Las Masitas de Mamá – My mother’s cookies
Cookies – something to make and have on hand when company came, something to “rustle up” for visitors. Every household in America in my mother’s generation probably had their own very special cookie recipe. It was a tradition that mother took with her to Argentina. Our house was the only one in our barrio which consistently had home made masitas.
That is what we called them, masitas, from the word masa – dough. They were “little bits of dough”. Oh, there were other words for them, galletitas, for instance. Galletas, pure and simple were more like crackers, but, now, galletitas, were like masitas, sweet treats to have with our merienda or snack. There was another name for cookies, bizcochos. Generally those were what you bought at the store, some sort of twice baked cookie that kept a long time in its package. But mother’s cookies were always fresh, home made, here today and gone tomorrow when she would bake yet another batch.
I remember Myrtle’s stories about hoarding sugar and butter during the war to make her Christmas cookies. But, the years during World War II were short lived in comparison to my growing up years in Argentina. Baking supplies were often hard to come by. Months would go by when granulated white sugar or good flour was not available, Eggs were problematic because of little refrigeration and temperamental chickens. It was never, with mother, a matter of going to the store for a dozen eggs or a pound of sugar. So, mother’s baking was more or less celebratory and enterprising. If mother made a mayonnaise, she would have extra egg whites, so “to use them up”, she would bake macaroons. Or, conversely, if she baked an angel cake, she would end up with enough egg yolks to make a good batch of sugar cookies. Pecans, so readily available in the South where mother had grown up, were non-existent in Argentina. Nueces was synonymous with walnuts. I don’t remember ever having any other type of nut.
Cookies – that is what we call what we love to snack on, pack in our lunches, swap at office parties, and bake up a storm at Christmas and not masitas, galletitas, or bizcocho as I grew up calling them. We have to thank the Dutch for the term “cookie”. It was they who brought their little cakes, which they called Koeptje, to America when they settled New Amsterdam. And, just as New Amsterdam became “New York”, the Dutch koeptje became the “cookie”. So, we have little bits of dough, masitas, and little cakes, cookies, but why do the British call them biscuits?
There is evidence that long before the Romans set out by foot and in ships to conquer, ancient civilizations had discovered the wonderful keeping quality of little cakes which were put back in the oven to dry out completely. But, the name that the Romans gave to what they packed in their knapsack to sustain them on their journey is more or less how we still refer to them today. The Romans called their little cakes bis coctus.
Bis, a word I was very familiar with as a child, means once over, again, once removed. How do I know that? Because great-grandfather and great-grandmother in Spanish are bisabuelo, and bisabuela. A great-grandson is a bisnieto, and so forth. And, another thing, what people yelled at a concert when they really liked it wasn’t “Encore!” it as always Bis, bis! which of course meant “sing it again!”. So, the little bis coctus cakes the Romans took with them were cakes, which were cooked, and then cooked again.
They carried them to France, and there the French called them bis-cuit, cuit being the past particle of to cook, cuire. So, when the French crossed over to England with THEIR twice cooked little cakes not only did they take the little cakes with them, but they also took a big chunk of the words which are now in our English dictionary and it is thus that we don’t sit down to tea and twice cooked or twice baked little cakes but to tea and biscuits.
While some Romans were taking their victuals and marching to France, others went forth, with the same pack lunch, to Spain. For some reason there the bis coctus was corrupted into bizcochos. But, the concept of describing the little cakes precisely was well accepted back in Rome’s back yard, Italy, where they are, to this day, called biscotto or biscotti if there is more than one, cotto being the past particle of cooked.
Somehow knowing the etymology of terms used to describe what I have been baking frantically to create this collection makes it all worthwhile. But, it doesn’t stop with the etymology of the word biscuit. In Argentina we called a cookie that was obviously baked twice bizcocho. But, that is not so in all Spanish speaking countries. In some countries cakes and tarts are called bizcochos and cookies bizcochuelos. But what about galletitas? What was that all about? A galet is a rock, round and smooth, which covers the beach in Brittany and Normandy. From that shape, comes the name for a Galet, or a buckwheat cake, which is popularly eaten on the 6th of January in celebration of the Three Magi. And galette, are smaller little cakes … a name which was borrowed and converted to galletitas in Spanish.
Ok, this is where I get to paraphrase Shakespere’s “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and say that whatever the name it goes by – cookie, biscuit, masita, bizcocho, or galletita, they are great to munch” on and fun to make.
