Thursday, May 8, 2008

You can understand why I cherish these pages

Is it possible to be emotionally attached to a cookbook?

If you are anything like me, the answer is, why, yes.

Though I am in love with many of the luscious, gorgeous, hardbound volumes that comprise the "cookbook" section of our library, there is only one that sums up my entire childhood between its torn, frayed, disintegrating covers: Betty Crocker's Cooky Book.

Originally published in 1963, the Cooky Book is a trove of delectable, old-fashioned cookie recipes mixed with the sort of delightful, simplistic nostalgia that only a cookbook penned in the 1960s can offer. For example, the letter from the fictional Betty Crocker that's printed next to the table of contents includes the following: "In this book you'll find cookies in variety, cherished recipes from the past and recipes using the newest convenience products...." The best 1960s housewife language comes in the introduction to the "Company Best Cookies" chapter:

"Company is coming" is a magic phrase which brings an air of excitement to the house, especially to the kitchen. Often it is these company occasions that prompt us to take the time and effort to bake some delicious delicacy. Here, for the four o'clock hostess, are dainty bars, bonbons, and drops -- perfect complements to fragrant tea or coffee. Among these teatime treasures you'll find cookies with the distinctive flavors and shapes of foreign lands. Here, too, for hostesses at big affairs, is a variety of cookies to make in quantity. Yes, cookies lend themselves beautifully to easy friendly hospitality. Baked, and even arranged ahead of time, cookies can always be ready to tempt and please your guests.

Afternoon tea is a gracious and elegant way to entertain your friends with ease and at a small expense. Welcome a newcomer to the neighborhood or honor an out-of-town guest at a small tea for twelve. Announce your daughter's engagement or introduce prospective club members at a large tea for fifty or one hundred guests. On these pages are dozens of recipes for fancy, rich, and delicious little cookies to accompany tea and coffee.

Best of all is the chapter devoted to "Best Cookies," which organizes popular cookies by decade, complete with sidebars on historical highlights...starting in the 1880s. Who knew that "The Best Cooky" between 1890 and 1900 was "Cinnamon Jumbles"? And when people were loving their Cinnamon Jumbles at the turn of the century, "a Chinese chef in New York concocted the first chop suey." Seriously, this cookbook is phenomenal.

I am lucky enough to own a first edition/printing volume, one that has been lovingly annotated over the years by both my paternal grandmother and my mom. Ma Chris, my grandmother, wrote some of her (and my dad's) favorite recipes on the inside front and back covers of the book, as well as in the margins of certain pages. I am so grateful to have these recipes at my disposal, after all these years, as they're both a tangible connection to my grandmother as well as a terrific resource when it comes to baking for my dad. Those recipes remind him of his youth and I am always happy to try to recreate some of Ma Chris' magic for him. (Though, sadly, her recipe for raisin-filled cookies -- Dad's ultimate favorite -- is missing something. She forgot to include a key ingredient for the filling and I can't figure out how to make the recipe work properly. Dad continues to lament.)

Inside the front cover Ma Chris jotted down the recipes for "Easy Kolache" ("use same dough for nut rolls"), "Standard White Bread" and "Brown Sugar Raisin Filled Cookies," which is the recipe missing a filling ingredient. On page 103, which features illustrations of ginger cut-out cookies, inside the drawing of the ginger bear Ma Chris has written a simple recipe for ice cream. The inside back cover contains her recipe for "Angel Streudel," which is a delightful cherry-angel food cake roll. I still serve it at Christmas. There's also a recipe for "Caramel Apple Cookie" here. On page 28, the page the Cooky Book dedicates to "Holiday Cookies," Ma Chris has added recipes for Pizzelle, or "Pizzale" as she spells it, "Butter Balls" and "Ginger Creams." The only instruction for Butter Balls is as follows: "Slow oven 10 min."

You can understand why I cherish these pages. And I haven't even gotten to the recipes that are actually printed in the book.

