Buttery and rich, these crispy oatmeal jonnycake cookies (so named for their inclusion of Rhode Island-grown whitecap flint cornmeal) are perfect served with morning coffee, or shared with someone special.
Few things bring me greater culinary recreational pleasure (yes, that’s a thing) than vintage cookbooks. I love hunting for them in antique stores, thrift shops, and yard sales, and then curling up to time travel through generations of menus. Regional and community cookbooks are my favorite (bonus points if they’re from New England), because I love the complex melting pot of American home cooking, but any vintage cookbook with colorful recipes, interesting anecdotal intros, and charming artwork is enough to turn my head — room on the bookshelf be damned.
March might be my least favorite month of the year (and thank heavens it’s over), but the long and cold month’s one saving grace here in New England is that it’s also maple season — that heavenly time of year when the sap flows and the sweet amber syrup is bottled. Pancakes, marinades, glazes, cakes, and cookies benefit from a boost of pure maple syrup, and if you’re one of those people who prefers Aunt Jemima or Log Cabin “pancake syrup” to the real stuff, never tell me. I want us to stay friends. Continue reading
Those looking for adventure in the kitchen have a few options. Some think global and tackle new world cuisines. Some think science and grow their own yeast starter or master homemade fudge (my nemesis). Still others think innovation and start cooking from inspiration and instinct, recipes be damned.
If you know me, you know I can’t resist a community cookbook with worn corners and jagged, broken plastic teeth holding the pages together. Bonus points if features “cursive typewriter” font. It was these things that talked my into purchasing the combination “Big Y” local supermarket chain and 4-H club cookbook from 1985 that included this recipe for Butterscotch Chocolate Chip Cookies.
When I was a kid my mother sometimes bought cereal that had dates in it. I used to pick them out, making a neat pile of hard, dried dates next to the bowl. I thought they looked like cat treats and their chewy texture interrupted the enjoyment I got from the otherwise delicious bowl of flakes and raisins.
Many years later, I realized dates came in a larger, fresher form that could actually taste good. I also grew to respect the role of the mighty date in the dessert archives, since dried fruits used to be one of the only affordable and reliable ways to bake with something sweet year-round.
I am always on the hunt for old regional cookbooks, and naturally, I keep my eyes extra peeled for books celebrating the hearty and molasses-laden foods of my beloved New England.
When I find them, they usually aren’t in any shape to be used in the manner in which they were intended. Measurements are clunky (a teacup of butter), ingredients are dated (one yeast cake), and sometimes the amount of lard called for makes me shudder, but I still buy them.
Then sometime I get lucky and come across a book like this one, “New England Cookbook” by Eleanor Early, a 1954 gem that is old enough to be vintage, but new enough to be relevant. Better than its functionality, however, is its authoress. Eleanor writes with chatty charm that makes you want to lean in close. Each of the chapters has a fact-filled, amusing, and entertaining introduction, and nearly all of the recipes that follow have an anecdotal preface — something I love in a cookbook. Recipes are supposed to have a heartbeat and tell a story.
For example, before giving a recipe for Chicken Soup, Eleanor recounts the following tale:
I had a letter the other day from a friend in a reminiscent mood. The first paragraph was startling:
“So you’re going to do a cookbook…I remember the day you showed me how to make a lamb stew out of a bone I was going to give to Mrs. Harris’ dog, and the night you salvaged some chicken carcasses at Marie’s dinner party. With your New England thrift, I bet it will be a mighty economical book…”
The day I cheated Mrs. Harris’ dog has slipped my mind, but I do remember the chicken carcasses. Those chickens had not been picked at all. It would have been a sin and a shame to throw them away, and I took them home to make a lovely soup. Later I heard that some of the guests thought I was a little queer, although anybody who has ever made a good chicken soup knows that the richest stock comes from a meaty carcass.
You tell ’em Eleanor. I want to meet her for lunch, pull off my gloves by the fingertips, and have a serious discussion about how many potatoes are too many when it comes to chowder.
As usual, I started a list to tuck into the front cover.
I could have opened up the book anywhere (well, anywhere but the chapter titled “Meat as the Yankees Cook It”) but I chose to start with Harwich Hermits. I love the spicy, molasses flavor of hermit cookies — a popular seafaring New England cookie noted for its ability to last on long voyages — but had never made them myself. This recipe, named after the town of Harwich on Cape Cod, seemed like as good a place as any to start.
Don’t mind my unruly parchment.
