Originally published Dec. 9, 2001
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste writer
IN THESE TRYING times, it would seem natural to crave what we used to call “Comfort Food.” But the whole notion is fraught with challenges. For one thing, what comforts the goose doesn’t necessarily comfort the gander. Some like it hot, and all that.
Of course, there are so-called universal comfort foods: those mashed potato, meatloaf and pudding-driven menus that are supposed to conjure the good old days. But honestly, how long can anyone put up with all that?
I realize that if food is to pacify or console us, it needs to evoke either childhood with its attendant charms, or a sense of nostalgia, based not necessarily on the nursery but on the era of peace and plenty when America was on top of the world. But to be genuinely comforting, food must be really tempting and good.
Unfortunately, nursery foods are uniformly soft, and the great Pax Americana coincided with the ’50s and ’60s, decades when the blandest and most highly processed foods imaginable were standard fare. Macaroni and cheese? Please. What’s a poor solace-seeking cook to do?
Personally, I’ve been baking cookies. It started in September, when I found myself flipping through the old “Betty Crocker Cooky Book,” published in 1963 by General Mills. Recently I’ve taken more comfort from an updated version of that old classic, and from a new work called “The All-American Cookie Book” by Nancy Baggett.
The original “Cooky Book,” a little wedge of Americana, lived within easy reach of the baking cupboard in the house where I grew up. My sister grabbed the family copy when she set up housekeeping, and I latched onto one I found in a used bookstore during my college days. With “more than 450 recipes, dozens of appetizing full-color photographs and many how-to-do-it sketches,” the old spiral-bound classic has been a guilty pleasure for as long as I can remember.
Strangely enough, the “Cooky Book” was also a part of my wife Betsy’s childhood, and now her family copy shares shelf space with mine. I like her copy more because it’s authentically stained with what must be remnants of cookie dough from days gone by, and the recipes are annotated in curlicue pencil script by Betsy’s sister, Kathleen. “Real easy for a quick treat,” she wrote above a recipe for Butterscotch Brownies; “Frost with Thin Chocolate Icing, page 151,” she scrawled in the margin beside a recipe for Toffee Squares.
Molasses Jumbles are dismissed in ballpoint pen as “kinda dry,” but a pencil was used to scribble in an afterthought. “Look at how dryness can be corrected at beginning of book.” These girls took their cookies seriously. I can relate. I learned a lot from the tips in the front of that book: how to measure flour correctly, why to preheat the oven and the importance of following directions. I wanted my cookies to look exactly like the ones in the book.
Recently, it occurred to me that there must be an updated version, and there is. I found “Betty Crocker’s Cookie Book” — note the corrected spelling in the title — on Amazon.com. Gone are the red cardboard, spiral binding and most of the food-colored kaleidoscopic fantasies that characterized the pages of the vintage book.
But Betty is still there — at least in spirit, which is as present as she could ever be. A fabrication conceived by the marketing team at General Mills, Betty now serves as the nom de plume for a team of bakers and authors directed by Marcia Copeland. The new book, published in 1998, is better, of course, than the old one. It’s sturdy, well-designed and well-organized, and a kid could still learn a lot about baking from the front material. But unfortunately, this new edition lacks the all-important original formula for Chocolate Crinkles.
It was while searching for the new “Betty Crocker’s Cookie Book” that I happened upon Baggett’s book. Unlike Betty Crocker, Baggett is no fabrication or pen name. I’ve known her professionally for years, and I was excited to discover she had a new book. What better time for an “All-American” theme than now?
Culled from the pages of antique and community cookbooks, and picked from the brains of bakers at swank, big-city bakeries, the recipes run the gamut from homey drop cookies to elaborate constructions of flavor. The “First American Cookey,” according to Baggett, was recorded in Amelia Simmons’s 1796 “American Cookery,” and Baggett provides us with a scaled-down facsimile for modern kitchens. (The original called for nine cups of flour.)
The chic “Mocha Espresso Wafer” was inspired by an espresso-flavored cookie that Baggett enjoyed at a restaurant in Seattle. In between are formulas for just about every kind of cookie a red-blooded American could ever want to bake. Everything, that is, except those Chocolate Crinkles.
Makes about 4 dozen
Warm from the oven, these cookies are slightly crisp on the outside, and chewy on the inside. Bake just as many as you plan to eat in a day, and keep the rest of the dough refrigerated until you’re ready for more.
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
½ cup vegetable oil
2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup powdered sugar
1. Melt the chocolate in a stainless-steel bowl set over barely simmering water. Mix in the oil and granulated sugar. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition, then stir in the vanilla extract.
2. In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. With a rubber spatula, stir the flour mixture into the chocolate mixture just until the ingredients are all combined. Cover the dough securely with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, and line a baking sheet with baker’s parchment. Drop teaspoonfuls of dough into the powdered sugar, rolling and shaping it into balls. Place the cookies at least 2 inches apart on the lined baking sheet, and bake 10 to 12 minutes. Do not overbake. Serve warm with cold milk.
— Adapted from Betty Crocker’s 1963 “Cooky Book”
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