Friday, December 30, 2022

24-Hour Salad (Overnight Fruit Salad)

This recipe is from Alvina Crawford. She and her husband, Fred, were my parents’ dear neighbors across the street on Isherwood. For many years, she would make overnight salads for friends and family at Christmastime. She’d make so many, over so many days, she’d freeze them so she could deliver them all on the same day.

So this is a holiday recipe for me.

I can replay the scene in my memory: our doorbell would ring, we’d go down the stairs to the front door, open it, and there’d be Mrs. Crawford, holding a big container full of salad. It would be a reused plastic ice cream tub, or a disposable aluminum foil casserole container. Her warm, mild voice, with its notes of rural North Dakota and Scandinavian ancestry. Her Christmas greetings—you could hear the smile in her voice. . . . We’d give her and Mr. Crawford a big platter of our homemade Christmas cookies, covered with foil, decorated with a Christmas bow.

There are lots of versions of this dish online; it’s a classic 1950s salad that doubles as a dessert. In this way, it is a lot like a Jell-O dish: “Is it a salad, or a dessert?” How can you tell? If it’s a salad, you serve it on a lettuce leaf—that makes it a salad instead of a dessert. As a dessert, served in a pretty bowl, it’s great with cookies. After a hearty Christmas meal, you might not want a heavy piece of pie or pudding. A fluffy fruit dessert like this is just the ticket! It’s perfect with Christmas cookies!

Grandma Renner made overnight salad, too. I’m not sure if anyone has her recipe. To the best of our memory, she used large, round, juicy red grapes instead of canned sweet cherries. In those days, you couldn’t get seedless red grapes, so each grape needed to be sliced in half, and the seeds picked out with the knife tip. Tedious; a labor of love. If you use seedless grapes (and why not?), slice them in half in memory of the labors of the past.

Other recipes, by the way, use things like drained canned mandarin orange slices, or real orange or tangerine slices, chopped bananas, and nuts. (Though if you’re making it for me, please don’t add nuts.) This recipe is a lot like an ambrosia salad, which has shredded, sweetened coconut, citrus, and pineapple.

My tips and comments are at the end.

24-Hour Salad (Overnight Salad)

Recipe adapted from Alvina Crawford

Dressing ingredients:

1 c. half and half
4 egg yolks, well-beaten
1 T. butter
1/4 t. salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups (1 pint) heavy/whipping cream

Make the dressing first (see notes at end, however). Use a double boiler, or use a heavy saucepan and heat gently. Heat the half and half first. Then add the next ingredients (except for the whipping cream), adding the eggs slowly and carefully so they don’t curdle. Cook, stirring, until definitely thickened. Then, set it aside to cool. This is a good time to prepare the fruit ingredients.

Fruit ingredients:

2 cans (20 oz.) sliced pineapple, drained and sliced (see notes below)
1 can (17 oz.) sweet cherries, drained and halved (or further chopped) [or whole]
[optional: large red grapes, halved and seeded if necessary]
1/2 lb. (24 count) regular-size marshmallows, quartered (or halved)
juice of half a lemon (fold in with the rest)

When fruit ingredients are ready, and collected into a big bowl, and when dressing custard is cooled, whip the heavy/whipping cream until well-whipped. Add the custard/dressing to the fruits, then fold in the whipping cream. Let it stand in the refrigerator for 24 hours (this is an important step).

Serve on lettuce, as a salad, or in dessert dishes as a dessert.

Yield: about 2½ quarts.

Julie’s notes:

Mrs. Crawford noted that, in order to divide the labor, she sometimes would cut up the fruit the day before, then make the custard and whipped cream the second day. “It doesn’t seem like such a long process when divided up.”

Why do you need to buy canned sliced pineapple, and then cut it into smaller pieces? Why not just buy pineapple tidbits? . . . Well, do what you want, but you get prettier pieces, and fewer little blobs of pineapple fragments, if you cut them yourself with a nice sharp knife. (Your knives are sharp, right?)

Also, as I mentioned above, you can freeze this and give it to people frozen; they can decide when to thaw it and enjoy it.

