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 Lulu.com. 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 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.
- Grammy was big on sifting. To that end, she owned a hand-cranked flour sifter. I do not. I didn't really sift anything, and the cookies still turned out just fine. So why sift? There's a couple of things going on here. For one thing, back in the day, flour was more likely to have clumps in it, as well as bits of "extra protein" (i.e., bug parts). You sifted to get pure, light, fluffy flour. Another issue, and one that still matters today, is making sure the soda, salt, and baking powder aren't clumpy and are evenly distributed through the flour. I solved this issue by stirring those ingredients into the flour thoroughly with a fork. Finally, sifting can also help you make sure that the cup of flour you're measuring out is closer to an exact cup. It's easy to measure a cup of flour that contains more flour than the recipe intended, or less. I dealt with this by putting flour into my 1 cup measure a little at a time and tamping it down, and then leveling off at the end. It's probably not exact, but it's close enough that the recipe worked.
- Liquid and solid: If you are used to making cookies with dry ingredients and liquid ingredients, this will be a bit weird, because the mixture of shortening, sugar, and eggs isn't quite either. (Insert your physics jokes here.) Don't worry. It will mix into the dry stuff with no problem.
- Some thoughts on baking sheets: I ruined about half of my first batch of these. The bottoms ended up burnt black. I am not exactly sure what happened, but it's either one of two things. I might have over-greased a couple of the baking pans, creating a "frying" effect. Alternately, those pans might have been too dark. If you've ever worn a black t-shirt in summer, you'll have noticed that dark colors absorb more heat. This is also true of dark metal pans and things baked on them will bake faster. If that's all you have, try lowering the temperature or baking for a shorter amount of time. Also: Pull cookies out of the oven before they look "done". This is a big mistake that I made for years. If you wait until they look perfectly browned and solid, you'll end up with burnt cookies. In the photo below, you can see what the cookies should look like. Notice that they aren't real brown on top. They also looked sort of squishy still when I pulled them out of the oven. That's okay. Leave them to sit on the baking sheets for 10 minutes or so and they'll firm up the way you want them to.
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.
- "It is better to chill this dough overnight." If you are like me (i.e., sort of lazy and naturally antagonistic) that sounds like a challenge. So I decided to test it. You know. For science. I split my batch of this dough in half. One part I baked immediately. The other part I put in the freezer for 45 minutes. Surprisingly (and I feel really weird questioning Grammy here) I found the un-chilled dough easier to work with. The chilled dough came out of the freezer even more crumbly than it originally had been, so smushing it up and forming it into stable balls took more effort. They also had more of tendency to start breaking apart as I put the first dent in them. And, post-baking, I found no difference in structural integrity of the cookies. This result could be a YMMV thing. My "more crumbly and frustrating" could be your "easier to deal with". It's also possible that 45 minutes in the freezer isn't a reasonable substitute for overnight in the refrigerator. But, either way, the un-chilled dough made cookies that were perfectly fine.
- About the nuts: The recipe here calls for chopped pecans. That's fine. It's what I used today. But Grammy also made these with black walnuts from the timber and they are infinitely better that way. If you can get black walnuts, use them. Either way, make sure to break the nuts down into pretty small pieces. I started with pecan baking pieces and then smashed them up finer with a potato masher.
- Achieving the ideal jam hole: As the instructions say, this is a two-step process. You can't get around that. The dough will be very crumbly. A lot of it won't even be stuck together at first. It'll just look like little riced grains. You'll need to mush it up and work it around a bit until it's kind of the consistency of play-dough. Then roll it into a ball. The balls should be small. You want these cookies to be compact, in order to lessen their chances of falling apart later. In the photo below, you can see the unbaked cookies lined up on a tray, with a 1/2 Tablespoon measure set out for a size comparison. I got 9 cookies out of a half-batch of dough.
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Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.