Thursday, December 25, 2014

Birthday cookies from grandma's recipe box

More than 20 years ago, I inherited a recipe box that documented a life’s work in a tidy Ohio kitchen. It belonged to Tim’s grandmother, Luella Fugate, who passed away just after Christmas 1991, about two week’s shy of Graham’s first birthday. We spent an unforgettable night in her apartment on that visit, Graham snoozing in her arms while we all told stories and ate cookies. 

Her recipe collection is a treasure. It’s a basic wooden box with rich grain marks, tongue-in-groove corners and an inside label that looks like a train car and reads Swift Service (SLR18552). Most of the cards show her familiar looping handwriting and scant directions, relics of an era where precise details were not needed as all housewives knew their way around a kitchen. There are a few typed recipes, perhaps from revolutionary friends, newspaper clippings from Heloise and cut-outs from packages, such as the Jell-O chocolate chip pudding cookies.

While most recipes are filed alphabetically, there is a special tab for cookies. Among its time-honored contents are cookies she would bake every year for Christmas. Since Tim was born on Christmas Eve, that means they were ever present in his birthday memories.

I dropped the box several years after receiving it and was horrified to see its contents tumble from once carefully filed sections. I never had the nerve to see how badly I messed up years of careful collection.

This year, Tim took good advantage of house rules to pick whatever sort of cake or pie you want for your birthday. He wanted his grandmother’s cookies – notably, the ones I knew as Bevington Orange Cookies, a sweet and tender carryover from her own childhood.

Lucky for me, the cookies Tim most craved were still tucked into the very front of the box, as if ready for her hands to draw them out and set on the counter. Though her handwriting has faded to the point that I had to call my mother-in-law for interpretation – and I substituted her beloved “Crisco or oleo” for unsalted butter – the results were unmistakably sound.

“My grandmother’s cookies!” Tim exclaimed upon seeing the familiar orange cookies dripping zest-filled icing from cooling racks. The flavors took me back to the card table in her apartment, where coffee tins repurposed as cookie containers would appear as faithfully as angel's wings upon the ringing of bells.

I had intended to make pecan tassies, too. These tiny, two-bite pecan pies were my own favorite, but I didn’t quite get to them in time. It’s even more proof to me that she was a tireless and exceptional baker to make so many varieties of cookies to delight her family year after year.

Orange Cookies
Makes about 30 cookies

1 cup unsalted butter at room temperture
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 cup whole buttermilk, such as Mapleview Dairy
4 cups flour
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt

1 large orange, zested and juiced
16 ounces powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream soft butter and sugar in a large bowl. Add one egg at a time, blending well.

Measure flour, baking powder and salt into medium bowl; stir to combine. Add to creamed mixture and combine by stirring with a spatula. Batter will be fairly soft.

Using a small cookie scoop, drop onto parchment lined baking sheets about two inches apart. Bake for 12-14 minutes, or until lightly golden around the edges.

While cookies are baking, pour powdered sugar into a medium bowl. Zest the orange over the bowl, then add its juice. Whisk until icing is smooth.

When cookies are done, transfer to cooking racks; place parchment or wax paper under the racks. Spread about a teaspoon of icing over each cookie while still warm. Dripped icing can be scooped up and added back to the bowl, if needed.

Cool completely. If not serving right away, pack in airtight containers between layers of wax paper.

Date Swirls
Make about 4 dozen

8 ounces dried dates
¼ cup sugar
½ cup water
1 tbsp. Cointreau (optional)
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp. lemon extract
½ cup sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
1 egg
2 cups cake flour

Pour sugar over dates and chop well. Transfer to small sauce pan. Add ½ cup water and simmer about 7 minutes, or until water is absorbed and mixture is jammy. Remove from heat. Stir in Cointreau, if using. Cool completely.

Cream butter; add salt, baking soda and lemon extract and blend well. Add egg and mix well to combine.

Stir in flour. It’s easier to bring together with your hands toward then end. Pat into a rectangle. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cut dough into two rectangles. Roll lightly on floured surface until about 6x8 inches. Transfer to parchment paper and continue rolling until about 8x10 inches. Spread or crumble about half of the date-nut mixture over the dough, leaving about an inch of bare dough along one wide end. 

Using the parchment paper, roll dough over from the opposite wide end, covering the filling. Continue to roll dough, using parchment paper to tuck and keep the roll tight. Roll finished dough log in the paper, tucking in short ends, and return to the refrigerator for at least two hours. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

Unroll cookie log from paper and evenly cut into 1/4-inch slices. Place on parchment lined cookie sheet about one inch apart and bake about 8 minutes, or until lightly golden. Transfer to cookie racks to cool.

Cool completely. If not serving right away, pack in airtight containers between layers of wax paper.

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