Thursday, July 21, 2011

grandmother's lace cookies

I don't know where my grandmother got this recipe, but she used to make these cookies all the time when I was a kid.

My grandmother was a spitfire. Even her name, Eddie (her real first name, by the way, and not a diminution of something more feminine) made her the scrappy girl equivalent of a boy named Sue. It only occurs to me now that she was one of my best friends during my college years. On Friday nights I used to go to her house and watch The X-Files with her, and I took her to see the movie when it came out. She had always loved that weird sci-fi stuff. In fact, when my dad was a kid, the two of them had likewise been avid viewers of eerie movies and episodes of The Twilight Zone.

By the time she was in her seventies, she was spending most of her days watching inflammatory political news shows and C-Span, and these topics comprised the majority of her conversation starters when I came by to see her. Unfortunately, she and I had, shall we say, divergent political leanings. I say "unfortunately" because I'm the kind of person who tends to avoid conflict whenever I can. But I learned something important from knowing her: sometimes the best way to love someone is to give her what she actually wants, and not what you would want if you were in her shoes.

My grandmother wanted a sparring partner, just as surely as my grandaddy, the boxer, had. We had a routine: I would show up for a visit, and she would lead off testily with something like, "Now, what do you think of what Senator Smith wants to do about our World War II veterans?" Having no idea what she was talking about but knowing full well I was being baited, I would say, "I hadn't heard. What does he propose?" all the while certain that we were again headed for one of our classic debates. Usually, I would find a way to concur with her on a common point so that we could return to civil conversationa tactic that never failed to irk herbut on one occasion when I was particularly stubborn on an issue, the conversation got so heated that she leaned her little, 5-foot-nothing form all the way forward in her La-Z-Boy so that her tiny feet touched the floor, and she all but ran in place, wagging her index finger and saying, "Well, I'll tell you this, my darling granddaughter..!" I thought for sure my own unaccustomed contentiousness had finally brought on a fatal heart attack. But no. That was just my grandmother: spunky to the end.

She was fiercely tenacious and stubborn, mostly because she had to be. Both of her parents died when she was about five years old, and she grew up in the Jr. Order Home in Tiffin, Ohio, which was a completely self-sustaining orphanage with its own farm. When she came of age at eighteen years old in 1936, she met a champion welterweight boxer in his thirties named Alfred "Bus" Akers, and the two of them got married. My barrel-chested Irish granddaddy, a bricklayer by trade, had been married before, at least three times, and he was the kind of man who had never met a stranger. A few years later, grandmother worked as a nurse in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as part of the Manhattan Project. At thirty-five years old, she gave birth to my dad and then almost immediately had to leave him for almost a year to finish her nursing training down in New Orleans. She was a nurse anesthetist for her entire professional career.

A mid-life bout with uterine cancer, and the highly experimental and destructive cobalt radiation treatments that were available at the time, shriveled and twisted her insides, and she died as a result of decades-old problems with her gut. At the end, she pretty much starved to death, unable to keep much food in her systemalthough she never lost her sweet tooth. In the nursing home where she spent her last year or so, her eyes would still light up like a kid's whenever my dad came to visit with a white chocolate mocha from Starbucks and an iPod and headphones in hand, Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" queued up for her to listen to while she sipped her treat.

at Aubrey's Restaurant in Knoxville, 2002
She died almost penniless because she spent most of the inheritance she might have otherwise left to us, cooking up these huge, elaborate weekly dinners with expensive ingredients and cuts of meat, which she would pack up into plastic containers and have us come by and pick up. Knowing this breaks my heart because I realize now, as a relatively new cook, how much work actually went into those dinners. She never even had us come to her house to eat it. She always said, "I want you to enjoy my money while I'm still around to watch you do it." It was a labor of love, and her food was delicious. Among the dishes she was known for were almond biscotti, Swiss steak, stuffed mushrooms, oven-browned potatoes, and cheese straws. When she made salads for us, she would hand-cut all of the carrots, radishes, and celery into a tiny dice with her paring knife, sitting in her recliner with a bowl in her lap that was almost as big as she was.

She died in 2008. A few months ago, my mom and dad offered me her old Kitchenaid stand mixer, in classic white. I'm honored to have it. I haven't yet made anything with it, but the other day, in the mixer bowl, I found her miniature spiral-bound notebook full of hand-copied recipes. There was a silvery white hair sticking out of its coiled metal spine, and suddenly I had a wave of sadness as bittersweet as dark caramel. Inside the notebook was this recipe.

This is for you, Grandmother. I miss our debates. I still don't agree with your views, but I see why you held them. I wish I could tell you how deeply I have grown to love food and how much that love has been inspired by your own devoted and generous work in the kitchen.

Two recipe notes: First, I have called for a 10-minute cooking time, which leaves the edges of the cookies crispy and the centers still a bit soft and chewy. If you prefer your cookies crispier, like a brittle, then bump up the cooking time a bit, maybe to 12 or 15 minutes. Keep in mind that the cookies will also crisp up a bit as they cool, so don't worry if they seem a bit underdone when you take them out of the oven. Second, if you decide to use unsalted butter (which I actually prefer), then add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the corn syrup, brown sugar, and butter mixture at the beginning. If you use regular salted butter, omit any extra salt. Enjoy!

grandmother's lace cookies

1/4 c. light corn syrup

1/4 c. dark brown sugar
1/4 c. butter (half a stick)
1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped (feel free to substitute any kind of nut you like)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Get out 3 sheets of baking parchment. If you have three baking sheets (I only have one), line all three with parchment. Otherwise, you can just prepare the cookies by dropping the spoonfuls of batter onto the parchment on the counter, sliding the sheet onto the pan, and then taking turns baking each little sheet.

Combine corn syrup, brown sugar, and butter in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil just for a minute, and then remove from heat. Stir in flour, nuts, and vanilla extract until combined.

Drop batter by teaspoonfuls onto parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing them 3 inches apart. It will look like a tiny bit of batter, but trust me, they really spread out as they bake.

Try valiantlyand failto keep yourself from licking the spoon and burning the living H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of your tongue.

Bake cookies for 10 minutes, until bubbly and golden. Slide parchment off the baking sheet with the cookies still on it. Cool on the counter for about 10 minutes, and then peel them off and serve. They will also keep in an airtight container. Be sure to separate them with parchment paper, as they're delightfully sticky.

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