When Mom got her hands on the Cooky Book, she went through and placed discreet Xs next to those cookie recipes that she liked the most. All my very favorite cookies are thus marked with Xs, as my favorites are the ones we baked all the time when I was young: Russian Tea Cakes, Snickerdoodles, Jubilee Jumbles, Chocolate Crinkles. Coconut Lemon Bars even get two Xs, so you have to know Mom loved those. I still turn to these pages on holidays, special occasions, or just the random Thursday that could be improved by a few dozen nostalgic cookies. I turn to them so often that the Cooky Book is falling apart, its pages separating from its wire binding, the front cover completely torn from the rest of the volume. My family always makes fun of me because I am very anal retentive about my books. I get angry if anyone cracks the spine before I've had a chance to read the book (and sometimes even after I've read it). If a book gets wet, or stained, I tend to throw a minor hissy fit. It is not an attractive quality. I'm working on it. However, my copy of the Cooky Book belies my anal retention: it is falling to pieces, and I love it. Proof of the book's exalted status in my kitchen and in my life.

So after Ma Chris wrote part of her baker's story in the margins, Mom, Dad, Sister and I had our turn. Though the Xed recipes got the most play in the kitchen of my childhood, several other recipes stand out in my memory. First are Toffee Squares, page 39, described as the "rich cooky that looks and tastes like toffee candy." I entered Toffee Squares into a Girl Scout cookie-baking contest in middle school, and won. I remember making the recipe "my own" by cutting the bar cookie into diamond shapes, rather than squares. I was very proud of this innovation. Then there were the Candy Cane Cookies. The bane of my childhood existence. They just looked so beautiful and delicious in the Cooky Book's photographs.... I always asked to make them. Begged to make them. Mom always said no. Too much trouble! The recipe involves dividing the dough in half, coloring one half red, then rolling out logs of both colors and twisting them together before baking. I never in my life made these cookies, though I have always wanted to. Which is sort of ridiculous because I am 33 and made mole poblano last week. Certainly I can manage Candy Cane Cookies. But that just wouldn't be right: these are the Forbidden Treat. The denial of the Candy Cane Cookies is legendary.

Today I have chosen Chocolate Crinkles to make for you all. I've been thinking about them a lot over the past few weeks and it's been awhile since I've baked them. They are so simple to make -- they're powdered-sugar-covered brownie bites, really. The method involves rolling the cookies into balls and dipping them into the sugar. When we were young Sister used to say, while rolling, "I can taste them with my hands!" While this is not empirically possible, the dense, rich chocolate smell is pleasing enough to sate all five senses.

Even if the Cooky Book was not an integral part of your formative years -- and even if you don't have an aging, tattered copy that is 45 years old -- Chocolate Crinkles should become a part of your baking repertoire nevertheless. Why deny yourself rich, chocolatey gems coated in pristine powdered sugar? I have denied myself Candy Cane Cookies for more than three decades. Don't do the same with Chocolate Crinkles.


Adapted from Betty Crocker's Cooky Book

Note that this cookie dough has to chill in the refrigerator several hours or overnight. So be sure to allow yourself adequate time.

1/2 c. vegetable oil

4 oz. unsweetened baker's chocolate, melted

2 c. granulated sugar

4 eggs

2 t. vanilla

2 c. all-purpose flour

2 t. baking powder

1/2 t. kosher salt

3/4 c. confectioners' sugar

Melt the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl set over gently simmering water. After it's melted, allow the chocolate to cool slightly.

In a large bowl and using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, mix the vegetable oil, melted chocolate and granulated sugar. Blend in the eggs, one at a time, incorporating each completely before adding the next. Stir in the vanilla. Add the flour, baking powder and salt to the bowl and mix thoroughly.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill several hours or overnight.

Later or the next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a teaspoon or a small ice-cream scoop, drop the chilled dough into a shallow bowl or plate containing the confectioners' sugar. Roll the dough in the sugar, then roll the sugar-coated dough between your palms to form a ball and shake off excess sugar. Place the cookies about 2 inches apart on a Silpat-lined, or greased, baking sheet.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, taking care not to over bake! Leave the cookies on the baking sheet for about a minute after removing them from the oven. Then remove to a wire rack to cool.

Then, taste them with your hands, or with your mouth. Personally, I advocate for the latter.

Makes about 44 cookies. Best enjoyed with a tall glass of milk!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a cute cookbook! I especially like the illustrations in old cookbooks, and who can beat Betty Crocker :)! I'd love to include your adapted recipe on our blog, please let me know if you're interested.

Sophie, Key Ingredient Chief Blogger