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Sometimes the Best Cookies Come from Our Great-Great-Grandmas

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For almost my entire life, my grandma Jeanne lived in a tiny house in the middle of Nowheresville, Kansas. The town is called Overbrook, to be exact—and it’s still largely in existence because of an auction house where farmers bring their cattle on Mondays to sell. It should be noted that, on Mondays, it’s also the only place in town that’s open at all. There’s a little restaurant inside where hungry farmers and townspeople alike order simple sandwiches and slices of very good pie. The restaurant has an unspoken rule: Order your pie from the chalkboard list on the wall the moment you sit down. If you don’t, there may be none left by the time you’re ready. And if it’s not clear from this lengthy aside, I learned this lesson the hard way.

Photo by James Ransom

It’s an itty bitty town, with one main street that’s not even the length of an avenue in New York City—or “long blocks,” as my father calls them. It has a bar, a little library, and a tiny florist that always seems to have the “back in 10 minutes” sign hanging on the front door. The town slogan is “Don’t Overlook Overbrook”—something that would be rather easy to do if I hadn’t spent huge chunks of my childhood there.

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But my grandma’s house wasn’t even in town, it was a 10 minutes’ drive outside the edge of the not-so-bustling village. She lived down a particularly hilly, pot-holey, prone to flooding (if it ever even rained) gravel road. A few of my family members refer to it as “The Family Homestead”—it was built by my great-great-great grandparents around 1866. The land was purchased with the help of The Homestead Act, introduced by President Lincoln. One hundred sixty acres of land somewhere in the middle of the country were given to any family willing to settle it, so my ancestors piled into a covered wagon and trekked to Kansas, where they built a little stone house.

I know all of this because I spent years studying my family history, thanks in large part to my wonderful grandma Jeanne. She and my grandpa had purchased the house in the late 70s from a cousin who had sort of let it fall into disrepair (the house had always belonged to someone in my family). When my grandma was growing up, her grandma lived there. When my dad was growing up, his grandma lived there. So, naturally, my grandma wanted this tradition to continue. That’s why I don’t call it “The Family Homestead,” but rather “Grandma’s House."

When my grandparents bought the house, it hadn’t been lived in for years. It didn’t have electricity or running water. They started slowly fixing it up and progress slowed down a bit when my grandpa got sick. When he passed away, it started up again, a bit faster this time. My grandma put a small addition on the house that included a full bathroom and moved out there alone, shortly after my older brother was born. And just like that, it was Grandma’s House again.

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Erin's great-great-grandma's cookie cutter.
Erin's great-great-grandma's cookie cutter. Photo by James Ransom

And then, one day, I unearthed what was, to me, one of the greatest treasures: a tiny yellow tin box containing handwritten recipes. The box belonged to my great-great-grandma, Clara McCracken. Inside the box were a few recipes, but my grandma pulled out the one for sugar cookies. “She used to make these and keep them in a jar by the kitchen window,” she told me. “We loved them, sometimes we would even sneak up under the window and try to take some without having to come inside.” Then she told me she always dreamed about making the cookies and keeping them in the window, just like her grandma did, but visitors were a little further between, so she hadn’t made them in years.

I was dying to try them. I started to scribble the recipe down, but my grandma handed me the little yellow box instead and told me to keep it. Then she started rummaging through a drawer, eventually pulling out a dark metal circle that she gave me, too. Upon closer inspection, I saw it was a cookie cutter: a medium circle cutter with scalloped edges. At one point, it had a handle on the back, but it had broken off somewhere down the line. “This is the cutter she used to make the sugar cookies,” my grandma told me. “You should have it.”

Photos by James Ransom

In the end, I turned all my research into my family history into a thesis centered around heirloom family recipes during my final year in pastry school. The sugar cookie recipe was one of the highlights. They are unlike any sugar cookie I’ve ever had, ever so slightly spiced and perfectly crisp at the edges. My grandma helped until the very end of the project, proofreading the whole thing and correcting my spellings of family names. A few years before she died, my grandma decided to sell the house. It was so tiny, and so far in the middle of nowhere that no one in my family wanted to purchase it. Instead, a lovely young couple with a new baby bought it from her. I was heartbroken. I felt like our history was sold and I missed the house terribly.

Almost a year after she moved out, I got a letter from my grandma in the mail. It was a photo copy of a letter from the folks who had bought the house. It said: “I greatly want to thank you for giving us a copy of the paper your granddaughter wrote. I read it from cover to cover, and now I feel I know so much more about your family and the history of this house. I can’t wait to make those famous sugar cookies with our daughter, in the exact same kitchen they have been made for generations. Thank you.”

Photo by James Ransom

Someone else may live there, but that place is still Grandma’s House. It always will be. The cookie cutter hangs in my kitchen now, some 1,300 miles away from Overbrook. I look at it every day, and I still use it to bake the sugar cookies. I like to make them for company and, whenever I do, I keep them in a jar in my kitchen window.

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Great-Great-Grandma McCracken's Sugar Cookies

0fecd8f8 6ef1 4649 9f57 83bf4668f3d0  3572 Erin McDowell
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Makes about 3 dozen cookies
  • 4 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking power
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup whole milk

Erin McDowell is a baking aficionado, writer, stylist, and Test Kitchen Manager at Food52. She is currently writing a cookbook. You can learn more about her here.

Tell us: Do you have a favorite, passed-down-through-the-generations recipe?


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