It was a hot, sticky day in Nevada City. My mom and I had stopped by my great Aunt Kay’s house to visit and pick up some old family photographs for our genealogy research. It was muggy and hot in the small cottage. My aunt’s cat was melting into the floor, acting as if breathing was an annoying fact of life.
While my mother and my great aunt rummaged through boxes of photographs and drank lemonade, I asked to go through my aunt’s recipe collection, carefully filed in a large pile in a Ziploc bag. I was looking for my brother’s favorite – a date pudding recipe my grandmother used to make every Christmas. But at the top of the pile I found three sheets of plain white paper with the same ingredients listed over and over again. There was no title on the recipe, just a list of ingredients: brown sugar, shortening, 3 eggs, vanilla, sour milk, flour, baking powder, soda and salt. I held up the sheets and asked Aunt Kay what these pages were for. “Oh, when Debbie last came to visit we were trying to remember the recipe for mother’s sugar cookies.” My mom immediately brightened up. “Oh, I used to love those! I miss them so much! Grandpa and I used to take them with us when we went fishing. Grandma used to make them all the time.” I stared at them blankly.
Sugar cookies? Those are so…boring. Who cares about sugar cookies? These clearly aren’t part of the pantheon of family recipes that I know and treasure, like date pudding, fudge, fried egg sandwiches and great-grandpa’s butterscotch candy. But after five minutes of listening to them reminisce, it was clear that these cookies weren’t just in the pantheon, they were the Zeus of our family’s baked goods. My great-grandmother died when I was about six years old, and my great-grandfather passed away before I was born. My mother used to spend summers with her grandparents, fishing, playing card games and baking.
Apparently, almost every week these cookies would be rolled out on my great-grandmother’s counter and baked, producing a soft, brown sugar cookie with a hint of spice that stayed soft and chewy and comforting. My great-grandfather and my mom would carry them in their fishing creels and head off to catch dinner. Clearly, important childhood memories for at least two generations of my family were deeply intertwined with these cookies, and the sheets of paper I held in my hand were proof that my great aunt and her daughter Debbie were desperate to recreate the recipe and recapture something tangible from the past. By the look in my mother’s eye, I could tell that she wasn’t far behind. Then Kay told us these were Lillie’s cookies.
We had originally visited my great aunt so she could help us fill in some additional branches in our family tree. We had been working on it all summer and wanted her seal of approval on some things we had found. Lillie, it turns out, was Lillian Mae Creps, who was born around 1871 in Ohio. She taught this recipe to Mildred Shockey, her daughter-in-law, when she married, about 1917. This was a family recipe at the time Lillie taught it to my great-grandmother, and she was passing it down to (and possibly testing) the next generation. This recipe is well over a century old in my family, and if we could resurrect it, I would be at least the fifth generation to enjoy it. But the recipe wasn’t going to be much help, and Kay’s recent attempts had yielded disaster.
I examined each sheet of paper for a clue to what made these cookies so special. Kay had started with the basic ingredients, and as I read on, I could see that she and Debbie had gotten more and more desperate. Substituting butter for shortening, changing the amount of sugar, and finally, in a last ditch effort, poaching the eggs! Five batches later, nothing they had produced came close to their memory of these cookies. Now, memory is a funny thing. It’s quite possible that we could have had the perfect recipe and reality might still have fallen flat compared to a treasured childhood memory. But Kay and my mother had identical recollections of large, soft cookies that were rolled out with a hint of spice and stayed soft for days. When we got home, mom tried baking the cookies. They came out like regular sugar cookies, only closer to a caf-au-lait color than a traditional sugar cookie.
I stood quietly while she frowned over the rack of cooling cookies. “The dough was just too soft! I had to add too much flour to roll them out. I know these aren’t right. The texture is all wrong. It’s just what Kay said happened to her.” A year passed, and the memory of these cookies kept nagging me. The recipe isn’t fully lost, it seems we’re just missing a step somewhere. Chilling the dough? Do we have a measurement wrong? I wanted so desperately to give my mother, who has almost nothing tangible from her side of the family, something she could sink her teeth into. So one day I called her up and asked if she had the recipe, or what there was of it, in her box.
I was going to try to recreate the cookies.
It turns out she had two copies, made at different times, which I compared to what I had scribbled down from my great aunt’s recipe pile on that hot summer day. While she read out the ingredients, I interrogated each ingredient like it was an imposter. Could it be what was making the dough too soft to roll? Has there been a copying mistake in the recipe?
It wasn’t long before we found our suspect. One of the copies started with three cups of brown sugar. The second started with one pound of brown sugar, noting “three cups” in parenthesis next to it. A third version, the one my mom had most recently used, said three cups. I immediately wondered: how many cups are in a pound of brown sugar? I raced over to my bookcase and grabbed by favorite cookbook. I haven’t actually made anything out of this cookbook, which I know is strange. I can’t even remember when or where I got it, but I suspect my mom got it for me sometime around junior high or high school from the used bookstore we used to frequent downtown. Let’s Start to Cook published in 1966, has a pink, red and yellow day-glo cover and great swirly, calligraphic illustrations that remind me of the cookbooks everyone had when I was growing up. But the best thing about this book is its table of weights and measures, which never ceases to amaze me, and has the kind of arcane trivia that I always seem to need. Mom waited patiently on the phone while I scanned the chart and then almost cackled with glee. There, printed on the second chart it stated “2 1/3 cups firmly packed brown sugar = 1 pound.” You would never find that in a modern cookbook.