The finished cookies (which are actually more like brownies in texture) were chewy, spicy, and packed with old-fashioned molasses and raisins flavor. A perfect treat with a mug of coffee or glass of milk. Vintage cookbook success!
I am already looking forward to my next culinary date with Eleanor!
Adapted from “New England Cookbook” by Eleanor Early (1954)
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup molasses
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 cup raisins, chopped
1/2 cup currants, chopped
1/4 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease or line a 9″ baking pan with parchment.
- In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and spices. Place the raisins and currants in a small bowl and toss with a tablespoon (or as needed) of the flour mixture until the fruits are lightly coated. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and molasses and continue to beat.
- Add the flour mixture gradually until just combined. Fold in the raisins, currants, and nuts.
- Spread the mixture evenly into the pan and bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until deep golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
- Cut into squares or bars while still warm.
With a cake-like interior, glazed and sprinkled tops, and delicate licorice flavor, these easy Italian Soft Anise Cookies are a family favorite.
I feel like I am supposed to say that the foods I remember most from my childhood were prepared from memory by my grandmother over the course of an entire Sunday, pressing pinches of love onto my cheek with one hand while she stirred and stirred the contents of a bubbling kettle with the other. I could try to make my memories fit, but it just wouldn’t be true. It’s not that my family doesn’t cook; it’s just that we don’t cook “like that.”
In truth, the foods I remember most were store-bought bagels, crisp and buttery from the toaster on tiny white paper plates, and any kind of macaroni — especially Mama Rosie’s cheese-stuffed ravioli with milk and garlic bread. The ravioli was frozen, but the 2-inch high mound of parmesan on top was always fresh, grated by hand from a wedge in the fridge.
I still love bagels and macaroni, but because I can get them anytime, they don’t conjure up a memory sigh. The things that do are rare — the foods that only came out once or twice a year at family parties. Auntie Mella’s Italian Cookies are one of those. She was married to my Uncle Artie, my grandfather’s brother, a warm, teasing man who made a game of standing right next to me when I was small, but looking over my head and asking the room “Where’s Aimee?” while I jumped up and down, waving my hands, yelling “I’m right here!”
Uncle Artie on the right, posing with my Papa at our 1992 family picnic.
My mom likes to tell me that he once asked me, the way you do when children are learning the names of relatives, “Do you know who I am?” and I said that I did — that he was Uncle Artie. When Auntie Mella asked me the same question a moment later I said “Sure, you’re Uncle Artie’s friend!”
Technically, I was correct.
Her cookies were firm and perfectly round, like mushrooms, but once bitten revealed a soft, cake-like interior. The tops were coated with a hard, shiny glaze and covered with minute, colored sprinkles. What child can resist the sight of all those sprinkles?
I didn’t recognize the aroma or flavor, but it was not the vanilla, chocolate, or peanut butter cookies I was used to. If I had known the delicate, sweet taste in my mouth was anise (the flavor in black licorice) I might have stuck out my tongue and said I knew I didn’t like it, but I didn’t know, and they had those sprinkles, so I tried one. And I loved it.
I’ve been dreaming of Auntie Mella’s cookies for years. She passed away before I developed my passion for baking, so I never had the chance to tell her how much I loved her cookies and how much they reminded me of being little and underfoot at family parties where all the people I loved were alive and happy and laughing and teasing one another after a baptism, or at our annual summer picnic.
Our annual family summer picnic celebrated its 61st anniversary in 2011 – our last in Saugus.
I tried to make them over the years. Tried to find recipes in tattered secondhand community cookbooks or online, my eyes scanning the list of ingredients and method of shaping and glazing, looking for something I recognized, but none of them ever looked or tasted right. None of them were Auntie Mella’s.
Then, last weekend, I tried again. Unlike the other times, I updated my Facebook status with my plan, and a half hour later my mom called. She had the recipe I was looking for. Auntie Mella’s daughter, my mom’s cousin Anne Marie, had written it down for her on an envelope a few years ago at a family event. She knew it by heart. My mom read it out loud to me over the phone, and in about an hour, I was biting into one. An actual dream come true.
Out of the oven they don’t look like much, but they smell wonderful, and it’s nothing a little glaze can’t help.
They came out just as I remembered them. How often does that actually happen? I ate my fair share (never mind the number), then shared the rest with my friend Heather, mom, and Nana. Food is arguably one of the strongest links we have to memory, so I plan on celebrating the memory of my Auntie Mella, the whole wonderful Italian side of my family, and my own childhood memories by making these cookies, and making them often.