This recipe dates back to the days before they made "mini marshmallows." So you have to buy "regular" marshmallows and cut them! Okay, use mini marshmallows if you want, but quartered or halved "regular" marshmallows are much more fun to eat.

How do you know when the custard is thickened? . . . You will know; it may take a while, but when it thickens, it will happen quickly, and you'll know.

Finally, regarding the canned fruits: in the 1950s, all the canned fruits were in heavy syrup, so that’s the kind I suggest. But use what you want. Although not overly sweet, this isn’t a low-calorie dessert, so avoiding heavy-syrup in the pineapple probably won’t make a big difference.

And what can you do with the syrup you’ve drained off? Here’s an idea: put it in a saucepan, add sugar, maybe also a cinnamon stick, and simmer to reduce it to a bona fide syrup. With the syrup/juice from the canned sweet cherries, the syrup will be pretty purple. You can use this syrup for pancakes! Or, you can add brandy to the syrup and put other canned fruits in it: brandied fruits; great on ice cream!

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Jar of Goodness 12.25.22: The Holiday Season

. . . The weekly virtual “gratitude jar.”

This week, I’m expressing thanks for the holiday season.

Yes, including Christmas, duh. But also for all the other winter solstice–related holidays that humanity celebrates, not least of which is New Year’s. All these winter holidays are “resets” of some kind or other. An urge to remember our higher callings.

This time of year, you cross a bridge. Behind you is the past—a territory to which you can never return. Ahead is the future—a vast, unexplored territory full of new adventures, new things to learn. New year’s, the solstice, even “Festivus” focus on this turning-of-the-page.

Christmas and a wide range of other December religious festivals native to or heavily influenced by North America focus on light and hope. Now, at the darkest, coldest time of the year, we have holidays that emphasize light (including The Light), warmth, peace, love, hope, and joy.

And it’s a time when North America typically experiences hardship: it’s not the growing season, so anything active (birds and mammals) historically struggles for food, which grows scarcer and more precious as the winter drags on. And yet here is also the time for hope and for gift-giving: Here is something precious, for you. I made this for you. Look, a sweet, juicy orange shipped here from tropical lands; a feast; a rich cake full of dried fruits, nuts, and exotic spices.

At the traditional time of scarcity in North America, instead of pinching up and wrapping our arms around our stockpiles of foodstuffs and other goods, and hoarding the money we feel we’ll never get enough of, we are asked to embrace our family and neighbors, even strangers, and to be truly, gladly generous.

And that’s what our religions and spiritual traditions seem always to call us to do: to rise above our animal survival instincts. To act not as competing creatures in nature, but as civilized, empathetic, gracious beings; members of a society. We’re asked to rise above our individual needs, above taking care of only our own family and clan (like some competing, warring tribes)—and instead to care about and help others. To help even the dreaded Samaritans. To care for even the Least of These. We’re called to see the holiness in every being, and in all of creation. We are called to behave, to cooperate, to care . . . and to become much more than competing animals in a jungle.

Bless the beasts and all of the children.

Picture notes: featured in this post are some of the ornaments my mom made in the 1970s. They’re made out of pieces of felt, carefully trimmed and glued together. Aren’t they sweet? I love the multiculturalism it implied, harkening back to a time when Americans were more unified and had a more optimistic view of the world, and all of its diversity. There are several more ornaments that she made, too—stars, birds, tiny Christmas stockings with my and my brother’s names spelled out in glitter, and more. And she made many other types ornaments, too. It seems like she made a series of ornaments each year, of different designs. And she gave them out to everyone in the family. What a wonderful gift!

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Jar of Goodness 12.18.22: Heirloom Christmas Cookies

. . . The weekly virtual “gratitude jar.”

This week, I’m expressing thanks for heirloom Christmas cookie recipes.

“These are the cookies of my people.”

I could go on and on about how strongly I feel about our precious family Christmas cookie recipes, but I’d rather just talk about the reasons why these connections are so strong.