My cookie collection – What it is and what it isn’t
I usually did not get a ride but rather walked home from Manchester High School, which was a distance of two miles. It gave me about half an hour of thinking time. And, about once a week my thoughts turned to brownies. The kitchen at that time was quiet; Classie, our maid, was gone for the day, and mother was still at school. It was my time to decompress. I remember the sunlight low on the horizon coming into the kitchen on those after school afternoons, the quietness of the kitchen, and the smell of the brownies cooking, but I don’t remember ever baking anything but brownies, my quick in and out of my mother’s kitchen.
Brownies are nice because after you put them in the oven, you have time to clean up the mess you made and when they are ready, there you are, knife in hand and a glass of milk poured out. I loved that. I made them from scratch, of course, using a Baker’s liquid chocolate pouch. I loved to squeeze it until the chocolate had all come out and then lick the edge of the little envelope. I loved the brownie’s little bubbles and bumps and their satiny tops. I loved to cut them up into squares or rectangles and think about who would be eating them. Sometimes I left them for the family – Johnny was in a growing spurt and could eat a whole batch by himself, and sometimes, if I started early and they cooled completely before the dinner preparations began, I would wrap them up in plastic wrap and take them to school to share with Edwina Neely, Linda Plemmons, or Miss. Pinkston.
I simply baked cookies knowing by heart the ingredients I needed for my basic repertory and having them always on hand and fuming and fussing because I didn’t have the proper ingredients when I came across a recipe I would like to try. But, I tried. In college I had had several friends from the low country and they had introduced me to benne wafers. At the time sesame seeds were not readily available and they were difficult to find, but when I came across them I would try to find a recipe for benne wafers and make them. I made sugar cookies, spice cookies, shortbread cookies, fruit-filled cookies, but never, ever wrote down a recipe with the exception of the one for alfajores. At the time dulce de leche was not available and making the cookies were a production because it entailed making the dulce de leche by cooking a can of condensed milk for a couple of hours. That was for starters. The dough was so unlike any other cookie I ever made – six egg yolks, cornstarch, coconut, confectioners’ sugar. My tiny kitchen was a mess, but I was happy thinking of home, and Jack was proud of my efforts calling my alfajores “Don Quijotes” with his thick Georgia drawl making the misnomer even more ridiculous.
It was Becky who threw down the gauntlet, and I finally began in earnest making an effort to write down recipes all in one place so I would not have to hunt and peck through my cookbooks every time I wanted to bake something. Several years ago she presented all of us with loose leaf binders full of her recipes. It was her idea that we would write out our recipes, not only our cookie ones, but all of them, and share them with one another.
I dutifully began to do so. It was a good idea, an idea we all took to heart, but things did not work out exactly as she had imagined as we were all so busy that very soon we stopped sending out copies of our recipes to everyone. But, the seed had been planted and I began in earnest trying to write out my recipes, as did the rest of the family. From time to time we still share them, as with email it is so easy to attach a recipe we are particularly proud of or think others might enjoy.
I began to think about cookies. I loved baking them. Through the years I had tried my hand at so many kinds, but only baked a half a dozen or so consistently. Hank and Julie, for example, had no idea that I even knew about Charleston’s benne wafers, let alone had spent hours and hours making them so many years ago. And so it was with so many other cookies that I had obsessed with for a time.
I decided that I wanted to write down the recipes of the cookies I had made through the years. That is how I began. Then I became fascinated with the variety in types of cookies. There are cutout cookies, formed cookies, bar cookies, drop cookies, and twice-baked cookies. There are sandwich cookies, frosted cookies, sugar cookies, butter cookies, filled cookies, and shortbread cookies. I began to expand my thinking. I decided that I would not only track down the recipes of the cookies I had baked during the years, but I would also search out recipes that I had heard about, like hermits, for instance. And then, there were the confections I had bought from time to time that could surely be baked at home just as easily, like the biscotti I was so fond of. I might as well, I thought; track down a good recipe for them. And so the project began to expand.
Then I began to obsess a little about things. If I was going to write down my recipes and have a “Cookie Book” for my own use and to share with the rest of the family, how was I going to organize it? The project became a little like the story of the man who had a long beard which my mother used to tell. One day someone asked the bearded man, “What do you do with your beard when you sleep? Do you tuck it under the covers or place it on top of the covers? The man thought about it and said, “Well, I don’t know!” That night he went to bed and he carefully placed the beard under the covers. But, it made him itch. Then he placed it on top of the covers and it ticked him. All night long he kept changing the beard from top to bottom of the covers. This went on for several nights and finally he became so frustrated that he got up and cut off his beard!
