I converted my father, and now he uses them exclusively.

  13. Parchment paper.  Keeps the cookies from sticking, and evens out the temp somehow.  Don’t ask me why, it just works.
    Cowboy cookies were staples as I was growing up.  I even took the recipe to “Show and Tell” in sixth grade and brought cookies to demonstrate the end result.  
    Glad the next generation is returning to home done, that way you can control what goes into your mouth…more or less.

    1. Either parchment paper or silicon baking sheets. You can usually find the silicon baking sheets fairly cheap at a restaurant supply place, parchment paper gets expensive in the long run.. :)

  14. You can do it, Maggie! When I was just a teen, my mother (a single parent) taught me to be self-sufficient, beginning with learning how to cook my own good food. I began with biscuits, a bread suitable for both breakfast and supper. I’ve since moved on to what has now been termed ‘artisan’ loaves and I love the entire warm, loving process. 
    While I know you’re going to be following your grandmother’s recipes, might I suggest The King Arthur Baking Cookbook for some basic, well-explained baking foundations. One thing I’ve learned over the years is the care that needs to be taken with most cookbooks. In some of them, not every recipe works, for example, as the author/s sometimes seem to be more concerned with the beautiful photos rather than offering specific advice to their readers.
    Regardless, best of luck and most of all, have fun!

  15. Some hints about flour.
    Flours can vary by region. Southern Flour is usually softer.
    If your Grandmother was from the South, she probably used White Lilly or Gold Medal AP flour for baking.
    A brand like King Arthur might throw off a southern recipe.
    Flour by Cup even varies by brand when you weight it.
    125 g/cup for USDA flour 135  g/cup for Gold Medal. (AP flours)
    those little bits add up in a recipe.
    Here’s a chart:

    Get a digital scale and Good Luck!

    1.  Whoa.  I bake a lot, and for years have used White Lilly, and recently bought a bag of King Arthur, as it was what they had at Sam’s…  I had wondered why my rolls went weird and my red velvet cake seemed dry.  All of the recipes I’ve made lately are old southern recipes handed down by old southerners.  Glad I read the comments; thanks for the link!

      1. King Arthur flours are generally high in protein (gluten), which makes them great for yeast breads, especially long-rising ones. However, when using King Arthur, you will need to adjust your measurements for yeast breads like rolls if your recipes are designed for lower-protein flours (e.g., less flour or more liquid). Measuring by weight is a good suggestion, as is paying attention to how the dough looks and feels.

        Traditional Southern flours are lower in protein, which makes them great for cakes, pies, biscuits, scones, quick breads — anything where you want light or flaky or crumbly, as opposed to a yeast-bread chew. Anything sold as “cake flour” will be low in protein, as well as extra-fine milled.

  16. Hi Maggie – great post and thank you for the recipes! I wanted to pass on my butter advice. For years I would get impatient and use warmed butter that was too soft and end up with hard, crunchy cookies when I wanted chewy or soft. The secret is using butter that is not too warm because then it can hold the air pockets that you add when you beat. A friend told me that when you’re creaming sugar and butter you’re forcing the sugar through the butter to make little tunnels of air. He had me put the butter in the microwave straight from the fridge and add 30 seconds of time. Then I had to press start and stop every 5 or so seconds and check it. Once I could leave a fingerprint in the butter it was just soft enough. I also found that just using hard butter was fine – though perhaps the motor on my mixer doesn’t agree. Enjoy your baking and make sure to make your own margin notes!

  17. “Of the 315 pages, 106 of them are just bread recipes.”

    Your Grammy (or her family) originates from a german speaking country? Only there you get decent bread and not some variation of squishy white bread.

  18. This is such a wonderful and meaningful gift to your family!

    Please do share your adventures as a new baker. I’m a pretty good cook and love experimenting with world cuisine, with great success… but whenever I try to make a simple cookie recipe, it ends up like a cookie sheet covered in pancake-like, mush. I’m just about as bad with pies. I can make great savory pies, but I somehow ruin anything sweet.