But first, honestly, do I love these cookies the best? I sure didn’t when I was a child. I grew up accustomed to sweets that were, well, sweet, like candy, or cookies that are sugary or chocolaty. Each Christmas, when I was confronted with the old-fashioned and Germanic cookies of my forebears, I was rather let down. Dates, raisins, and candied fruits are a different kind of sweet than chocolate chips and Oreo “stuf.” Brown sugar, molasses, and sorghum are also different from white sugar. A lot of it’s the difference between sucrose and fructose. Nuts? They aren’t hardly sweet at all. Finally, when I was a child, I found assertive spices challenging. It’s not that I didn’t like spices—but when a cookie like a pfeffernüsse presented me with a punchy, bewildering blend of cinnamon, anise, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and/or nutmeg, it just seemed “weird.”

So you can imagine my less-than-enthusiastic response to biting into a billy goat cookie, full of dates and black walnuts, when I thought I had picked up a chocolate chip cookie. They do look a lot alike. They taste very different. So I learned to hesitate, my hand hovering over the cookie tray. I learned to carefully inspect my choices before making a commitment to any.

And this is why cookie trays, during my childhood, always included kid-friendly choices. My brother and I learned to scope out the animal cookies (that is, sugar cookies cut into animal and Christmas-themed shapes such as pine trees, bells, stars, and angels, always with straight-ahead icing on them). We also snarfed up the good ol’ chocolate chippers, the snickerdoodles, and the like. Mild flavors; Rice Krispies treats; spritz cookies. Cookies a kid can count on!

But it’s not like I wouldn’t eat the old-fashioned, Germanic cookies. Springerles, I thought, were pretty good, albeit often tough to chew (I didn’t drink coffee, so I didn’t discover the joys of dunking until much later). Lebkuchen, especially with a glaze and decorated with sprinkles, or with half of a candied cherry pressed into the glaze, weren’t too bad, even though the candied fruit was sort of “meh.” Billy goats were tasty, as long as you didn’t have your heart set on it being a chocolate chip cookie.

And so on. My brother and I ate the Germanic favorites, but like the sauerbraten and red cabbage we had only a few times a year (always at Grandma’s), they were “weird.” They were German things, things our school chums in Columbia, whose surnames were English like Wilson and Smith, didn’t have a clue about. The cookies their moms offered us were just “regular” cookies.

And soon enough, we realized our family’s Christmas cookies were special. Everyone who was older, our parents and uncles and aunts, and everyone older than they, oohed and aahed over them: “Ooh, yum, you made springerles! They’re so beautiful! I’ve got to have one of them!” They wouldn’t have gushed so much if it was, say, oatmeal-raisin cookies or peanut butter cookies, because those were everyday cookies; they won’t special.

By the time I was a teenager, I was hooked on these cookies. Like the Schroeder Weinachtspyramide, I knew they were special to my family and other ethnic Germans. I never cooked, but I knew these required some special skills to make. I was grateful my grandmas, my mom, my aunts, and the other ladies who made them. When I lived in Arizona and Montana, my grandmas’ abilities were waning. Grandma Renner had dementia; Grandma Schroeder had lost most of her vision. (Where did their springerle rollers or presses end up? I don’t know.)

Uncle Richard had always doled out his lebkuchen for months after Christmas, keeping a coffee can full of them in his conservation-agent patrol car. Shivering, he’d nibble on leppies and sip from his coffee thermos on his late-night stakeouts for catching deer poachers.

He ultimately refrained from eating the last bite of his last lebkuchen made by his mother; he put a tiny eyescrew in it and dipped it in varnish or polyurethane. It’s preserved and it has his bite marks on it. He made a necklace out of it—a totem—which he wears during holiday get-togethers: “The last bite of my mom’s last leppie.”

So yeah, I started looking for the recipes.

Since then I’ve gotten them pretty much figured out. There’s been a lot of trial-and-error, since it was too late for me to lean on my grandmas for advice. But food memories, it turns out, can be acute, so I’ve had a lot of help and encouragement.

The sense of smell and taste are strongly linked to memory and emotion. That’s why certain scents evoke such nostalgia—like the smell of freshly cut green grass in spring, or the first whiff of a wood fire on a crisp, early winter evening.

With the winter holidays so linked with family and spiritual celebrations, and with holiday foods repeated so many years, it only ingrains and strengthens the many associations of those flavors and smells. So when you smell those special cookies baking, each year the memories and layers of meaning accumulate.

