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Making and Baking History

While it may be true that it takes a village to raise a child, in our house it takes a family to make a cookie.

I was six years old the first time my grandmother let me help her make cookies. To understand what a momentous occasion that was, you have to realize that my grandmother was not a patient person. In another era she could have been a drill sergeant.

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So when we started our session, the first step was to assemble all the ingredients in regimental order. That's when she realized she was out of cream of tartar. Although I had no idea what cream of tartar was (or is, for that matter), I remember having to walk down the hill to our house and get some from my mother before the cookie-making could proceed. This was not my idea of baking.

Back from my errand, the session continued with the proper method of measuring ingredients. First, the big can of shortening was placed in front of me and I was shown how to pack the measuring cup full, with no air pockets. Next we measured the sugar - much easier. Finally, we sifted and measured the flour, but this time I had to be sure not to pack it down. Duly noted: Pack shortening, but not flour. Then we carefully filled the measuring spoons with baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, and nutmeg. We sifted everything together until the nutmeg created brown specks all through the flour.

Now it was mixing time. My grandmother didn't own an electric mixer, Every cookie, cake, and pie that emerged from her kitchen was whipped together with a large wooden spoon and lots of wrist action. First, you softened the shortening, then you worked the sugar into it. Over and over again the spoon pressed the sugar/shortening mixture against the side of the bowl, then turned it over and pressed it again. And again. And again. Finally, at some point known only to grandmother, the mixture was considered thoroughly "creamed." Next came the easier part - mixing in the egg. I liked that: You could actually stir instead of press. Finally, the flour and milk were added, and I thought we were ready to do the part I really liked: cutting and baking. Not quite. Much to my disappointment, the dough now had to go into the refrigerator.

After what seemed like days - but was probably only an hour or so - we were finally ready to create some cookies.

Here again, my grandmother was strictly business: She believed cookies should be only one shape: round. Never a triangle, never a cute animal. Round. And don't waste the dough. Cut the circles as close together as possible. No nibbling the dough. If you ate any there'd be fewer cookies when you were through. Frankly, I liked the dough as much as the baked cookies, but in the kitchen grandmother ruled. Cut and bake, cut and bake.

And, at long last - eat.

By the time my second cookie-baking session arrived, I'd learned at least one thing: Be sure to take the cream of tartar with you from home so you don't have to go back and get it. I was still a little shaky on measuring, and my arm got awfully tired during the creaming, but I was learning.

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I HELPED my grandmother bake cookies many times, until finally I got to the point where I could make them on my own, using my mother's copy of the original recipe and substituting an electric mixer for the wooden spoon. I even progressed to shapes - stars, half moons, teddy bears.

When I was in college and my cookie-making had expanded to include what I considered more sophisticated recipes, my grandmother passed on. While sorting through her things, I came across her little cedar recipe box.

Opening the lid released a perfume usually associated with closets. Inside, each recipe was neatly written in the spidery script she'd learned in her 19th-century classrooms. At the top of each card, beside the name of the recipe, was the name of the person who had given it to her. Beneath that she often penciled in the dates when she'd made it.

At the top of the old familiar card - titled simply "Cookies" - was written "Aunt Ann." My great-grandfather's sister Ann, born in 1825, had given my grandmother that recipe. That explained why the original card didn't say to refrigerate the dough: They didn't have a refrigerator to put it in. Her penciled notations included: "Sent Carl, July 9, 1940." Carl is my uncle, who was in the Army in 1940. Farther down is "Mary Aleta and I made this 2-26-55." My first cooking lesson.

That's when I realized that all those years ago I wasn't just making cookies. I was making family history.


This is the recipe used by my grandmother, Mary Shepherd Kuhlo. (The title on her recipe card was simply 'cookies' - she never embellished anything.) I've added the notation to refrigerate the dough before rolling it out.

1/2 cup butter or shortening

1 cup sugar

1 egg

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons milk

In a mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar; add the sugar gradually. Beat in an egg. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, nutmeg, and salt. Add to creamed mixture alternately with milk until you've formed a dough.

Refrigerate dough for an hour. Roll out thin and cut into shapes with cookie cutters, if desired. Bake in a 400-degree F. oven for 10 to 12 minutes.

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