--Or, In Which Cookies Are Made, Via Highly Scientific Means, Despite Our Heroine's Cluelessness--
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I sort of cheated this week. I plan to choose recipes each week that are seasonal, for those that are associated with particular times of year, so holiday things should be made sometime during/near that holiday, etc. But this week, I went ahead and made Christmas cookies anyway. At least, they were always Christmas cookies in my house, and since Linda came over to help and sample, and was familiar with sand tarts, I asked her when she'd had them--only at Christmas. I'm not really sure what it is that makes these Christmas cookies. Maybe the cinnamon sprinkled on top? I really think you could make them any time (though I would, now that I've cheated, wouldn't I?), but apparently they do have a seasonal connection. The cookie category is the largest single category in this recipe box, so I may occasionally make one out of season just because there are so many to go through, and there won't be enough time for anywhere near all of them in December.
I decided to make sand tarts this week for two reasons:
1. I had most of the ingredients, and
2. I'd wanted to make them at Christmas but could not find anyone who was of like mind, and I always find it's more fun to make Christmas cookies with other people.
So, sand tarts it was. These are another traditional item in our house, passed down from Grandma and Great-Grandma (my grandfather's mother, whose name I never had trouble with, so don't ask me why I called the other one Sweetie). The interesting thing is that the recipe box contains two recipes for sand tarts, one that's listed as Great-Grandma's Sand Tarts, and the one I've always known. Grandma had a habit of copying recipes clipped from the newspaper onto recipe cards, and then stuffing the clipping into the card sleeve. She also left notes on the recipes in either format--sometimes dates, sometimes a word or two of opinion after she made it or a note on how she changed it. As a result, I can report that she thought these were "real good," and that this was a pretty popular recipe in the York area at some point, because she clipped it not once but twice. One says, "You will never use a rolled Sand Tart recipe after using this one," which got my attention because I hadn't realized there was another kind. Great-Grandma's recipe, though, appears to be rolled, as the batter is to stand overnight. Notes on the back of that card say, "350, 8 min, not too good, puff up too much."
I doubt I've ever had cookies made from that recipe, and I have to admit that being able to drop these right on the cookie sheet rather than refrigerating, rolling, and cutting sure sounds good to me. I only remember making these at home when I was a kid, not at Grandma's. I'm not sure she even made them anymore by the time I was around. We would make some Christmas cookies, and Grandma would make some, and then we'd trade, so we must have inherited this recipe while she went on to make others that she shared with us, unless my memory is faulty.
The recipe we used, and the details of our scientific experience in success-in-spite-of-ourselves, are after the jump:
Drop Sand Tarts
1 cup butter (and ONLY butter--no substitutions or you will have a big mess!)
2 cups sugar
2.5 cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
nuts (walnuts or pecans)
Mix everything together (except the nuts) and drop small amounts from teaspoon onto greased cookie sheet. Dip fork in beaten egg and press down on cookie. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon and 1 nut on top. Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes.
Linda and I embarked on our mission with great dedication to the cause. I was feeling lazy and decided to use my standing mixer for the hard labor. I made a great mess with the sifter, trying to keep the sifted flour falling into a 2-cup liquid measuring cup and not entirely succeeding. In fact, such was my eagerness to finish that I have only just realized that we only added 2 cups of sifted flour. I wonder what difference the other half-cup would have made. Perhaps at some point we will decide to find out! I also found myself wondering if my flour was self-rising or not, because I haven't used it in quite a while. We figured we'd find out soon enough.
I have three kinds of vanilla on hand: "premium imitation vanilla," a bottle from a Pennsylvania Dutch farm, and an unmarked bottle that I believe came from Mexico. We opened all three and gave them the sniff test. The first two smelled remarkably similar. The last was distinctly more alcoholic and possibly a bit stronger; the alcohol made it hard to say for sure. We finally decided to go with the unmarked "high-test" vanilla, and wow, what a difference it made. At one point while we were putting the dough on the cookie sheets, I ended up with a bit on my finger and when I tasted it, I was nearly knocked over by the strength of the vanilla flavoring. One teaspoon really IS plenty when you use the right kind!