It’s about so much more than the cookies. They’re just a trigger, the portal, the crystal ball, the talisman. They link me to my family, my ancestors, to a continent I barely know. They link me to fifty years of memories, some sad, but nearly all sweet. They invoke a mini meditation, a reverie, a quick portal into another dimension. They have power.

Any other time of year, I’ll make other kinds of cookies (recently, I’ve been partial to hermits and “pride of Iowa” cookies, for instance). But it’s my pleasure and honor to make family Christmas cookies and then share nearly all of them.

I didn’t start this. Ancestors who traveled across the Atlantic Ocean brought their holiday recipes with them; they couldn’t bear to have Christmas without them. . . . And who am I to break the chain?

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Jar of Goodness 12.11.22: New Car!

. . . The weekly virtual “gratitude jar.”

This week, I’m expressing thanks for my new car! (Yeah, finally!)

I’ve talked about this already, but here it is in a nutshell: My 2003 Honda Civic gave up the ghost last June. At first, we considered getting a used car, at least to tide us over, but we discovered used cars are costing about as much as new ones, but with tens of thousands of miles, sketchy Carfax reports, and all kinds of signs of poor car care.

The problem with buying a new car is that they aren’t available. You have to order them, pay a deposit, and wait . . . for months.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Daniel Neman described his recent, 2022, pandemic-complicated car-buying experience, that was very similar to ours, though he started off looking for a new car and ended up shopping for used. Also, he was able to find more humor in his experience, which makes his editorial worth reading.

I won’t go into too much detail about what it’s like not having a car to drive around. I know it’s a “first world problem” and I’m not complaining. But it was mighty inconvenient, and a huge eye-opener, to not be able to just, well, go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted. Yes, we have another vehicle, but it’s Sue’s 1994 Ranger, and it has manual transmission (I mean, why should I learn now?), and we wanted to drive it only for short distances. So, Sue and I went everywhere together, and Sue drove. Usually, I’m the driver, because her truck is older, and I rather like driving, and the sedan is usually more pleasant that riding around in the big, bumpy pickup.

Anyway, I got the call from the dealer on December 1: the car had arrived! Yippee! And we drove to St. Louis (borrowing my mom and dad’s car) on Monday, December 5 to pick it up. Yay for Mungenast St. Louis Honda!

Fun fact: Mungenast Honda isn’t very far south of Kirkwood, where we go to get our international groceries and where we’ve been finding good wines recently. It’s even on the same road (Kirkwood/Lingbergh). My, how convenient for us!

The saga isn’t entirely over; I still need to transfer the license from the old car and get rid of the old car, get the deposit back from dealer 2, who was unable to fulfill the order before Mungenast St. Louis Honda did, and then, of course, pay off the new car.

But it’s really nice. I actually now have a car that is a trendy color—it’s not just the last/least desirable color that happens to be on the dealer’s lot. And after twenty years with my old car, it gradually became less attractive, especially after the semi-truck had rubbed against it, and after the hail damage; I did feel rather sheepish one time recently when I pulled into the lot of the local country club for a lunch meeting, parking beside shiny new Audis, Cadillacs, and Mercedeseses.

For now, though, I have a car I can feel pride in. I can drive around slowly, thinking, “Yeah, everyone, look at me!” For a change. I know this feeling will subside soon enough. But, you know; after years of driving around a car with 100,000 . . . 150,000 . . . 200,000 . . . 250,000 miles on it, the temporary thrill of owning a car with only 12 miles on it: Squeeee!

I mean, you know me. I’m not ostentatious. I don’t obsess about my looks, or the clothes I wear, or whatever. But every twenty years or so, when I do finally get a new car—which I hope to drive until the wheels practically fall off—I deeply enjoy the first few years of special newness. Sure, a Civic is hardly a “status” car, but it’s a smart, reliable, comfortable, practical car, and for me, that’s something I’m proud to own.

So for the record, it’s a 2023 Honda Civic Sport Sedan in Sonic Gray Pearl (a very trendy color) with black interior. I really like how the paint color (which at first seemed like a rather boring gray) looks dramatically different in different kinds of light.