  19. Yes to *not* packing flour
    Yes to parchment paper (it revolutionized my baking)
    Yes to heavy-duty aluminum baking sheets; I use 1/2 sheet jelly roll pans and swear by them
    Yes to letting the dough rest overnight
    Yes to not fiddling with the dough too much; remember, gluten really wants to form and you really don’t want it to (unless, that is, you prefer heavy, chewy pastries)

    Finally, check out Good Eats season 3, episode 305 (“Three Chips for Sister Martha”). Alton explains the chemistry of baking very clearly by showing how only slight changes in the proportion of the same ingredients will cause the finally result to be chewy, cakey, or crispy.

    And forget* about alarmist wailing about raw eggs; raw dough is the shiz, and you should size your recipe accordingly for pre-bake noshing! 

    *Disclaimer: IANAMB (I am not a microbiologist), but I do get my eggs local and fresh.

    1. Once that dough makes it to the fridge I have a tendency to “check” on it every couple of hours.  I’m lucky to have half a batch to cook by the next day…

  20. Add a calibrated oven thermometer to the list of holiday baking essentials (especially for such time-sensitive items as cookies). There’s more than enough variables to juggle without having to guess at what temp your oven is reaching.

    Now, gotta run—pfeffernussen are ready to come out!

    1. Hey, I make those!  Mine are small and hard and crunchy, without any sugar-coat on ’em or nuts or raisins in ’em.  We use star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom.  What are yours like?

  21. Snickerdoodles
    375 deg F oven

    8 oz butter (two sticks)
    2 cups sugar
    2 eggs
    1/4 cup milk or cream
    1 tsp vanilla
    19 oz flour
    1/2 tsp baking soda
    1/2 tsp cream of tartar
    1/2 tsp salt
    1/2 tsp cinnamon extract

    Cream butter and sugar
    Add eggs one at a time, beating well
    Add milk, vanilla and cinnamon extract
    Mix together flour, baking soda, salt and cream of tartar
    Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients
    Scoop out 1″ balls, roll in cinnamon sugar
    Bake at 375 11-13 minutes
    Yields about 4 doz.

  22. i’ve heard that there’s no technical reason to need a fresh egg for cake mixes. they tried putting dried egg solids in the mix, but people felt more like they were really baking if they had to crack an egg.

      1. sure there is; the boxes prompt people who don’t make shopping lists to make a cake! are you a communist?

        1. My major beef with the mixes is that there’s folks who don’t believe they can make a cake, when it’s really not that hard.  If you have access to the internet on your phone, you can google a recipe, and you still don’t have to write a list.  I understand some folks are as nostalgic about the mixes as I am about baking from scratch, and I don’t have an issue with that. 

          1. Some people think they can’t make FROSTING.  I figure at that point that it’s not their fault that they’re scared to try cake. 

  23. I love the “before-n-after” photo of the original cookbook and your scanned one.  Your grandma’s cookbook is what my friend calls “The Cookbook of Love”–tattered, taped, full of notes and greasy fingerprints…and memories. 

  24. I’ve heard thatyou can ‘share’ your lulu link and others can buy a copy of the book…would you consider sharing your Grammy’s book?

  25. Ah, this made me think of my grandma.  She wasn’t a cookie baker, her thing was breakfast.  She would willingly make each of her numerous grandkids his or her favorite on a holiday morning — even if it meant making pancakes, waffles, poached eggs on toast, cinnamon toast, scrambled eggs and bacon, etc., etc., all on the same day before 8 in the morning.  Wish I could have breakfast with her this Christmas.  I’d switch around and make her favorite for her!  I think we both got lucky in the grandma category.

  26. Converting flour measurements from cups to weight tends to be an inexact process because you often don’t know how the person who created the recipe handled their flour.

