Grandma Gwendolyn took her famous spritz cookie recipe to the grave. This wasn’t the only thing she took with her, mind you, but it certainly was the one thing that anyone truly cared about. You see, this was no ordinary cookie; this was a tradition that seemed to hold the fabric of the family together. So of course it became my mission to recreate the recipe.
A typical spritz cookie consisted of fairly ordinary ingredients: flour, salt, sugar, butter, vanilla extract, and a single egg. I even managed to take her original cookie press from her estate. It molded the dough into the shape of small eight-tipped stars, of which she would bake at an undisclosed temperature. Every single year each member of the family would receive a package in the mail filled with these cookies and her usual hand-written note of hope for a happy Christmas and lots of love to the little ones. The cookies inside were a dark brown, topped with finely powdered red sugar that she would also hand-make. Somehow, every year she would produce a tender cookie that would outlast any memory of gifts or some holiday party.
Time and time again I would combine the ingredients and set them to bake, and every time I would fail miserably. I kept track of each attempt in a composition notebook, detailing each ingredient down to the teaspoon and degree. Within a single day I had not only wasted every ingredient on hand, I had produced a terrible cookie variation twenty-eight times. I didn’t even come close to her perfection.
You could probably imagine my disappointment. How could an accomplished pastry chef that has studied and baked the world over for the past ten years not produce something as simple as an old-fashioned spritz? This was the reasoning behind giving me the task of the recreation in the first place. I simply had no choice – I had to figure out what I was missing.
Knowing Grandma Gwendolyn was like knowing a lost soul from a different era. She took immense pleasure in her reclusion. Her husband, my grandfather, passed away early in their marriage when she was only twenty-two and thereafter she raised her three children in solitude. She never remarried and once the last bird flew from the nest she would spend the rest of her days alone. She lived off of his posthumous wealth, but like most, she found that this sort of existence brought with it boredom. Therefore, she found a way to keep herself busy while also collecting a bit of wealth of her own – by selling baked goods.
She was an untrained master. In her humble kitchen, she would create whatever kind of sweet her children would crave at the time and then give it to the children to be delivered around town. Pies, cakes, and yes, her famous spritz cookies were all sought out and highly demanded. So much so that after twenty or so years she decided that she would no longer sell her goods to just anyone, which made her treats even more desired. It also added a moderate form of mystery and suspense that none but the immediate family had ever even seen Gwendolyn. There used to be an old spook tale that the goods were created by a phantom, because no person made of flesh could possibly make such delicious treats. After six days and 134 failed recipe variations, even I was beginning to question this.
I was exhausted and my kitchen looked like a scene in a horror movie. Baking sheets and mixing bowls climbed high in the sink, and flour and sugar dusted every inch of counter space not already inhabited by empty ingredient sacks. My patience had all ready ran out long ago and I was on the verge of disappointing the family altogether by letting them know that her spritz was simply impossible to recreate. There was an ingredient that I just could not place. I tried everything from almond extract and beet to maraschino cherry juice – there was a detail that was out of my grasp, and this detail not only affected the flavor of the cookies, it also gave it that reddish dark brown hue. But just what could it be…
I studied her handwritten recipe journals for months before even attempting this feat. There was absolutely no word on the spritz cookie because it was the one baked good that she sold the most. It was her crowning glory and quite literally her legacy. I even went so far as to try talking to my mother and my aunt and uncle, and all would tell me the same: we were never allowed in her kitchen when she baked. They had no clue what the ingredient could be and then would scold me for asking, because it was my job to figure it out. I could tell by asking I was making it obvious that I was struggling with this, and that made them uneasy. Without these cookies, who knows what would happen? We would lose everything.
We would lose everything. The holiday special, the book deal, the contract to sell the treats in supermarkets and online would all go right in the trashcan along with these failed attempts. Granny Gwen’s would cease to exist if I couldn’t get this one thing right! This was the cookie that would solidify her legacy and make our brand a worldwide sensation. The only thing I had to do was make the cookie exactly as she did. And I only had three more days.
What ingredients were easily accessible in those days? I thought long and hard. Surely it couldn’t be anything too difficult to obtain. She was a homebody and ordered all of her groceries to be delivered or brought home by the children. Anything too extravagant would not be carried in a simple grocery and she apparently did not believe in ordering from a catalog. So it had to be local. It had to be simple. It had to be something so simple that I was going insane in trying to figure it out. Gwendolyn also did not believe in adding unnatural dyes for beauty’s sake, so every ingredient had a purpose and colored her treats naturally. It could have been a berry… but I had already tried every local berry and jam and paste and each one was a failure.
And then in what seemed like a spiritual awakening while half asleep mixing yet another bowl of dough, I realized something that I never thought about before. Why I never thought about it I’ll never understand because this was something that was truly basic for any recipe… the name. Gwendolyn called them Blut Spritz. I figured that she called them that because of the dark color they would turn out to be… but now it began to all make sense!
After adding the theorized ingredient to the current batch of dough, I already noticed the color changing as I mixed it in. Little by little my excitement grew and once I pulled them from the oven, I knew that I had finally succeeded. Given, I was a bit hesitant to give the first cookie a taste after finally knowing what her secret was. But once I took the bite, I was instantly taken to that feeling of being young and devouring the small stars in front of the Christmas tree. I did it. I had done the one thing that would solidify Gwendolyn’s legacy forevermore within a commercial brand. I successfully recreated her famous spritz, down to the most basic ingredient.
All it took was blood, sweat, and tears… but mostly it was the blood part that made the difference. The missing ingredient turned out to be blood from a freshly butchered pig. It certainly made sense as Gwendolyn was known to order large quantities of swine from the local butcher, and my mother would sometimes comment that she hated the taste of pork because they ate it so often during childhood.
No wonder she didn’t let anyone know of her secret. We had to list the ingredient under a scientific name in the contents, but including it in the recipe served to be no issue as the blood was well cooked within the cookie. For fun, we renamed them Granny Gwen’s Famous Blue Spritz, and when asked why we chose blue when the cookie itself is not that color, we let the marketing team come up with some cute theory that they changed color when the Cookie Fairy touched them with her wand. It is all part of the mystery and people absolutely adore them. Surely Gwendolyn would have agreed to the name change for consumerism’s sake… if she had ever agreed to sell out.
Perhaps she would still be alive today if only she had.