This is my third Civic sedan, the others being a beige "almond cream" 1989 DX and a metallic-dirt-colored “shoreline mist metallic” 2003 LX. This is the first one for me that has an actually trendy, in-demand color.

It’s really interesting, and I think a testament to the Honda company’s enduring vision and tradition of excellence, that this new vehicle still feels like a Civic, in a very fundamental way. The controls are basically all in the same locations; the road feel, the seats, the fit, the way it drives . . . are clearly on a continuum with the other two. Compared to the various similar-type sedans I’ve rented in recent years, I can tell those couldn’t be Civics—but this one is clearly, well, a Honda Civic. I can see why people are Civic “enthusiasts.”

So, that’s done: the car situation is resolved, and it was the last of the Big Things of 2022. The new second-floor refrigerator (ordering and waiting months for it); the second-floor air-conditioning conking out and us needing to get a new HVAC system for that floor (cha-chiiinng!); and (long delayed) finally getting the new roof, gutters, and new siding on the front and back dormers.

Sue and decided last summer, when it seemed everything was imploding but nothing was moving forward, that we should have come champagne on hand for whenever the last of these 2022 expensive, protracted inconveniences and frustrations were finally all over.

So when we got home from St. Louis with the new car, we did indeed celebrate!

Yep, sometimes gratitude has four wheels, a sporty ride, a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine, a touchscreen infotainment system, a CVT transmission, a Sonic Gray Pearl paint job, and a 10/10 rating from Car and Driver.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Jar of Goodness 12.4.22: New Gutters, and Done!

. . . The weekly virtual “gratitude jar.”

This week, I’m expressing thanks for our new gutters, and for having this roofing-siding-gutter project be done!

Lawsey, it’s expensive. Fortunately, the roof and replacement gutters were covered by insurance. It was damaged by a hailstorm on March 27, 2020, with tennis-ball-sized hail. The city was still recovering from the 2019 tornado! We were sitting out on the sunporch when the hail started—there was no thunderstorm; it sounded like someone just started hitting the roof with a sledgehammer. It totaled my car; yeah, 2020 was a pretty messed-up year. Anyway . . .

We’d been wanting to put siding on our front and back dormers. With our steeply slanted roof, they’re difficult to get to, and the front dormer gets blasted by heat. The back one, facing northeast, wants to grow lichen and moss. Poor old wooden things. Here's a "before" picture, the dormer and the roof, covered with the old shingles from 2006.

So we tacked that onto our work order.

The gutters in front now have gutter guards, which hopefully will prevent leaves and twigs from getting trapped. We’ve been pretty tired of water overflowing it and spilling onto our front doorstep. The gutter guys also noticed that the old gutter on the sunporch wasn’t draining properly. A bunch of water splashed out of it when they pulled it off. No wonder we’ve had a problem with mosquitoes in our backyard, eh?

We also had the “gutter guys” add a small section of gutter to the little roof over our driveway. In 2012 when we got our new sidewalks and driveway, the slope was changed such that much of the water in the driveway must drain via a drain near our basement doors. This includes any water that hits the three-story Broadway side of our house and runs down. That’s a lot for that little drain to handle, and we sometimes get water coming into our basement. The gutter, hopefully, will help. Below, views of "before" (with new roof) and "after" (with new roof, plus new gutter).

Apart from writing a pretty breathtaking check for this (so hooray for the big deposit from the insurance company), we’re done, done-done-done with this project.

WHAT will we be thankful for next week?? Tune in and find out!

Friday, December 2, 2022

Notes on Grandma Renner's Billie Goat Cookies

I’ve written about Billie Goats, also spelled Billy Goat Cookies, before. But it’s time for a more nuanced version of the instructions. Look, no matter how you make them, they’ll be delicious. But I’ve been taking notes every year, so I can get the shape and texture just right. Until now, it’s been hit-or-miss. But I think I’ve got the techniques figured out, now. (As Chef John says, “Never let the food win.”) By golly.

So yes, there's a recipe at the end of this post.

A true, enduring gift from my grandma Clara Renner, these cookies take the strong, separately distinctive flavors of brown sugar, cinnamon, black walnuts, and dates and combine them into a new flavor I can only call “Billie Goat.” It’s a genuine meld; the combination is much greater than the sum of its parts. If you don’t like one of the ingredients, don’t rule out these cookies, because each flavor is tempered and transformed by the others. This is one of the best cookies anyone can make, in my opinion.