Like the bearded man, I could not stop thinking about cookies. I may be haphazard, but I tend not to do anything halfway. I wanted not only to write down the recipes I had failed
to write down for posterity or even for my own enjoyment during all my years of baking, but to try and grasp the difference between the types and variety of cookies.
I knew that for starters I wanted to make all the cookies I had loved to make through the years and write down the recipes. Tassies, for instance. None of my children remember tassies, I am sure, because those were “my Atlanta years”. But tassies, those little pies that graced every buffet table in Georgia during Christmas are lovely and should be passed along to the next generation!
Soon I became overwhelmed, as I tend to do, by the sheer memory of all the cookies I had consumed, baked, or been exposed to over the years. The Scottish shortbread my mother used to make in an iron skillet on the over fireplace – how did she make those crisp, rich cookies? Where on earth would I find a recipe? And pastafrola, another Argentine treat. Could I find out how to make pastafrola and pass that along to my family? What about the wonderful Christmas spice cookies that perfumed the air during our German winters? What about the cookies I had enjoyed during my time in France, during my travels in Italy? Would I want to include those?
I searched the Internet for cookie recipes and came up with about two hundred that I wanted to try. I looked through all the cookbooks I had. I read the back of flour sacks, chocolate bars, and inside the packages of butter. Every recipe I could imagine and some that sparked my imagination were there, available, retrievable. The cantucci we so enjoyed in Tuscany, my mother’s shortbread, her snickerdooles, even Josefa’s pastafrola which came by the way of her Italian father-in-law.
During the years I began my research I had learned Italian enough to read and follow recipes. French and Spanish, of course, are no problem, so when I wanted to find and develop a recipe from my travels and memories of home I could print out several different versions in the original language and compare them to recipes in English. Pastafrola, shrouded in mist and mystery to me because I just knew it had to be Italian in origin yet was so part of my early life, really bothered me. What could it be? On and on
I surfed the web, Italian sites, Argentine sites, American sites of expatriates, Uruguayan sites – Uruguay was, after all, where Garibaldi met his wife before he returned to his home and created the modem Italian state. Pastafrola, it turns out, is nothing more than “Scottish” shortbread which has jam slathered on it. But I simply had to know.
Madelèine’s – my father loved them. About a year before he died I bough a nice gift box of them and mailed them to him. He savored every one. I bought a Madeleine baking tin with the intention of learning to make them. But I didn’t. I could never find a recipe I could trust and madelèines seemed like a lot of trouble. Why bother. Then they became part of my cookie obsession and after printing out recipe after recipe from French internet sites and comparing them to the ones I had in my cookbooks I tried out several combinations and settled on one that was easy to make, tasted good, and kept well.
And so it went. Some recipes were so classic, so generic, like madelèines and benne wafers, ginger snaps, or the perfect cutout sugar Christmas cookie, that I could not simply bake one version and be satisfied. Two, three, sometimes four recipes had to be tried out, tweaked, combined, and adapted.
But, whereas I had once blithely gone into the kitchen with the yearn to lose myself for a couple of hours trying out a new recipe or experiencing the comfort of baking my standard cookies, I became very much like the man with the beard my mother used to tell me about when I became self-conscious. Instead of being fun, cookie making became a chore. When I read up on a recipe, enjoyed the picture in the glossy magazine, and imagined making it only to discover that either I had done something wrong or the idea was not very good in the first place, I suffered a let down. I wanted every batch to be a snap to make, tasty, and worthy of inclusion in my “collection” and it simply was not so.
If I felt that I had somehow been let down by the recipe writers and the magazine editors, it was nothing in comparison to the disdain I felt of my own limitations. Once I decided that I wanted my family to have at hand all sorts of different cookie recipes, I wanted to make each and every possible type and variety. I discovered that I did not like baking cookies that were “work”. What I loved was walking in the kitchen, throwing things together, and bask in the aroma of the cookies as they baked while I cleaned up the mess. I liked the look on the face of my husband and children when they bit into a cookie they really liked.
I was willing to delay the process by making cutout cookies that required time out to chill, like a naughty child. I also could wait a day or two, or even weeks, for refrigerator cookies. In fact, I began to see the advantage of delayed gratification. Not all cookies were oatmeal raisin or chocolate chip, after all. Refrigerator cookies had the advantage that every vestige of cookie making was out-of-the-way when you finally baked them. You simply took them out of the refrigerator, picked up a nice sharp knife, cut them into slices, and placed them on a baking sheet as the oven preheated. No mess, no fuss, no bother. Almost like store-bought!
