As it nears the date of my grandmother’s death, I’m reposting this sweet memory she left with me forever…
Last year I went to a cookie party, and admittedly, I had never heard of such a gathering where you can bring several dozen home-made cookies and trade with partygoers until you leave with exactly as many cookies as you came with, only, the point is to leave with different cookies than what you came with. Easy enough, I set out to make a longtime family favorite: tea cakes. And as I prepared for the party that morning, sometime during that ritual of mixing and baking, I got more than just three dozen cookies…
I thought back to a time in the mid-nineties when my cousin and I traveled to Chicago to hang out and visit our grandmother. While we were there, I got the chance for an impromptu one on one baking lesson with her. Grandma was small in stature and had a soft voice, but her food was big on flavor, mystery, and sweet and savory southern traditions. I was especially curious about the sweet: the soft homemade ice-cream freshly churned, the sweet potato pies, and the tea cakes. She made these biscuit-like cookies she called tea cakes. They are simple cookies, not too sweet, but full of spice and flavor. They are a family favorite. The simple soft biscuits were a staple in the cookie jar while we were growing up and I wanted to learn this recipe and make them in my adulthood.
While in Chicago that summer, I asked her to teach me and she did. She walked me through each step in how to make them, a pinch of this and a dash of that….she didn’t need a recipe, but I thought…”grandma, I need you to write all that down, there’s no way I’ll remember the simple nuisances of this recipe.” I remember years later after that summer, how intimidated I felt by the thought of making these cookies that seemed to come out perfect every time grandma made them. No one else could make them like her. I can recall a couple of times my young mom (who is also an amazing cook) tried to make them when we were kids. They were pretty good, and had the right flavors, but somehow they just didn’t quite taste the same as grandmas. I thought to myself I wanted to learn how to make these cookies and I wanted to carry this recipe on and maybe one day make these cookies for my children (and one day grandchildren). After that weekend in Chicago, I put the recipe in one of my staple cookbooks and carried it from apartment to apartment, relationship after relationship. I tried a few times to make them, but much like my mom when we were young, I just couldn’t quite get it right.
Fast forward 15 years, as I received the news of my grandmother’s passing I immediately went rummaging through the cabinet, flipping through my collection of cookbooks desperately searching for the tea cake recipe scribbled in that original blue pen. I found it. It had yellowed over time but the memory of me baking in the kitchen with grandma that summer afternoon in Chicago was as clear as if it had just happened. The smell of the kitchen that day, 15 years ago, rushed right back from memory. It had been years since I attempted to make this recipe, but for some reason, even as we prepared to travel to Cleveland for the funeral, I felt immediately compelled to try again.
I preheated the oven and let the eggs and margarine sit out to get room temperature. I gathered all the ingredients from the pantry and scattered them on the table. I slowly added in the ingredients one by one (just as grandma had instructed over 15 years ago and reminded me in writing on the yellowed paper). There was flour everywhere as I worked with the batter and rolled it out. I loaded up the cookie sheet, slid the first dozen in the oven, and waited. I watched each dozen carefully. The cookies bake quickly, and I didn’t want to burn them as I had so many times in the past.
After the first dozen baked through, I was much too anxious, I had to taste them. We were leaving for my grandmother’s funeral the next day and I had little time to keep trying to get this recipe right. I wanted to bring them with me to Cleveland. I wanted to have them as comfort food during the drive. I wanted to share them with my cousin, who had been there that day with me in Chicago 15 years ago.
Before recently, when I made them for the cookie party, my last attempt was right before the funeral about a year ago. There was something that happened to me that weekend. I was mourning and the only fix I had for the moment was to bake, to keep myself busy, fixed on something else. Somehow this memory of baking with my grandmother that summer afternoon in Chicago had showed up in my stir, in my kneading of the dough, in my timing. Baking I’ve learned, is all about exaction of fresh ingredients and timing.
I also learned just nearly a year ago that my grandmother had left me more than just a simple cookie recipe she brought up north with her from Alabama, she left with me, with all of us, distinct, flavorful memories of cooking. I think about the tea cake recipe and how simple ingredients: eggs, flour, butter, brown sugar, nutmeg, are not fancy or decadent in any way, but precious and comforting memories of childhood. I think about how these cookies have humbled me in the kitchen, but most of all how these cookies or rather memories of my grandmother’s cooking has shown up in my own sensibilities towards food and cooking.
That day nearly a year ago, as I prepared to travel to Cleveland for the funeral, and as my eyes glossed over with tears, I tasted that first dozen still warm out the oven. I thought to myself, “These came out pretty good, thank you grandma.” And even though it was now too late to physically share that moment of success with her, somehow I believe she already knew, even as she stood there teaching me in the kitchen 15 years ago, she knew that I had listened, that I would later try this recipe on my own, and that I would probably make many mistakes in doing so. But the one thing that I now realize that she also knew was that one day I would eventually get it right.
1 stick margarine, soft (you can add a little Crisco, mix well)
3 eggs (mix in one at a time)
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup regular sugar
3 cups flour (work one cup in at a time)
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
Mix the dry ingredients, mix the wet ingredients, then roll out the dough and cut (for soft cookies do not roll dough too thin). Bake at 350 degrees.