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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Ghost of
Cookies Past

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

With 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 sugar cookies.

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 the family.

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 Book.Ē

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.

Cookies, 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 as teacakes.

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 teacakes:

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 oven.

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.

Grandmotherís 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 less onerous.

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 87.

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 Published December 17, 2014
More "Texas Tales' Columns

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