And for us, it’s a must-have for the Christmas cookie tray.

I have used this combination of brown sugar, cinnamon, dates, and black walnuts in other recipes, and I’ve found they have the same profound, synergistic effect, where they meld into a new, milder, but very unique flavor. I think of it as “Billie Goat seasoning.” I use this combination in my bran muffins, for example. You could also apply it to a bowl of oatmeal, or use it in pancake batter or a quick bread.

Grandma Renner said these are called “Billie Goats” because they are lumpy and have little points that stuck out, like a goat. (This is why the shape and the texture of the dates is important; read on.) I don’t know why Grandma spelled it “Billie” instead of “Billy.” Grandma Renner, her sister, Lydia Meyer, and their friends apparently all started making Billie Goats about the same time.

Billie Goats/Billy Goats are in a family of similar drop cookies that were really popular among mothers in the 1930s and 40s. This was a generation of moms who were keenly conscious of their role as household managers. In school, their “domestic science” classes taught them to be faithful guardians of their family’s health and good stewards of the family food budget. Vitamins were a new discovery with their generation. These women wanted to pack maximum nutrition into the foods they made, including their children’s after-school snacks—while being very economical (first, because of the Great Depression; next, rationing during World War II).

So, instead of sugar cookies or candies, they made these proto-health-food snacks, using nuts, plus raisins, dates, and/or currants, and sweetening with surprisingly small amounts of brown sugar (some recipes call for a combination of brown and white). Other cookies in this group include “hermits” and “rocks”; oatmeal-raisin cookies are also close relatives. Look for all these recipes in old cookbooks and church ladies’ cookbooks. The names “billy goats” and “rocks” both apparently refer to the chunky, knobby look of these cookies. I don’t know how “hermits” got named.

Some notes about texture and form, since I’ve had some time to figure these out. They’ll taste great no matter what you do, but the goal is to have a chewy, cakelike inside, and a lumpy, chunky shape. So here’s a discussion of challenges, and my “pro tips.”

For generations, most American cooks could only get Dromedary brand dates, which were apparently Deglet Noor dates. They were packed tightly in cellophane (this was before plastic), stuffed into cardboard boxes, and, after languishing in a warehouse or on grocery shelves, they were as tough as shoe leather. Clipping them with kitchen shears, as Grandma’s recipe instructs, would literally hurt your scissors hand. (Grandma’s kitchen shears were stainless steel, dull old things; you know the type—the ones with the rounded “claws” for opening bottles at the base of the red-painted, hard metal handles. The base of my thumb still hurts, just thinking of them. This was way before “Fiskars” scissors were available!)

So billy goat cookies, being a midcentury recipe, were developed using the ingredients that, at that time, were available to most people: dried-up dates. The cooking softened them, but not to the point where they lost a distinctive, chewy, chunky presence.

Today, the Dromedary brand seems to have gone out of business, and you just cannot buy dry, hard dates like them; instead, they are all moist and tender, either packed in plastic or shipped absolutely fresh. This is actually a good thing, but it presents a problem for replicating this cookie’s texture, since moist dates tend to dissolve into gooey molasses during baking, producing a flat, uniformly chewy cookie, instead of distinct, chunky, jagged lumps of chewy dates and nuts in a cakey, rounded matrix of dough.

I’ve learned to replicate the type of dates Grandma had by purchasing them (Deglet Noors) a few weeks ahead of baking, clipping them in the prescribed herringbone pattern while they’re still soft (which is a much easier task, now), spreading these out on cookie sheets, and letting them sit (under wax paper) in a quiet place while they dry. The house isn’t at all humid in November. Or, you can put them in the oven warmed only by the pilot light. Or you can try a dehydrator. An alternative might be to try to find one of the so-called bread dates (varieties such as Thoories that are sold rather dry, dry enough you can carry them in your pocket)—but those might lack sweetness. Also, I think it’s cheaper and easier to use regular Dole (or whatever) brand Deglet Noors, cut them, and let them dry. That seems the best way to replicate the texture and flavor of old-fashioned Dromedary dates.

