A Tale of Two Cookies

A Tale of Two Cookies

Well this here is a new blog, and in it I will chiefly tell stories, but they will be stories about food and so there will also be recipes. In it I hope to listen in on stories and traditions about recipes from all over the city, in all kinds of neighborhoods.

What do recipes have to tell? They tell us where we come from, who we are now, and where we're heading.

So many of our traditions revolve around food and recall our heritage. We reinforce our connection to our current community through our cooking, whether it is a regional or an ethnic identity, or a social/moral commitment like being vegan or a locavore. We reveal our priorities and the pace of our lives through the recipes we choose to use. We can decide to hand on old family traditions to our kids, or skip it.

Recipes tell us so much. They also do so much. Food has a whole array of practically magical powers, and recipes are the locus of these powers. They can nearly bring to life loved ones long gone; sometimes just by a smell, of cinnamon perhaps, a person can be conjured up in our kitchen. Recipes can be supernaturally comforting, as anyone who has been given just the right chicken soup at just the right time well knows. You can almost time travel via recipes as they connect you to distant long ago places. Here I intend to explore these superpowers of food and bring you some of the recipes that hold particular magic for cooks across the city.

I've been collecting recipes and the stories that go with them for many years.  This is a place to share my own stories, and stories from throughout Chicago--from urban gardeners, beekeepers, Lake Michigan fishermen, ethnic communities, friends and neighbors--all sorts of folks who cook. I will keep my focus on the everyday home cooking of ordinary cooks. In the repertoire of ordinary cooks,  there are always a few stand-out recipes.

Everybody has a treasured recipe. Everybody has a story. My story today has two parts.

Gregory was a graduate student in 17th century history when I was a graduate student in 17th century history. He was peculiarly historical--that is, he walked, talked, read, wrote, lived, and breathed in a very antiquated way. You wouldn't have been surprised to hear him start talking like a Quaker, peppering his sentences with Thee's and Thou's, although I never heard him actually do that. He could be a little intimidating, so remote was his manner if you did not know him well.

What you never would have known, looking at Greg in his pressed shirt and his neat leather-lace up shoes, and listening to his formal academic diction as he discussed impossibly archaic topics, was that he was a wonderful and very down-homey cook. Much of what he made reflected his rural Northwest upbringing, like cornmeal-crusted trout and sage-cornbread stuffing. He also made the best cookies I ever tasted.  So though I was frankly alarmed to talk to him, over recipes we bonded. He handed them all over to me cheerfully, having typed them carefully on regular paper cut into 3 X 5 card shapes.

My favorite of these was his ginger cookie recipe. I've made it about a thousand times. These cookies are impossible to screw up, sparkly-sugar pretty,  fun to make with children, and perfectly delicious. Who knows, the recipe is probably in a hundred cookbooks, but I call it Greg's Ginger Cookies. I made my first batch of the fall--it is rather an autumn cookie--just last week. As I followed the typewritten directions I thought of my old eccentric friend, and I can practically hear his slow-paced, unmodulated baritone voice. I'm glad I have the recipe, a little connection to a long-ago colleague from a previous life, because we lost touch entirely after he finished his degree and moved on. I never heard of him again till I learned of his death, which shocked and saddened all of his old friends. But recipes that evoke people who are gone give us a little piece of them we get to keep.

The originators of my family's own ginger cookie recipe are long gone. Just about the only thing I know about them is this recipe. We call it Grandmother Randall's Ginger Cookies, but one copy that I have attributes them to Great Aunt Sarah Locke. We'll leave Grandmother and Great Aunt to duke it out, but at any rate we're talking about ladies who lived a long time ago, when you referred to an ingredient called "soured cream."

This recipe came with my people four generations ago west from Missouri into a barely-populated Arizona Territory. When those faithful folks who were trying to make a home--say, Grandmother Randall--baked these, I bet they brought to mind more comfortable and familiar surroundings. You could close your eyes, maybe, and smell them baking and pretend you weren't in a mining camp tent kitchen on a dirt street in cactus-covered hills, you were actually still in a place with street lamps, oak trees, and neighborhood families with polished dining room tables and tightly woven rugs. (Now I sort of like to try and pretend I am in a mining camp tent kitchen with coyotes outside, instead of Chicago.)

