Friday, October 16, 2015

The. Best. Butter Cookies. Ever.

Yesterday was a munchie day, but we had no munchies in the house -- so I decided to make my grandmother's butter cookie recipe. Of course, in addition to ending up with some excellent cookies, a lot of memories came flooding back as well.

The photo above, courtesy of Google maps, is for 209 Atlantic Avenue in McKeesport, Pennsylvania -- that's the dirt lot directly in front along the little alleyway, just in case you didn't recognize the address. That's where I spent the first five years of my life. Not in the dirt lot, mind you, but in the two-story house (with the scary basement) that used to occupy that lot. The neighborhood used to be called Tenth Ward, back in the day.

And the white two-story house just behind and to the left of the lot is where my grandparents lived, on Rebecca Street. My mother grew up in that house along with her two sisters and brother.

The wooden fence that you now see at the end of the lot, used to be a short wire fence (with wooden supports), such that my grandparents' backyard and our backyard butted up against each other. Along the alleyway, we had a gate in the fence, as did my grandparents -- so I could exit our gate, walk a dozen or so steps along the alleyway and then enter my grandparents' backyard through their gate. Thus I didn't have to walk around the block from the front of our house on Atlantic to the front of their house on Rebecca. I remember coming home from kindergarten before noon, checking to see what my mother had planned for my lunch, and if I didn't like it, I just walked out our gate and through their gate, and my grandmother would pretty much make me anything I wanted. That's what grandparents are for, right? To spoil their grandchildren....

My grandmother was an amazing cook. She had this huge wooden cutting board that covered the entire kitchen table top. I can still picture her making egg noodles: rolling the dough (with a glass, water-filled rolling pin) nearly paper thin, and then using this very long knife -- one hand on the handle, the other hand along the top of the blade -- which she would bring down almost in a blur of precision, cut after cut, making the most perfect noodles you could imagine. Then into the simmering chicken soup, or vegetable soup, the noodles would go.

Of course, as a young child, desserts were always the favorite, and my grandmother's butter cookies were one of her best desserts (only second to her special apple pie). But to simply call these "cookies" is to deny them their due, their power: yes, they were cookies, but they were the size of biscuits! Give a little kid a couple of these, and he had himself a meal!

We moved from Tenth Ward to White Oak, where I went to school from first through seventh grade. And then in June, after seventh grade, when I was twelve, my family packed up what few possessions we had left after the first ever White Oak garage sale, and moved to Southern California.

It didn't take long for us to miss my grandmother's superb cooking. But the thing about the butter cookies was that she never used a recipe, she would grab a few fingers of baking power, some scoops of sugar, butter, sour cream, and then start kneading in flour until the dough was just right. So, we telephoned my aunt, my mother's youngest sister, and told her to write down the ingredients and measurements (as best she could) the next time my grandmother made butter cookies. My aunt told us later that during the cookie-making process, when my grandmother would grab a few fingers of, say, baking powder, my aunt would make her drop the contents from her fingers into a small bowl and then my aunt would do her best to measure how much was in the bowl.

Here is the butter cookie recipe, my grandmother's best, as measured by my aunt:

8 cups flour
8 teaspoons baking powder
1 pound butter
6 tablespoons shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 pint sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla
6 egg yolks (save some of the whites for brushing the top of the cookies)

Mix egg yolks with butter, shortening; add sugar and blend. Blend in half the flour and baking powder. Mix in sour cream and vanilla. Blend in the remaining flour. Roll dough on a board using as little flour as necessary -- dough will be sticky; cut into shape with a round cookie cutter. Press the top of the cookies with a fork, then brush with egg white. Bake at 375 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Egg yolks, butter, shortening... These cookies are a heart attack waiting to happen. My wife and I, being ever health conscious, make only half the recipe at a time, and we still manage to get about 34 biscuit-sized cookies from the half recipe. And though we do use one stick (1/4 pound) of unsalted butter, we also use one stick (1/4 pound) of Country Crock fake butter. Also, instead of 3 egg yolks, we use one egg yolk and one whole egg -- and we save the one egg white for the brush. [Update 10/17/2015: I also neglected to mention that we use "Light" sour cream as well.]

My grandmother passed away at the age of 100 in 1998. But she still lives on in memories like these.

Obviously, our butter cookies don't taste as good as my grandmother's original recipe -- but it's the memories that make our cookies taste so good.

No comments:

Post a Comment