Try these soft anise cookies for yourself and see how delicious they are!
Auntie Mella’s Italian Soft Anise Cookies
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons anise extract
3/4 cup sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
For the Glaze
2 cups powdered sugar
3-4 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon anise extract
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
- In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, sugar, extract and baking powder.
- Add the vegetable oil and milk, then the flour, one cup at a time, until well combined. Chill the dough for 20 minutes to help with stickiness.
- Pinch off walnut-sized pieces of dough, and roll smooth between your palms. Arrange the balls of dough 2 inches apart on the baking sheets.
- Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until bottoms of the cookies are a light golden brown. The tops will still be pale.
- Remove from the oven, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.
- Combine the glaze ingredients in a bowl until just smooth. You want it more thick than thin, but still runny.
- Dip the tops of the cooled cookies into the glaze (just enough to coat the tops), then return to the wire rack, allowing the glaze to drip down the sides of the cookie.
- Top with sprinkles before the glaze hardens.
Cookies are best served they day they’re made. Once covered the trapped moisture will soften the glaze and the colors from the sprinkles will bleed. Still tasty, but not so pretty.
Makes around 40 cookies.
After the chocolate chip cookie, I don’t think any cookie in America is more beloved than the peanut butter cookie.
Yes, I know there are versions of chocolate chip peanut butter cookies, and peanut butter cookies made even more peanut-y thanks to the addition of chunky peanut butter or chopped, salted peanuts…but for me, this classic version is still the best.
Ever wonder why peanut butter cookies have their distinct “criss-cross fork” pattern on top? Peanut butter cookie dough is very dense, so pressing down on it before baking helps the cookie cook evenly. The earliest mention of the fork-press method dates back to the Schenectady Gazette in 1932, a trick quickly adapted and popularized by giant flour producer Pillsbury throughout the 1930’s, and the method stuck.
When the craving for a good peanut butter cookie hits, whip up a batch (this King Arthur recipe is a winner), pour a glass of cold milk, and surrender. It’s an American tradition!
Classic Peanut Butter Cookies
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
- 1/4 cup vegetable shortening
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup smooth peanut butter (do not use natural)
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 to 3 tablespoons water
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt.
- In a separate bowl, combine shortening, sugars, egg, vanilla, and peanut butter until smooth.
- Slowly add the flour mixture to the peanut butter mixture until well combined. Add the water one tablespoon at a time until the dough comes together.
- Place rounded tablespoons of dough onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving 2″ between each.
- Use a fork to press a criss-cross shape onto each tablespoon of dough.
- Bake for 12-14 minutes or until the edges are just beginning to brown. Do not overbake or your cookies will be too crisp.
- Transfer to a wire rack to cook, then store in an airtight container.
Yield: 24 cookies
Confession – I am ardently in love with fresh basil. Head over heels. Smitten kitten. I want to marry it. All of those things.
Basil is wonderful in many Italian dishes and paired with its BFF’s, tomato and mozzarella, but basil is also a marvelous ingredient in buttery cookies, especially when you also add in the citrus tang of lemon and lime zests.
I found this recipe a little odd. The dough comes together in a food processor, similar to making pie dough. The recipe said the dough would form “moist clumps,” but mine wouldn’t hold together to form a ball, so I added in 2 teaspoons of milk to make it wet enough to shape into balls.
The extra milk is probably why the cookies stayed a little moist in the middle, so if I make these again I will poke a few holes in the center of the cookies with a toothpick before I bake them .
Overall, if you love basil like I do, you will want to experiment with these cookies so you can enjoy the burst of fresh basil, citrus and butter when you bite into them.
Citrus Basil Butter Cookies
Adapted from Bon Appetit
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus more for pressing cookies
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 tablespoons sliced fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons milk
Sanding sugar (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
- Combine the flour, sugar, butter, basil, zests, lemon juice, and salt in the bowl if a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. If you don’t have a food processor, whir in a blender.
- Slowly drizzle in the milk until dough just comes together.
- Roll tablespoons of dough into balls and arrange on baking sheets, leaving 2″ between each.
- Take a flat-bottom measuring cup and lightly cover it in additional powdered sugar, then press onto each ball of dough to lightly flatten it.
- Sprinkle tops of the dough with coarse sanding sugar, if desired.
- Using a toothpick or piece of raw spaghetti, poke a few holes in the center of each cookie.
- Bake until the edges are brown, around 12-15 minutes.
- Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Yield: 16 cookies