    There are two generally accepted ways to measure out a cup of flour, with both sides seemly convinced their way is better (ain’t that always the case?)  There’s “scoop-and-sweep” where you scoop the flour out of the container and somewhat gently spoon it into the measuring cup.  And there’s “dip-and-sweep” where you use the measuring cup itself to scoop flour out of the container.  In either case you then use something like a knife to level or “sweep” off the top of the cup.  Some cookbooks will tell you which method they used, otherwise you have to guess.  Cook’s Illustrated uses dip-and-sweep.  Dip-and-sweep compresses the flour a bit more so you get more flour per cup with that method.

    And as others have mentioned there are differences between flours.  In my experience pastry flour is significantly less dense (~20%) than all-purpose or bread flour.  Another variable is sifting, although it is fairly rare for a recipe to call for sifting the flour before measuring it.

    For AP and bread flour my measurements have averaged 130 grams per cup for scoop-and-sweep and 140 grams per cup for dip-and-sweep.  Cook’s Illustrated also found the 140g figure for dip-and-sweep.

    All that said a few grams of flour either way rarely matters for most baking.  If I can’t figure out for certain what the right conversion should be for a recipe I usually go for something like 135 grams per cup and I’ve never had any problems.  I prefer baking with a scale primarily for convenience rather than a concern for accuracy.  Using a scale allows me to avoid dirtying any measuring cups for most things I make.

  27. This sounds familiar. :-) You see, my grandmother died a couple months ago. Every Christmas for decades, she made these fantastic little spice cookies called peppernuts (aka pfeffernusse). I’d picked up the tradition from her some years ago: one of the ingredients is relatively rare (ground star anise), and she sent me my own stash. Last year, I called her about something, and she mentioned that she would always listen to Handel’s Messiah while making peppernuts. I got the UPC of her favored recording and bought my own copy.

    Two weeks ago, my mom and I made peppernuts together while listening to Handel’s “Messiah”. It helped. We were making a recipe she perfected, for cookies she used to send us every year in the mail.

    The recipe goes like this:

    –Irene’s Peppernuts–
    1. Cream together: 1 1/2 c white sugar, 1 1/2 c brown sugar, and 1 c butter.
    2. Add to the above and cream together: 1 c heavy whipping cream, 1 c dark corn syrup, and 2 eggs.
    3. Add to the above and cream together: 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ground star anise, 1/4 tsp cardamom, and 1/4 ground cloves
    4. Gradually mix in 8 c flour. (I usually do this 2 cups at a time, and by the fifth or sixth cup, you’ll want to do it by hand. The dough will be stiff enough to break your mixer.)
    5. Chill several hours or overnight. The dough is very sticky, and is easier to work with when cold.
    6. On a floured surface, roll dough into snakes about 1/2 inch thick, cut into pieces about 1/4 wide. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 300F for 25 minutes.

    Makes 5 quarts.

    Give the peppernuts about three to five days for the spice flavors to strengthen. Keep them in an airtight container.  (We have yet to determine a shelf life. We do know that it’s more than a year.)

  28. Due to the mention of the burnt cookies I’m going to toss this out: if your cookie sheet has a lip on all 4 sides, it’s not a cookie sheet, it’s a jellyroll pan. (I’ve actually seen them mis-labeled by the manufacturer….and I just took another look at your pix, you are definitely using a jellyroll pan for those pumpkin cookies.) Jellyroll pans can deflect heat in odd ways; you want a true cookie sheet that’s flat with just a hint of a flange for gripping on 1 side.

  29. How lucky you are that your grandma was so meticulous about writing her recipes down. Both my grandmothers were avid bakers, but their recipes were in their heads and they used measurement conventions like handfuls of flour and pinches of salt.  To this day I can’t eat banana bread without the expectation of disappointment. My grandmas was the best and I have no idea how she made it. Anyone in my family would love to have a reproduction of her recipe book. What an awesome gift.

    And this comment thread is a treasure trove of baking advice. Bookmarking now. You’ve given us all the gift of baking. 

  30. The bottoms ended up burnt black. I am not exactly sure what happened

    If your cookie sheet is too large for your oven or if you try to use two at once, you cut off airflow and the bottoms burn while the tops still look pasty.

