apologies to Charles Dickens, what haunts me as Christmas approaches
each year is the Ghost of Cookies Past and its fellow chain-rattler,
the Ghost of Cakes Past.
In addition to enjoying pleasant childhood memories of 1950s and early
Ď60s-vintage Christmases, back before tree lights twinkled and Santa
had a smart phone, I can still smell my grandmotherís fresh-from-the-oven
I donít know whether she was already a good from-scratch dessert cook
in 1916 when she married the young newspaperman who would become my
grandfather, or whether she developed her skill with pastries over
time, but she did tell me it was her mother who taught her how to
bake sugar cookies. Whatever Grandmotherís learning curve, I can document
photographically that my granddad went from being a stern-faced, slim
19-year-old to a stern-faced chubby older man by the time I joined
Not that I needed further proof of the side-effect of my grandmotherís
cooking, but I wasnít surprised when I found in her recipe collection
a little booklet published in the 1940s called ďThe Tubby Hubby Diet
Sugar cookies were Grandmotherís signature dessert. She made them
pretty much the same way her mother made them, and likely her mother.
My great-grandmother, who remembered the Civil War, moved to Texas
with her family from Mississippi to escape the ravages of Reconstruction.
incidentally, go way back. The theory among culinary historians is
that cookies began accidentally as bite-size test cakes. That may
explain why Grandmother said her mother referred to sugar cookies
Apparently, teacake was the common descriptor in the horse-and-buggy
days. Texasís first cookbook, an 1883 publication containing the favorite
recipes of the ladies of Houstonís
First Presbyterian Church, offers this casual kitchen formula for
ďOne cup of butter, two cups of sugar, four eggs, two cups of milk,
one teaspoon of yeast powder, flour sufficient to roll thin. Flavor
with lemon or vanilla. Sift white sugar over when rolled for cutting.
Bake in a quick oven.Ē
I have Grandmotherís teacake-sugar cookie recipe somewhere, but basically,
her cookies consisted of flour, a lot of sugar, plenty of real butter,
ample real shortening, real eggs, regular milk (she and Granddad called
it sweet milk), a little baking powder and vanilla extract. Grandmother
sprinkled more sugar on top of the cookies before they went into the
The only difference between Grandmotherís method of preparation and
her motherís teacake technique came with the development of refrigerators.
After mixing the dough, Grandmother wrapped it in wax paper and put
it in the refrigerator to cool. Later she rolled the dough in flour,
flattened it with a wooden rolling pin and used one of the glasses
that once came as premiums in oatmeal boxes to cut cookie-sized circles
of dough for baking.
When I was young, I often hung around to eat as much raw dough as
I could talk Grandmother into giving me. A pharmacist I used to know
later lectured me that ingesting raw cookie dough is dangerous, which
it is, but I ate a lot of it and as best I can tell, I am still alive.
Sparkling with little crystals of sugar on top, the cookies emerged
from the oven thick and soft. Grandmother kept them soft by placing
a slice of white Buttercrust bread in the wide-mouthed glass jar she
used to keep stocked with cookies. Soft or firm, dunking these cookies
in milk further enhanced the pleasure of consuming them.
oven oeuvre was more extensive than sugar cookies.
Going through the recipes she saved over the years, I found that more
than half were for desserts, from date bread to molasses cookies to
fruitcake to pecan pie. Despite this wide variety of possibilities,
Grandmother had a standard rotation of primary desserts.
In addition to sugar cookies her specialties included from-scratch,
layered white cake with icing made from bakerís chocolate and sugar
(the kind of candy-like icing that hardens on top), cinnamon rolls
(basically biscuit dough with more sugar and of course cinnamon),
and lemon meringue pie.
For my birthday every year, Grandmother made me a cake baked in one
of those high pans with a hollow cylinder in the middle. A white cake
with raisins, its top consisted of crushed pecans.
In addition to baking something for special occasions, when her family
experienced a crisis, Grandmother reached for her apron. She whipped
out a batch of molasses cookies to ease my teenage pain following
the breakup with my first girlfriend. (Grandmother, where are you
when I need you now?) Sugar cookies comforted me after my first fender
bender in my beloved 1952 Plymouth. Her chocolate cake made pimples
We know today that eating something sweet to assuage mental anguish
is not a healthy practice, but my grandmother was a Texas woman born
in the 19th century, not a psychologist.
I get that the wonderful desserts Grandmother made were not health
food. That said, if her old-style Texas cooking killed her or my granddad,
it took a long time. She lived to 85 and my granddad made it past
Of course, scientists are continuing to learn more about the evils
associated with sugar, not to mention flour and fats. It makes you
gain weight, itís been linked to depression, itís hard on your liver
and no telling what else.
But one thing my Grandmother added to the mix with her baked goods
is something as nourishing then as now Ė unconditional love.
© Mike Cox
December 18, 2013 column,
Published December 17, 2014
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