Sometimes you just need cookies. Sometimes you also need ice cream or pudding or cupcakes or tacos or spicy chicken wings or barbecued ribs or pad Thai or pho or chicken tikka masala or an extra-thick strawberry milkshake. Today, though, it’s cookies I want, and that makes me think of my mom. Or maybe I don’t really want cookies, I just want my mom, though it’s been nearly a decade since she passed. Actually, if we’re going to carry this daydream all the way through, what I really, really want is for my mom to make me cookies.
My mom wasn’t really a person who baked when she was happy or used baking as therapy or self-care. Very occasionally she’d bake something to please herself, like brownies or her Cowboy Bars, packed with coconut, pecans and butterscotch chips (a cookie for which, sadly, I do not have the recipe). Mostly, though, Mom baked for others. Her time in the kitchen was a way of saying, “Hey, I really love you,” or, “Let’s celebrate this milestone,” or, “You’ve had a tough time, you need a treat.” She wouldn’t necessarily say those words, but she would speak with flour, butter, cream, sugar, vanilla and chocolate.
For me, baking is more nuanced. I’m plenty good at saying “I love you” with words and I bake so frequently that a jar full of homemade cookies doesn’t seem like such a special treat. I bake more for the challenge of it, to see if I can recapture or recreate a certain flavor or memory, and to share those happy memories with my family. I suppose everything I do in the kitchen — cooking, baking, even mixing the occasional cocktail — is a way for me to tell stories. When I make a family recipe, I’m saying something about who I am and the experiences that I’ve had. I’m telling my own daughter about the relationships that have shaped me. I like to think that the things I feed my daughter connect her not just to me but also to all the Spykermans, Wolvertons, Lovettes, Youngbloods and Walkups that have made her the extraordinary and delightfully quirky individual that she is.
Of course, passing on family history and culture through food is as common as rain, even when we don’t stop to consider the deeper implications of, say, a bowl of peach cobbler. I wonder if Mom ever thought about food in this way — as a sort of cultural touchstone — because she certainly had an attachment to the traditionally Southern dishes she was raised with, like fried chicken, pecan pie and cornbread (savory, not sweet). I think it might be safe to say that we all think of food this way and that we never stop yearning for the flavors that we first encountered as a child.
I’m also aware that the complicated, sorrowful, anxious months and now years of the pandemic have made me nostalgic for what seems like the simpler times of my youth, and that’s why I want cookies.
Maybe it’s watching my daughter register for classes at Clark College, juggling work with volunteer responsibilities and wrestling with the complexities of adulthood. Maybe I’m scared that everything is about to change and soon she’ll fly from this nest, and that’s why I want cookies.
Or maybe this has just been a hard week and dagnabbit, cookies might make it a little bit better.
I found this recipe in Mom’s recipe box and they’re just the ticket for a tough day. They’re simple to make, buttery, crispy and not too sweet. They’re especially good with a glass of milk or a soothing cup of tea.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cream together 2 sticks softened butter, 1 cup packed brown sugar, 2 egg yolks and 1 tablespoon vanilla. Blend in two cups flour, one cup at a time. Use your fingers to spread the dough all the way around a greased and floured cookie sheet. I gave the dough a once-over with a rolling pin to smooth out my fingermarks and then I used a spoon to neaten up the edges.
Slightly beat the egg whites, just enough to blend them but not enough to get them really frothy. Brush the egg whites evenly onto the dough and sprinkle with 1/4 cup chopped nuts; I used almonds because that’s what my husband likes, but I’d love to try this cookie with pecans or walnuts.
Bake for 25 minutes. When you pull them out of the oven, they should look deceptively like homemade toffee or nut brittle because the egg whites give these cookies a candy-like sheen.
Cut into squares while still hot. You should be able to lift them out of the pan and let them cool on a wire rack for a few minutes, just until they won’t burn your tongue. Share them with someone you love and tell each other that everything’s going to be OK. At least until you run out of cookies.