It’s 1986. It’s my first solo shopping trip. I’m walking through aisles of canned foods, boxes, bags, filling my basket with the makings of a wonderful feast.
This particular shopping trip, and many more that followed it, was on the floor of the kitchen in my childhood home. The wares I was choosing from consisted of nearly every single dry food item from our cabinets, which my mom had taken out at my request and neatly organized in rows. My mom was a very patient woman.
As I got older, in addition to “shopping” for food, I liked to help cook it. Well, actually my particular interest was in baking. Around age eight I had also developed my entrepreneurial streak and decided I wanted to have a bake sale. So, my mom and I set about making half a dozen different treats (again, I’d like to mention the patience) that I then bagged up and sold from behind an orange and yellow plastic table in front of the town post office.
Most of the bake sale items came from a thin, tattered (even then) cookie cookbook. I’ve never forgotten that cookbook – the look of the pictures and drawings, the way the pages felt, even the few oft-made recipes whose pages were dotted with grease and chocolate stains.
When David and I visited my family a few weeks ago I asked my mom if she still had that cookbook, fully expecting she had tossed it years ago. But she thought she did indeed still have it, and after digging out a pile of cookbooks that filled the dining room table she had retrieved it for me (the patience is still there). She also gave me a couple other cookbooks that she said I used to like to cook from as a kid and said I could have them all, including the well-loved cookie book.
I don’t know what this cookie cookbook is called or where it’s from – the front and back covers are gone, along with most of the introduction and index, and the spine is barely holding. But to me, it is a treasure.
Once I got home and had a day where I could actually bake something from it, I knew immediately what cookie I wanted to make first. The Snickerdoodles. The Snickerdoodle is the cookie that stands out in my memory of my bake sale days. I’m not quite sure why, because when flipping through the cookbook I found other recipes that looked more popular with my child-baked-goods-selling self.
The Cocoa Brownies page is particularly grimy and covered in stars, check marks, and other marginalia that leads me to believe it was a favorite. The recipe for Peanut Butter Cookies is furiously circled and includes meticulous notes, in my mom’s handwriting, on measurements for a double batch. I’m assuming these were for the benefit of an ambitious eight-year-old who didn’t know her multiplication tables yet.
But maybe, just maybe, the humble Snickerdoodle was the bake sale bestseller, because it is the one I remember most distinctly. There’s something about it – it seems simple, just a plain sugar cookie dough rolled in cinnamon-sugar. It’s really so much more than just the sum of its parts though, isn’t it? At least it is to me.
First, there’s the magic that every kid knows as cinnamon-sugar. It can make even the plainest foods delicious (read: sweet). I loved to eat it on buttered toast, which now that I think about it has a very similar flavor profile to Snickerdoodles. And then there’s the texture of the Snickerdoodles: wonderfully soft and chewy, with just the slightest crust on the outside from the cinnamon-sugar.
There’s something else about Snickerdoodles though, at least this version from my youth. They have a distinct savory, umami-like taste to them that is really what makes them memorable for me. I ate a lot of cookies in order to be able to describe this taste (oh the things I do for you!)…and the best I could come up with is that it is almost metallic in quality. Ha! So much for that research. But I promise it’s not unpleasant. Please for the love of god, someone tell me you know what I’m talking about!
Anyways, in the course of eating a couple (dozen!) of these cookies, I decided that the source of this unidentified taste had to come from either the cream of tartar or the shortening – or the combination of the two, plus the dash of salt? I drew this semi-conclusion because they are the only two ingredients in this recipe that are not in the other cookie recipes I’ve made in the recent past.
Cream of tartar is in there to act as an acid that helps the baking soda do its thing, which I assume is what causes them to puff up into thick little burgers instead of spreading out into a flat cookie. And, as we all know from the dilemma of pie crust, the shortening makes the cookie tender. Luckily though, there’s still enough butter to make sure they taste good.
Whatever this specific combination of ingredients is doing, when added all together they equal my childhood. One bite of one of these soft, savory-sweet cookies and I am back in the kitchen of our little trailer in Colorado.
I can feel the cold, hard countertop under my hands. I can see the sink underneath the kitchen’s only window that looks out into the street. I can see my mom there, doing dishes, watching my sister and brother play through that window. I want to walk up to her there, her past-self, and give her a big hug – for the patience she had already showed me at that point, and for all the patience that was to come. Thank you mom, I love you!
Adapted from the name-unknown cookie cookbook of my childhood
Makes about 2 dozen cookies
I hemmed and hawed a bit about posting these cookies. I mean, there’s shortening in them! What kind of hip foodie uses shortening?! Well, it turns out that a) I am not really a hip foodie and b) these cookies are just too nostalgically good for me not to share. That being said, if you have a Snickerdoodle recipe that is a bit more modern, but still retains that nostalgic taste, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. In the meantime, I will be enjoying these and maybe tinkering with them to create such a recipe myself.
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 cup shortening
- 2 eggs
- 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp cream of tartar
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
Heat oven to 400°.
Cream 1 1/2 cups sugar, butter, shortening, and eggs together in a stand mixer, or with a handheld mixer, until light yellow and fluffy.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt. Then add dry ingredients to wet, mixing until just incorporated.
Mix remaining sugar and ground cinnamon together in a shallow dish.
Shape dough by rounded teaspoonfuls into balls. Roll balls in cinnamon-sugar mixture. Then place about an inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake until set, 8-10 minutes. Immediately remove from cookie sheet to cooling rack.