Old Cookie Recipe for a New Year
I’m not an eater of cookies. I seldom even bake them. I’m funny that way (and other ways). But as the holidays drew closer, cookies began pushing their way into an important part of my brain. Specifically, the cookies most beloved in my family, from Minnie, my great-great-great-great aunt on my father’s side.
Minnie and her sister Jenny came here from Bohemia in the Czech Republic a century ago. The mystery is why they settled in Miami. We’ll never get to the bottom of it. What we do know — Minnie was genius in the kitchen. She had a light touch and could make jam cookies she topped with a latticework pastry of lacelike fineness. No one else could make them as delicately as Minnie, so at one point, she gave up and taught my grandmother, Marcella, her niece, to use her basic cookie dough recipe to make thumbprint cookies, little jam pots. Years later, my grandmother taught me.
Jenny passed away long before I was born. Minnie, though, was still alive, and according to my parents, when we’d visit, I’d patter to the kitchen, which is where she’d alway be, and throw my arms around her. She’d hug me right back and give me a cookie. I remember her scent of roses and butter and sugar. Here’s what I don’t remember — she had one arm. She’d lost the other to diabetes. But she still made jewel-like pastries with one arm, still hugged perfectly fine with one arm, and always beamed when she saw me, her old face suddenly young. Minnie never learned English, so our common language was love and cookies.
Most food is complicated to a child. It requires implements. It must be consumed sitting down at a specific and inconvenient time, interrupting a good day of play. Most is served too hot for children to enjoy. There’s a high risk of mess, and of scolding. But you can give a child — or a grownup — a fresh baked cookie and the message is transmitted in full, I love you, here’s a little delight, off you go. Minnie’s thumbprint cookies fit in a child’s hand.
They melt in the mouth. They can be enjoyed in a bite or two. My father, who loved them all his life, pretty much consuming them whole, maybe without chewing.
Being Czech, Minnie used butter. Liberally. When I went vegan many years ago, her cookies were doubly off my list. But they haunted me. I didn’t crave eating them, I craved the primal welcome and warmth they conveyed. Besides, if you want to sell someone on vegan, dessert is the secret weapon.
So this holiday season, I made them. Just as Minnie must have worked to adapt to this new home, this new country, I adapted Minnie’s thumbprint cookies. I did it with vegan butter. The idea of vegan butter might have alarmed Minnie, and in truth, it alarmed me, too, until seeing and tasting how it effortlessly replaced dairy butter in Minnie’s recipe. Butter from cultured cashews not cows did not exist until a few years ago, and it’s one good thing about living in the present age.
Our food choices look so different than they did a century ago. I doubt Minnie and Jenny would recognize half the food in a supermarket. Or even know what to make of a supermarket. But the urge to feed the people you love is eternal.
This is a massive head note for what is really a simply cookie. From the past to the present, from Bohemia to Miami to wherever you are, from Minnie to me to you, enjoy.