Grandmother Randall's Ginger Cookies

This cookie has done its comfort food work ever since, and now its home-conjuring labors have been extended, back to Oklahoma and Chicago, and further west into California, as our family disperses. With this recipe, when I'm not thinking about coyotes and mining camps I am always brought back to my aunt's house, because when I visit, Grandmother Randall's Ginger Cookies are in the cookie jar without fail. They're delicious, but a little unfamiliar; they taste old-fashioned, with their puffy texture and jolting lemon glaze. They're not the kind of cookie people eat nowadays.

But you can. Make a batch of each of these and have a ginger cookie smackdown. While they're baking close your eyes and take a deep breath and see who they bring to mind, where they bring you.

Greg's Ginger Cookies
This here is your basic perfect ginger cookie.  Go ahead and make a double batch.

3/4 c. shortening
1 c. brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 c. dark molasses
1/4 t. salt

2 1/4 c. flour
2 t. soda
1/2 t. cloves
1 t. cinnamon
1 1/2 t. ginger

Mix the first 5 ingredients with electric or hand beater. Combine the next five ingredients first, then slowly add them, stirring by hand. Chill the dough, roll into small balls. Roll each ball around in a dish of granulated sugar. Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes. (Do not grease cookie sheet.)

Grandmother Randall's Ginger Cookies
My aunt cobbled together the oral-tradition recipe with the aged and forgetful Grandmother Randall many years ago.  Her guesses about the recipe--that it probably had two eggs rather than the unseemly three or four, for instance--make for a more modern cookie. She found a written version only recently, squirreled away in another old auntie's house. I'm including that one here because it is the real old-fashioned deal. I have included both sets of directions--the ones found on the old recipe card, and the ones my aunt created. If you make these, don't go thinking "cookie," think "soft gingerbread biscuit thing," and you'll be good to go. 

1 c. sugar
1 c. shortening
1 c. molasses
3 or 4 eggs beaten in one at a time
1 c. soured cream
1 T. (heaped) of cocoa
2 t. ginger
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. nutmeg
Pinch cloves
5 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
2 t. baking soda

[Here are the directions on the late-discovered copy of the recipe that my aunt says is "the original."  While charming, they leave perhaps a little too much to the imagination.]
Mix and leave in icebox overnight or a couple of hours before dropping onto buttered tins. Press each cookie with floured bp can. Ice with lemon and powdered sugar icing.

[Here are the directions my aunt worked out in her efforts to duplicate a cookie recipe which to her knowledge had never been written down.]
Cream shortening, sugar, and molasses until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time (she uses only 2) and beat well.  Stir together flour, spices, baking soda, and baking powder, then add to the bowl, alternating with sour cream and mixing well. Chill dough for several hours. Drop by heaping teaspoons onto greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes.  (I went ahead and rolled the dough into balls and flattened them with the flour-covered bottom of a baking powder can, just so I could be extra 19th-century about it. This worked very well, but the dough is so sticky it helps to butter your hands first.) When cookies are cool, they may be iced with this glaze: 1 c. sifted powdered sugar and strained lemon juice mixed until smooth. Add a few drops lemon juice at a time and keep going until glaze sloops off the spoon very thickly and slowly.

Filed under: recipes

Tags: cookies, ginger


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    this wonderful inaugural post leaves me the way i felt the very first time i encountered this beautiful writer: utterly grateful, for her gracious gifts. i nearly cried for dear greg, and i laughed out loud for the two "little ladies" who were destined to "duke it out." julie v. is marvelous and wonderful and i feel like i just read the first pages of what i hope some day becomes a book. i cannot wait to find the souls she gathers here. and feel a lump in my throat at what i know she will bring to the batter. the power of a recipe is, for some of us, a relic of the deepest heart. and julie is an alchemist, indeed.

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    Complete dittos to bammy's comment. I have several handwritten recipe cards from my dearest Julie, and I treasure them, make the dishes not infrequently, and think of her whenever I do...I think we shall have the ginger cookie smack down at our house sometime this month, because I KNOW first hand that Julie's recommendations are always worth while!

  • I almost smell them baking . . .

  • The superpowers of food!
    I will try the ginger cookie recipes right away.

  • Julie was my very first friend as we grew up 2 doors down from each other. As we grew we started trying recipes for ourselves and tried out our own kitchen skills. (Our moms were so brave to let us into their kitchens). I must say that our cooking skills have come a long way! From burning cheese crisps and igniting coils in the ovens to now becoming an expert in the kitchen my dear friend, Julie, is definitely a food blogger that you should follow! Her recipes are superb as well as her writing skills, so seeing these two amazing gifts that she has been given, together in one purpose and setting has me giggling with delight! Love you!

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