But, I was not willing to fiddle with my cookies. Those fancy little cookies the magazines are so fond of showcasing are not for me. Neither are the ones that have to be squeezed out! There are no sprint cookies in my collection, though I did buy a kit with every intention of making them, but I found them frustrating and tasteless.
So my original idea of learning everything I could about cookies, their types and varieties only led me to frustration and self-consciousness. Instead of baking cookies, I was writing a cookie book. Finally, I had to stop. Yes, I would like to include everything possible. But, after all, my cookie collection is not a book for the public. I don’t have to offer “Cookies for Dummies” or “A Cookie Treasury”. The Internet is there for me and my family to surf with recipes of almost everything anyone can think of. Cookbooks – Myrtle and my mother only had one, are there also. So, I didn’t do what the man with the beard did, although I was tempted. I was tempted to give the whole project up.
These are my cookies. Some of them are simply cookies which sounded good and when I tried them they were. I took their picture and wrote down the recipes with the changes I had made, if any, and included them giving credit to the source if I could. Others are cookies which resonate from my childhood or different stages of my life in the kitchen in different places and time. After all, cookies are, like everything else, subject to popular taste. My mother used to make Snickerdooles. They are still around and you can even get them in a slice and bake version in the dairy case. But I don’t see them for sale along with the classic chocolate chip, peanut butter, and oatmeal raisin. Butter pecan cookies were wildly popular in the early 60’s, and in the 70’s you could buy Mexican wedding cookies in a big 5 lb. sack.
In researching cookies, not only have I found recipes for those I have enjoyed throughout my life but discovered new twists. There are cookies flavored with thyme and sage. There are cookies that are take offs of cakes – carrot cake, and fruitcake cookies. There are cookies to be enjoyed with tea, or with coffee. There are cookies to take on a hike, or to bake up and give as gifts. There are cookies that keep well and those that should be consumed immediately, or they will get stale. There are cookies for babies to teeth on, and dogs to munch on. For some reason, between the time Becky suggested writing down our recipes and sitting down to put this collection together in the computer, I developed a genuine interest in cookies. It became important to me to have not just a recipe for a sugar cookie, for example, but a crisp sugar cookie, a soft sugar cookie, and maybe even a sugar cookie with a twist. Odd ingredients and off beat renditions are interesting.
I am indebted to Epicurious which is where I have found or retrieved favorite recipes from Gourmet magazine. In my view Gourmet’s recipes are always reliable, simple, and easy to follow. I have also found Williams-Sonoma’s site very reliable with wonderful, clear recipes. Through the internet I have also discovered a community of bakers which is willing not only to share its recipes but also its hints, tips, triumphs, mistakes, and its disappointments.
A short time ago I was having trouble with a biscotti recipe. I had done something wrong, surely! I knew I could rely on Gourmet’s directions being reliable, and yet, I had ended up with a dough that was, in my view, a mess. After salvaging the situation I went to the Epicurious site read and through the comments posted for that particular recipe by subscribers. Somewhere on about the fourth or fifth page of comments I found that several people had done what I had done. I had been careless in reading the recipe and had added the egg meant for glazing along with the 3 eggs called for in the recipe. I was grateful for the information and duly noted to write out my recipe in a way that would eliminate the possibility of that sort of error.
That being said, although there are a lot of great recipes out there, because of lack of space sometimes they are not written in a way that is easy to follow. Time and again I have quickly looked down and misread a direction, or been interrupted and forgotten a step. That is why my recipes are written as they are. Because I am distractible. If the recipe calls for 7 ingredients, I can look down and see that the recipe list says ”7” and that the ingredients in my ‘mise en place’ correspond. Then, each time something happens in the recipe I make a hard return and put in a number. I found that it cuts down on errors.
I don’t write down how long the recipe takes because if a recipe states to – the oven before you do anything else, cookies only take about 45-60 minutes to make. But, if preheating the oven is in the middle of the directions, then you have time to clean up the mess, take on a project or two and come back and bake your cookies later. Yield is another thing. Yield can be predicted, but it depends on the cookie cutter size or whether you drop by teaspoons or tablespoons. If a recipe has 1 or 2 cups of flour you won’t have too many cookies, but if it has 3 or 4 you will have enough for a crowd. As the years slip by and my family slips away, perhaps gathering up my cookie recipes is my way to hold on to what I have had that is good and to offer it to the people I love – my family and friends. This is My Cookie Collection, idiosyncratic, reflecting my taste and predilections, not for the general public of course, but good enough, like my cookies, to share!