I had written down all the ingredients I had used in each iteration in my quest to reproduce a family favorite. At family gatherings, numerous individuals had said that her sugar cookies were the best, and that no one had been able to make them like she did.
In fact, I had used a spread sheet to list the ingredients and the quantities of each attempt. The descriptions given to me by several of my relatives all differed enough that I was going to re-invent these cookies from scratch. It had become a most enjoyable venture, with entertaining input and criticism from people with no more expertise than I had. The dry ingredients included flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda while the wet ingredients were vanilla, egg, and butter. I had tried nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, malt, and vegetable oil with moderate to catastrophic failure. The cookies were delicious, but just not Grandma Bea’s.
There was a problem. I had personally never tasted one of “Grandma’s Sugar Cookies.” Grandma was Beatrice Findley, my wife’s maternal grandmother, who had died in the first year we were married. Before that, she was ill from the time I met my wife. I had, however, tasted some attempts to simulate the delicacy created by several of her daughters and her daughter-in-law. My wife’s opinion was that the daughter-in-law’s recipe was the closest but didn’t match exactly.
The timer rang. I took the first sheet of cookies out relishing the aroma, the faint browning, and preserved thickness and roundness. They looked right to me, but who knows? After the second sheet was in the oven, I tasted one of the fragrant treats. It tasted wonderful.
There was another problem. Tasting wonderful was not the end game. They had to be like Grandma’s. “Jenelle, come try this sugar cookie.”
The facial expressions warmed my heart. I was getting closer. “What do you say?”
“It’s delicious, but it is not what she made. It has a flavor that was not present in her cookie, and they are too yellow.”
Yellow? Egg yolk? Flavor? Vanilla? I had tried them once with no vanilla which generated a scrunched face on the official taster. I had used a mixture of lard and butter which had made them too flat. I had used brown sugar which nearly passed the taste test, but the cookies were brown, and for that they were rejected. Not that people didn’t gobble them up, but none-the-less they weren’t the Grandma Bea combination.
I had to talk to the daughter-in-law. She answered on the second ring.
“Aunt Ginger, I am trying to get Grandma’s sugar cookies right. I tried the lard and butter you said you use, but it made my cookies flat. Jenelle is objecting to vanilla.”
“Well, Skip, I do use lard and butter, but you have to beath the hell out of it and add the sugar slowly. I don’t think Bea used lard because I don’t remember that flavor.”
“I was thinking almond instead of vanilla, and just a little.”
“Good idea,” she said. “I have not tried that. I wish I had paid more attention to her cookies. I had no idea they were such a family treasure, or I would have tapped her for the secrets.”
She was quiet for a moment, then said, “I have tried them with Crisco shortening, but that makes them flat also. I wonder if she used some cheap shortening from Dollar Store or something.”
“Well, it’s not brown sugar, that’s for sure,” I said.
“Oh my gosh, those were good. Weren’t those the ones you brought to Thanksgiving last year? Everybody loved them, but denied they were Bea’s.”
“What do you think of egg whites?”
“Well,” she said, “I have not tried those. That’s a good idea too.”
“Do you suppose she used a little rice flour, or some other unusual ingredient?”
“No, Bea was a plain jane. She didn’t make anything exotic.”
“I’ll let you know. Talk to you later.”
A few days later, we were planning to play cards at our friends’ house where we had played cards for years. I thought it was a good opportunity to get rid of most of a batch of cookies. I don’t like them sitting around the house because once on the lips forever on the hips.
This time I used a tiny bit of almond and two egg whites. I almost put in just a dash of cinnamon but chickened out at the last minute. When they came out of the oven, they were gorgeous, and they weren’t even vaguely yellow.
“Jenelle, come try this cookie.”
I waited for an interminable time while she considered the creation. It warmed my heart that she had to take a second one to come to a determination. “Well?” I said.
“I don’t know. It’s really close.”
“It’s missing something.”
My heart sank. “What do you think it is missing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it the right color? It's a teeny bit yellow.”
“Yes. You have the right yellow.”
“Is it too short or not short enough?”
I put a dozen of them in a plastic container and took them to Jenelle’s brother’s house that evening. Like Jenelle, it took Ed more than one cookie to decide, although I imagined he just wanted more cookies. “There’s something missing.”
I wanted to scream. “That’s what Jenelle said. But she didn’t know what was missing.”
“I don’t either, but if it is any help, she used corn starch in everything. Gravy, fish frying breading, soup, frosting. I don’t know any details, but I remember older generations making fun of her for all her corn starch.”
A week or two went by before I got my next opportunity to get rid of cookies. To save you the pain, a teaspoon of cornstarch in cookies gives them a sticky flat taste no one, including me, would eat. So much for corn starch.
Looking for some bourbon to cook a chicken, I saw an old bottle of brandy. It never occurred to me that Bea would have used brandy in anything, but I wondered if it would make a good cookie, never mind reproducing her sugar cookie. I skipped the almond, added the brandy instead.
“That’s it!” Jenelle said. “That’s it!”
I was elated. “Seriously? I can’t imagine that Grandma Bea used brandy in her cookies. She thought alcoholic beverages were evil.”
“No, I doubt she used brandy. Is that what’s in here?”
“You’ve done it,” Ed said twenty minutes later with Jenelle and I hovering over the eminent judge. “How did you do it?”
“I used brandy. That doesn’t fit with Bea in my mind.”
“Oh,” he laughed, “yes it does. I have it on several reliable sources that she occasionally had a snort of brandy before bed.”
“But she hated alcoholic beverages.”
“So she said.”
"OK. Now I have to take some to Aunt Ginger."