I have a cookie scoop, which is similar to an ice-cream scoop, only smaller, and decided to give it a try on this recipe. I put nine scoops on a cookie sheet (above left), and Linda took up egg-and-spice duty, using the black fork, dipped in egg, to press the dough like you would for peanut butter cookies (I should note that we skipped the sugar and used nutmeg with the cinnamon instead because there's already plenty of sugar in the batter and nutmeg just felt right to me, which makes me wonder if I'd ever had them that way before). Then I switched and used a teaspoon for the other cookie sheet (above right).
These cookies spread out remarkably quickly (ours may have been even more speedy than usual given the missing flour). In fact, I was a bit concerned when I looked through the oven door and saw how big they were. We'd tried to leave enough space between them, but apparently failed, and thus individual cookies had to be broken apart after cooling the whole sheet together. I was worried that they would spread right off the edges of the pan and land in the bottom of my oven, where I really should put some foil for just such emergencies. (My oven is only a year old and I haven't baked much in it yet.) You could tell how much they spread not only by the way dots of spice would disappear into tiny grains on top of the cookie, but also because Linda pieced together two halves of a pecan on one cookie, and when it came out there was at least an inch between the pieces, resulting in a rather unique look that caused Scientist Linda to shout, "Oh no! The cell didn't divide completely!"
What's more, the cookies puffed up to the point where I was afraid we were going to end up with sand tart sugar cakes (which are roughly the shape of the cake parts of a whoopie pie). I really questioned whether we'd thrown baking powder into self-rising flour and screwed everything up completely. Fortunately, they eventually deflated (you can see at left that the far right cookie in the front is settling down a bit), either because they'd been heated long enough or because we took them out of the oven, so that they ended up as I remembered them. I wonder now what Grandma would have thought, given her comment about Great-Grandma's recipe puffing up too much.
When the cookies came out, you couldn't tell the difference between the two pans. You could, however, tell that we'd used too much batter, because these cookies were enormous--the kind that make little kids' eyes light up at the mere sight of them. I'd guess they were about the same diameter as a softball. We nixed the cookie scoop, deeming it inappropriate for sand tarts, and went back to the teaspoon, this time making an effort to use less batter for each cookie. Our efforts met with more reasonably sized cookies, though we seemed doomed to have them stick together regardless, probably because my cookie sheets are almost square. They still inflated, but we learned that a better indicator than the timer was the fact that they'd begun to deflate. Those that were left in for a minute or so after the puffiness went down began to brown and crisp, so we made sure we got them out as soon as we noticed them returning to normal.
(Actually, it turns out that Linda and I are, in the words of Charlie Brown, "separated by denominational differences" when it comes to the texture of sand tarts. She prefers them crispy, and I like them chewy. Fortunately, we ended up with some of each, and when a whole sheet came out crispy and brown, I told her they were all hers and boxed them up so she could take them home. How often do you get to say that everyone walks away happy?)
All in all, we learned a lot from our culinary science experiments:
- Grandma was right about the teaspoon; the cookie scoop is obviously meant only for cookies that don't spread quite so much.
- She was also wise to go for the recipe that needed no rolling.
- Real vanilla makes a big difference.
- A small clump of spice on these cookies is fine; once they spread out, you'll never know.
- There's no point trying to splice a nut together, because the cookie will end up looking like a prop in a biology classroom.
- If the cookies run into each other, you'll be able to break them apart easily when they cool.
- Inflation and deflation are more important than a timer.
- I should line the bottom of the oven with foil sooner rather than later (and I also have a better idea of where the hotter spots are).
- And, apparently, you'll still end up with decent cookies if you leave out a little of the flour!