  31. My mom, my sister and I get together every December for “Cookie Weekend” where we bake about a dozen different kinds of cookies, six to eight dozen of each.  We make your little jam tarts, too, but we call them jewel cookies.

    My tips:
    1) never pack flour.  I usually use the scoop-and-sweep method but with cookies where the dough always turns out dry, I subtract a little flour.  We assumed the problem was not enough liquid but there’s no actual liquid in the dough, just fat and egg.  Less flour made the dough much easier to work with.  Liquid turned it to glue.

    2)always pack brown sugar.  It should keep its shape when you dump it out of the measuring cup.

    3)Silpats, parchment or insulated baking sheets work wonders unless you’re making lace cookies (those kind of caramely things with chocolate?) in which case you WANT them to “burn”

    4)Any dough that doesn’t have a real liquid in it can handle some abuse without going tough.  Eggs, sugar and fat don’t seem to trigger gluten formation like good old H20.

    5)reading all the way through the recipe and setting out everything you’ll need beforehand prevents nasty surprise trips to the grocery store.  Mise en place is all well and good but not strictly necessary.

    6) Baking SODA is not the same thing as baking POWDER.  The former will last nearly forever and is just sodium bicarbonate (a good thing to know if you are in a pinch and need an antacid) whereas the latter is a mix of several things and will go bad.

    7)speaking of things that go bad, if you decide to work with yeast and you keep it a while, test some of it out before baking with it.  The experation date is probably conservative but unintentionally flat bread is not fun.

    8)Remember, ingredients are relatively cheap.  If it bombs, toss it and try again.  Even experienced bakers have off days – see my last set of baking fails on recipes I have made dozens of times for examples.  Too much liquid, forgot the salt, didn’t have vanilla, lost the cookie cutters… Yeah.

    9) Have fun! 

    As someone above mentioned, Alton Brown does a really good job of explaining the chemistry of baking.  Molly Wizenberg of has a bunch of awesome, simple baking recpes (seriously, I’ve never had one of hers fail), and the red and white checked BHG basic cookbook is awesome.  Avoid Nigella Lawson until you’ve got a lot of experience.  Her recipes are good but she doesn’t do nearly enough handholding for my peace of mind.  Tossed out a perfectly good batch of cake “batter” because it was so thick I had to spread it with a knife and I assumed I’d forgotten something.  Turns out, it’s supposed to be like that.

  32. I started baking 40 years ago with a published if undistinguished cookbook that we discovered when my husband’s (then boyfriend’s) mother died.  It’s an exciting and very, very satisfying and memorable journey you’re on.

    Can I suggest  to help you on your way?  The recipes may not be in any way superior to your grammy’s but he’s an accomplished baker who provides lots of hands on technique bolstered by helpful photos.  In addition, he’ll scat on the history of recipes, the science of food and provide travelogues to tie it all up in a bow. 

    Here’s to the day that you pass on all of your own recipes and notes to a new generation of cooks and bakers!

  33. Maggie, good luck with this recipe voyage!

    I am really into baking now, and I too started basically from scratch. Three things I would suggest as you get into baking:
    – Learn the difference between flours. Cake flour, pastry flour, whole-wheat flour, bread flour, white flour, self-rising flour, and ‘soft’ flours like White Lily are all different from each other and will produce different products.

    – Get a scale. Measuring out all your ingredients on a scale will really help.

    – Get a sifter. It really makes a difference when you make cakes and pastries. I recommend the OXO Good Grips sifter as it’s very easy to use and clean.

    Have fun!

  34. If you can find a copy somewhere, look for Meta Given’s Encyclopedia of Cooking.  It was published in the 40s and 50s, and is a wonderful resource.

  35. Congratulations on this wonderful connection with your family’s history. I took on a similar project a few years ago, blending the treasured recipes from my family and my husband’s. I especially love that you were able to scan the original recipes with your grandmother’s notes. While I wasn’t able to do that for our cookbook, I do have some of my grandmother’s pickle recipes in that format – typewritten and annotated. It is such an amazing connection to her and to my family’s past.

