Cookie

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

November 30, 2016

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.

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.

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.”

Photo 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.

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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18 Comments

Carol B. December 5, 2016
It is indeed a small world isnt it.
 
Carol B. December 5, 2016
Wow I finally took the time to read the article with the cookies. It made me cry what a beautiful story. I will treasure this recipe and make it this year
 
Lynda W. December 4, 2016
Oh my goodness, Erin. I think we may be related. My maiden name is McCracken; my father's parents were born, raised, and started their married life in rural Kansas around 1920. Their names were Loyd McCracken and Eula Brickler. They came from a long line of Quakers. They are all gone now, but I am sure I remember a Clara somewhere, too. Please, who was your great-grandfather? I understand you might want to send a private message.
 
Customer C. December 4, 2016
A Food52er called Patsy McKnight asked us to post this comment for her:<br /><br />I wrote out the recipe and never had the time to perfect it before she died so the recipe sat. When my mother died I said a little prayer asking her to have a chat with Ma Tante to see what I was doing wrong. The instant I looked at the recipe I then noticed there in the corner of my card was the brown sugar I was missing. My family is now blessed with packages of Ma Tante Josephine's cookies from time to time. Oddly enough French Acadians eat these crispy thin carmalized cookies spread with a thin layer of butter. Here you go. Makes a ton of cookies<br /><br />Ma Tante Josephines Gingersnap cookies<br /><br />1. BOIL ONE CUP FANCY MOLASSES UNTIL IT RISES NEAR TO TOP OF THE POT - CUT OFF HEAT<br /><br />2. ADD 1 TSP BAKING SODA AND COOL IN POT<br /><br />3. WHEN STILL A BIT WARM CREAM IN:<br />1 CUP LARD AND<br />1 CUP BROWN SUGAR<br /><br />4. COOL TO WARM then add 1 BEATEN egg<br /><br />5. MIX INTO<br />4 CUPS FLOUR<br />1 ROUND TSP GINGER<br />1 TSP VANILLA<br />(1/2) TSP SALT<br /><br />6. COVER WELL OVERNIGHT (2 HOURS FINE) OVERNIGHT WAS TOO HARD.<br /><br />7. ROLL REALLY THIN (1/8th on an inch)and cut with round cookie cutter. (saran wrap is helpful here<br /><br />8. COOK AT 325 FOR TEN MINUTES ON PARCHMENT PAPER LINED SHEET. MAKE SURE TO LEAVE ABOUT (3/4) INCH BETWEEN.<br /><br />MAKES THREE LARGE COOKIE SHEETS
 
Stephanie H. December 4, 2016
Love this story. I don't have many family recipes (my great-grandmother lived long enough for me to meet her but only spoke Italian and was of the "a handful of this, a few pinches of that" cooking style. No recipes!) but I do have some cooking utensils that I cherish like your cookie cutter. The Italian great-grandmother'a pasta roller resides in my kitchen along with my other grandmother's Wagner Dutch oven. They are among my most prized possessions.
 
Sharon R. December 4, 2016
My Great Aunt Ray or as we used to call her, Tante Ray, would bake onion cookies for me and my brother. Sadly I've never been able to find the recipe. They were delicious and if you didn't eat them fresh from the oven, they became rock hard. In Yiddish they were called Cibella Keechels. Can anyone share the recipe?
 
witloof December 4, 2016
Sharon, there is a recipe for Tzibbele Kichel in From My Mother's Kitchen by Mimi Sheraton. It's a lovely book, well worth owning. <br />https://www.amazon.com/My-Mothers-Kitchen-Recipes-Reminiscences/dp/0060138467
 
Lauri December 4, 2016
I loved this story so much. It made me feel warm, toasty and nostalgic for a grandmother I never had. My grandmothers were awful cooks, the both of them. For us, eating at Grandma's meant pushing the food around the plate, hiding as much as you could under the mashed potatoes, and leaving hungry. I listened with longing to my friend Sylvia's tales of her grandmother's amazing, mouthwatering Italian meals and wishes I could have been at such a table. I've made it a point to change all that for my kids and cook all the time. I made all their baby food and the same big blue Dutch oven that we sterilized their baby stuff in, is the same sacred pot I use to make stews, soups, roasts and briskets... We all love the big blue pot. They will have to fight over it one day. Our daughter is away at school now, but when she comes home, what she really wants are warm, delicious family meals. She sends me a list of requests. They make her feel like she's home. Mission accomplished! <br /><br />Perhaps Joann would consider sharing her creamwich cookie recipe! Sounds like a memory in the making.
 
judy December 1, 2016
I love reading stories like this. I don't have baking memories. My Mom did not cook, and we moved away from Grandmas' long before I was of cooking age. I also spent my life caring for seniors. I am about to become one myself. They have the best stories. Over the Thanksgiving holiday my sons came home. We spent an afternoon talking about their baking memories growing up. They have some wonderful (and horrifying) memories. But all good, they said. I am glad that I was able to give them something that I did not have. Happy Holidays everybody.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. December 1, 2016
Not only did you give them memories, you made some new ones for yourself! How wonderful!!! Happy Holidays!
 
Joann November 30, 2016
Erin, thank you for sharing your story. Like Kaitlin, I too was tearing up a little at my desk. My story is almost identical to yours. I just lost my grandma in June and we are currently selling 'grandma's house'. I also have all her 'tins' with the handwritten recipes in them. My grandma was the cookie queen and would make cookies for everybody (the neighbors, the butcher, the mechanic...). She had a good 50 plus tried and true cookie recipes, but my favorite was a creamwich cookie that was passed down to her from her mother-in-law. I thank God that I created a compilation of all her recipes and put them in a family cookbook, which she proofed. I am hoping that a nice family buys her home and maybe, just like grandma, I will bake them a batch of cookies to welcome them to their new home.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. November 30, 2016
So happy that your grandma left you with so many wonderful memories! What a gift!
 
Kaitlin B. November 30, 2016
Erin, this is such a sweet story, it made me tear up a little at my desk. <3
 
Author Comment
Erin M. November 30, 2016
<3
 
Emily R. November 30, 2016
This is a really beautifully written piece - it's clear your grandma and her house meant a lot to you. Thank you for sharing (and for sharing the cookie recipe too!)
 
Author Comment
Erin M. November 30, 2016
Thank you, Emily!
 
Susan November 30, 2016
This article is so beautiful, so touching, and really reminds me of why I love to cook--because of the women (and men!) in my family who taught me. I also have a box of handwritten recipes, from my Great-Aunt. (I'm the only one who got an in-person lesson on making her famous kreplach, too!) The inclusion of the actual sugar-cookie recipe here is a bonus, and they sound delicious. Can't wait to try them.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. November 30, 2016
Oh, I want to try that kreplach! I agree with you about this being the reason we love cookingZ edible memories, new and old!