Another point about texture: These cookies have caused me more vexation than any others, except perhaps when I was first figuring out springerles. If you only make a cookie once a year, it’s hard to fine-tune the recipe! My Billie Goats recipe card is full of penciled-in notes: “try doing _____ next time.” You don’t want the cookies to be so soft they spread out, but you don’t want them crunchy or hard. How to get that cakey, chewy texture, and chunky look? Here are some key tips:

  • Use a 50/50 combination of margarine and butter-flavored Crisco. Real butter does make them taste better, but it complicates the texture; the cookies turn out drier, less moist. Save your butter for some other recipe.
  • Pack the flour; forget the rule about spooning fluffed-up flour into your measuring cup and leveling it off with a knife. It turns out Grandma R used her measuring cups as scoops: swipe the cup through the flour, like you’re using a dip net to fish something out of water. You can level it off if you want, or just kind of shake off the excess, but you need to pretty much pack the flour into the cups.
  • Let the dough sit overnight in the refrigerator or on an unheated sunporch. The flour will absorb the liquids and be easier to work.
  • . . . But the dough will still be sticky and hard to handle. Put on some happy music. Use parchment-lined cookie sheets. Try dabbing the dough into little rounds with two spoons, or (if you haven’t much patience for the spoon method) use your fingertips to pinch off bits of dough (put some water on your hands so it doesn’t stick so bad; even then, you’ll have to clean your hands and start again several times).
  • I tend to make smallish cookies, because I figure twenty-first-century people would rather select six different morsels from the tray than settle on just two huge cookies. Big cookies are a joy, but variety is the spice of life. Also, with smaller cookies, a single batch of dough goes farther. A 1¼-inch blob of dough, slightly flattened before cooking, produces about a 1½-inch diameter cookie. Back in the day, Mom and Grandma’s cookies tended to end up about 2 to 2½ inches in diameter. Different sizes account for the difference in cooking time; smaller cookies cook faster.
  • Do a single tray of cookies first and see how they turn out. These shouldn’t flatten very much. If they spread out flat, you may have to add a bit more flour to the dough, or you might need to adjust the size of the cookies.
  • Finally, don’t overcook these, or they will be too hard. Mom says this was a principal criticism Grandma R had about her sister, Lydia’s billy goats: “she bakes them too long, and they get too hard.” (I’ve heard this criticism plenty, too.)
  • But if they come out kind of hard, don’t panic. Seal them in a tin, with the layers of cookies divided by wax paper, and take half of a tart apple, wrap it loosely in wax paper, and nestle it in the tin with the cookies. After a week or so, you’ll discover the cookies have softened and developed a je ne sais quoi in terms of flavor.

. . . Does all this sound too hard? Please don’t be put off by these tips; it’s all stuff I’ve learned the hard way, and I’m sharing it here, so you have a super-duper head start!

Finally, again, you can’t really ruin these. They’ll taste great regardless of the texture and shape.

Billie Goats/Billy Goat Cookies

1½ c. brown sugar
1 c. butter [Pat S. uses margarine, sometimes butter-flavor Crisco; I use half margarine and half butter-flavor Crisco; real butter tastes good, but then the texture will be off]
-----------Cream together butter and sugar.

3 eggs: beat whites [till light; use a hand mixer or whisk] and [then] add [whisk in] yolks

1 level tsp. baking soda dissolved in
¼ c. lukewarm-to-hot water

1 Tbs. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
1 c. black walnuts [chopped]
1 lb. clipped dates [using a scissors, clip whole, pitted dates in an alternating herringbone pattern; the idea is to have them big enough to kind of “poke out” of the cookies; if you buy pre-chopped dates, it’s okay, but the pieces are too small to achieve the characteristic lumpy look.]
2½ c. flour [basically pack it]

Make the cookie dough [let it sit overnight in the fridge] and drop it onto [parchment-lined] cookie sheets by small spoonfuls. Bake in a moderate (ca. 350-degree) oven like you would other cookies, about 8–11 minutes. [Don’t overcook; they should be rather chewy and cakey inside.]

Makes about 100 cookies.