    I especially am looking forward to the bread recipes! Bread, muffins, scones – they’re an amazing blank canvas for baking creativity. Once you master a few basic recipes, you can really experiment with add-ins, spices, flour blends. (I’m hoping there may be a good midwestern apple bread recipe hiding in the trove!)

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful history. I may make the jam thumbprints today!

    Happy holidays!

  36. I forgot to add – speaking of connections with the past – I still have my grandmother’s sifter! I rarely rarely use it. You’re right about just tossing with a fork.

    1. I forgot to add, forgot to add (recursive loops!) As “faithnomore” says above, Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” is a fabulous and fun primer to the chemistry of cooking. His learning and inspiration is partly from the amazing book by Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking.

      The reason you refrigerate the dough overnight (the jam thumbprint recipe) is so the flour can completely hydrate. The freezing probably short-circuited this process somewhat, and the 45 minutes wasn’t long enough for the hydrating process either. By refrigerating you’re keeping the fats solid for flakiness, and letting the dough “ripen.” I would postulate that if you’d followed the recipe you would have had a dough that was initially quite stiff (from the fats being cold) but very “dough-y” instead of crumbly. And I would conclude this half-assed baking chemistry lecture by saying, I also tend to skip the refrigerate overnight step. That takes advance planning!!

      1. Both McGee and Alton are really worthwhile.  Alton Brown also has some decent principles for streamlining your kitchen, including the principle of not getting/keeping kitchen tools that only have one use.  Also, clear off primary real estate in your kitchen, and then only put things in that drawer/on the counter/shelf after you’ve used them.  That way you organically have things you use more readily available.

  37. Remember: all cooking is chemistry, and baking is much less amenable to changing the formula than other forms of cooking.  Don’t “fudge” when you’re baking until you’re sure you have a good feel for that particular recipe.

  38. That sounds like such a wonderful way to get closer to a loved one, learning more about them by learning to do something they excelled at, by studying their own notes and recipes.

    It’s like apprenticing under them ☺

  39. I did the same thing.. a number of years ago.. and couldn’t figure out why some items just did NOT come out the same way.  A much older cousin.. who’s now in her late eighties FINALLY gave me the secret.. that has been lost to our generation.. way back when.. they did NOT have butter like we do today.. and in place of butter or oleo (margarine) in a recipe.. they’d use BACON GREASE.  Yep.. they kept a little can.. where they stored it.. and reused it when baking.  So, if you’re finding that a certain cookies.. isn’t turning out.. just exactly as you remember.. I’m betting.. it was BACON!  And, yes.. even a few “bacon crunchies”!  Your gingerbread men.. will FINALLY taste exactly like Grandmas! (if you use bacon grease)

  40. Very important detail I haven’t seen mentioned yet…..

    ALWAYS break open your eggs one at a time into a small bowl before adding to the mixing bowl.  About one out of every couple hundred times, there will be something wrong with the egg.  Much more often, the shell didn’t crack right and you end up with shell fragments swimming in the goo.  Opening them one at a time and fixing whatever the problem is means you haven’t wasted 3 or 4 eggs (and possibly the whole rest of the recipe) if something is wrong.

  41. My Grandmother passed away in 1996. I’m still pissed at my Dad for not saving her recipes. I’ll be thinking of her  Potato Chip cookies for awhile now. She had the only pie crust recipe that never failed. She wouldn’t give you a copy of the recipe, but she was more than happy to talk you through it over the phone. 

  42. A great Christmas gift for your family, and what a wonderful troll to bring out all the food boingers!

    I was at a cooking demo recently, and the instructor (a culinary school student) mentioned in passing that both baking soda and baking powder make whatever you’re baking expand… but that baking soda makes it expand in all directions, while baking powder tends to make it expand mostly upward.

    I haven’t confirmed this, but the mnemonic of spilling soda (flows in all directions, fizzes up) seemed a good way to remember the difference between the two.

  43. I enjoyed the recipes and the sentiment behind the article.  And I like how you mixed the process description with “why?” questions. I look forward to more.

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