“There are still stars which move in ordered and beautiful rhythm. There are still people in this world who keep promises. Even little ones, like cooking stew over your Bunsen burner ..
That's enough to keep my heart optimistic, no matter how pessimistic my mind” ~ Madeline L'Engle
It was my fourth try and I was still getting her voicemail. Finally, I put on my coat, walked a couple of blocks down and knocked on her door. She was dodging my calls because the name on the caller ID didn't look quite right. “You can never be too be careful these days. All of these people trying to steal your identity”
On that cold December afternoon, I'm calling, of course, to walk her through the cookie recipe I'd brought that year to the neighborhood cookie exchange. It's the most requested recipe I've ever made and under normal circumstances, the one I usually kept close to the vest. A signature dish. A family comfort food. A refusal to let recipe anxiety keep me connecting with other people
She simply wouldn't take no for an answer
On the bottom of the hastily scribbled sticky note, I'd included
“Call me for special instructions”
So many of our family's recipes have been passed down from my grandma, who, when I was a kid, was the baker of all of the classics. There were always fresh cookies on her kitchen counter
During the summers of my elementary school years, I spent a lot of nights at her house. In the morning she'd make french toast that was often a little too eggy in the middle. But it smelled good and I piled berries onto my stack, a few walnuts, and ate on the edges. She never minded at all.
Sometimes, in the evening, we'd have cookies and milk after we'd gone for a walk (At each intersection, I always got to pick .. left or right?). To this day, her cookies taste like a single childhood summer, like late afternoon bike rides and skinned knees and green, chlorinated hair
When the holidays rolled around, one of my favorite things to do was help in the kitchen because she made the most amazing treats. I think she loved watching me watch her, and always gave me a job, like collecting sifting flour, greasing pans, or licking the bowl. It was then that I discovered one of her baking secrets: Parkay
And while I always cringe when it finds its way in my shopping cart, when you can achieve a cookie like hers, should one really get too hung up on how you got there?
As she got older, our family made attempts at capturing her recipes. My brother perfecting her flaky pie crusts and coconut cream pie. Me? Her cookies.
During the process, I realized just how hard it is to translate baking (or cooking, for that matter) into words. There are always exceptions and variations. Heat sources vary. It was hard to remember exactly what she did. Which details should be included? History? Failed attempts? Seasonal obstacles?
“Well, sometimes I do it one way and sometimes another. Both are just as good”
How in the world do you teach someone to bake without bogging them down with too much information?
“Sponge cake is done when it springs back like a baby's belly. When sugar starts to caramelize it reminds me every time of cotton candy. When browning butter, you have to wait for the nutty smell.”
I wonder if this is what it means to be a grandmother: balancing, forever, the ways you learned with the ways you will teach
During one of her last trips to Iowa, she made oatmeal raisin cookies
It seems fitting that they would be the first thing I would bake in my new apartment. It's a recipe that's hung on the inside of a cupboard door in every house I've owned .. and was the first to find a spot in the cupboards here
A shaky attempt at comfort in a place that still feels new; almost like the kitties and I are on vacation in a foreign land. I reached for the one recipe that I know inside and out. The one that reminds me that we're not just hanging around for a while. The one I wanted to share with the people who have been so helpful, kind, and welcoming to us this past month
The one recipe that never fails to build community
But these cookies ..
I wasn't used to the new oven and they were perhaps a bit overdone and burnt on the bottom, but their imperfection didn't seem to matter as I walked to the neighborhood grocery for more raisins and brought a plate of them on the first day at my new job
I shared them with all of the cute and wonderful couples who live on my floor. The nice person who helped with heavy IKEA boxes at midnight. “I've got it .. I'm good “
“You sure about that?”
“Not so much”
I bite my tongue .. fighting the urge to apologize for their appearance
Admittedly, the past few months have shaken my worldview to its core; made me question every decision I had made. Every person I chose to trust. They've left me tender and tentative about extending myself too far out into the world again. But what I also know is beauty and kindness abound if we have eyes to see .. and this is my new reality, in all of its imperfect glory
And so now that is what her cookies taste like to me; the space between fear/anxiety and recovery. Raisins. Oats. The familiar spark of tradition, the beginning of new memories. Pecans. The simplicity of a cookie made special thanks to the hands of a grandmother
Bringing an extra bit of sweetness to the people around me
I'm pretty sure the last thing anyone needs is another oatmeal cookie recipe
I mean, the sense I get is that most people have their favorite recipe, and tend to stick with it. Except, perhaps, for those times when you're lured away by something off-beat and enticing. Incorporating something like corn flakes, or, maybe – toffee. But those are just short-lived flings, yes?
This recipe though, it's pretty incredible. A few special instructions:
I've made them with butter, shortening, and other kinds of margarine. Without Parkay, they just aren't the same.
Toasting the coconut and nuts adds a special touch and you'll be glad you made the effort
In my grandma's day, the raisins were often run through a meat grinder to mash them into a paste. I've always used a food processor, which is easier but leaves you with a sticky paste. Tossing the raisins with a little bit of flour ahead of time makes it a little more manageable
Let the dough rest in the fridge for 72 hours before baking. (A trick I learned from the New York Times)
Keep a really close eye on them so they don't to over-bake. I like to take mine out when the edges are just beginning to brown and firm up. A point at which the rest of the cookie will look completely undercooked. Let them cool on the cookie tray for at least 10-15 minutes before transferring them to parchment or paper towels on the countertop to cool the rest of the way
They're always thicker and chewier when I've started baking with dough that's cold
As with most cookies, I bake these to order. The dough freezes well and you can bake off as many as you need, then portion off any leftover dough into balls. Double-bag, then freeze. You can even bake them straight out of the freezer, just tack on a few extra minutes of baking time.
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup margarine (Parkay is best)
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 3 cups oatmeal
- 1.5 cups flour (all-purpose)
- 1 cup ground raisins
- 1 cup coconut, toasted
- 1 cup chopped nuts (I like pecans or walnuts)
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment
- Grind the raisins in a food processor with a blade attachment for 20-30 seconds until they've formed a very thick paste and come together into a ball
- Separately toast both the coconut and the nuts
- Cream the margarine and sugars until light and fluffy
- Add the eggs and beat until the mixture resembles soft frosting
- Add flour and baking soda
- Stir in the oatmeal
- Stir in the raisins, coconut, and nuts
- Bake for 15 min, or until the edges are browned and have started to set.
- Allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheets for 10-15 minutes before transferring them to parchment or paper towels on the countertop to cool the rest of the way