So now we know. Someone’s kitchen scale must have been off at some point, or else they were sure that three cups equaled a pound. No matter. I was righting a decades-old mistake and it felt great. I started to consider the rest of the recipe. Should I use bread flour? It makes cookies chewier because of the increased gluten. My mom balked. “No! She used white flour. No substitutions!” Hmm. What about the milk? The recipe calls for sour milk. I didn’t want to let my milk spoil. That just didn’t seem healthy and I’m sure great grandma would disapprove of inducing food poisoning.
Once again, mom had the answer. “Put a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar in it.” Huh, why didn’t I think of that? I went to the grocery store for whole milk (assuming they didn’t use non-fat in the fifties) and then took one last look at the recipe. Really, the whole thing, from brown sugar, shortening, to using up old milk, shows the frugality and common sense nature of these everyday cookies, which used only common household ingredients that my ancestors would have always had on hand. I set off to bake the cookies, knowing that I wouldn’t know if they were right or not, and that I had the full weight of the family tree on my shoulders. I would have to call my mom back and describe them. I started by reading all the sugar cookie recipes I could find.
The method for mixing and rolling a sugar cookie dough is straight-forward, but oven temperatures are not and can greatly affect the texture of the final product. The baking temperatures in the cookbooks varied between 350 and 400, with several at 375. I decided to do a sheet at each temperature. This was, after all, an experiment and I would take nothing for granted. I measured, sifted and whisked feeling more like a chemist than a baker. I questioned every step. Did they do it this way? The batter was soft, and I chilled it for a half hour. I had to add flour to roll it, but my mom had told me this would be the case. Still, it was like rolling peanut butter. Flour was everywhere and half a canister later, it was still sticking to the board. Finally, I had several trays ready to go. The first batch I baked at 400, watching them closely. Then I baked an equal amount at 375 and 350, thinking each time that I had used too much flour, and that if we wanted them to have any flavor maybe we should throw out the rolled cookie tradition and make them drop cookies.
The 350 batch was by far the puffiest and most cake-like, matching my mom’s memory, with the 400 batch second and the 375 strangely third. I called my mom, frustrated. “Well, they’re puffy, three inches across and cake-like, just like you described, and kind of blonde colored. I added nutmeg because you remembered it, even though it’s not in the recipe. But they don’t taste like much. But they’re kind of tasty. But they’re so plain. You would need to eat them with milk at least, and they don’t taste like brown sugar. And rolling them out was horrific!” Mom laughed. “Well, now you know what it was like. We used to have them with milk for breakfast and grandpa had them with coffee. Maybe we just need to adjust the sugar a bit, but the color, size and texture all sound right.” I sprinkled some nutmeg on the top of each of those still unbaked for added flavor, and breathed a sigh of relief. A bit of tweaking, and two more cups of flour at the start of the recipe, and we might just be on to something. If you want to resurrect a family recipe, here are a few tips that may help you.
- Do you want to make a faithful reproduction or a healthier version? Older recipes may include butter, shortening, whole milk, etc. If you lighten the recipe, you may be able to enjoy it more often, but it may not be exactly what you remember.
- If you are trying to be as accurate as possible, avoid substitutions in the ingredients and in the method. Did your great-great-grandmother have a stand mixer? Will using one affect the texture?
- According to ancestry.com, genealogy is second only to gardening as the most popular hobby in the United States. If you are researching your family tree and recording family histories, ask about recipes: where they came from, who made them, and any memories associated with them. It will make your family history and your palate all the richer.
Lillie’s Sugar Cookies (a.k.a. Mildred’s Cookies or Heirloom Cookies) late 19th c. 2 1/3 cups brown sugar 3 cups flour 1 cup shortening 4 tsp baking powder 3 eggs, beaten 2 tsp baking soda 1 tsp vanilla 1 tsp salt 1 cup whole milk 1 tsp nutmeg 1/8 tsp lemon juice Recommended alterations: Add one and a half to two cups of flour if you want to roll them, add an extra teaspoon of vanilla and at least tsp nutmeg. Or try as drop cookies with no alterations, but they won’t puff or be as cake-like. Preheat oven to 350. Add lemon juice to milk, set aside. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, soda, salt and nutmeg and set aside.
In a mixing bowl, combine brown sugar and shortening. Mix on medium until combined. Add eggs and vanilla, beat on medium speed until combined. Add milk, mixing on low to avoid splashing. Add dry mixture to wet mixture, beating on medium until combined. Cover and chill dough in refrigerator for 30 minutes. Flour your cutting board, rolling pin and round cookie cutter (approximately 3″ across). Put parchment paper on cookie sheets. Roll out the dough to a 1/2″ thickness, using as much flour as necessary to accomplish this (adjusting the recipe at the beginning to add more flour is highly recommended). Cut with cookie cutter and place on parchment paper, six cookies to a sheet. Bake at 350 for seven minutes until puffy and lightly brown around the bottom edge. Remove from oven and cool completely on a wire rack. Yield 3 dozen.