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Mother's Day : The Comeback Cookie

May 05, 1994|AMY EPHRON | Ephron is currently one of the producers of the movie "A Little Princess" for Warner Bros. Her last novel, "Biodegradable Soap," was nominated for a PEN-West Fiction Award. and

My grandmother could only make three things: spaghetti, chopped liver and cinnamon cookies. She served the spaghetti--seriously overcooked No. 10 noodles--with her special tomato sauce, which we still refer to as "Grandma's tomato sauce." It was made with one can of cream of tomato soup, one can of milk and a stick of butter.

Every weekend, I would go to visit Grandma. I'd play canasta with her and Mrs. Chaney (the woman who lived in the apartment next door), eat Grandma's spaghetti, drink five glasses of apple juice, eat 20 cinnamon cookies--and get sick. Regularly. It was ike a ritual.

My sisters and I all make Grandma's chopped liver. Once, about 10 years ago, I made her spaghetti because some childhood longing for comfort compelled me to--I felt really sick after I ate it. But none of us got Grandma's cinnamon cookie recipe before she died, which was the one great thing she made.

Shortly after her death, my sister Nora and I convinced Evelyn Hall, the wonderful woman who cooked for our family, to try to help us re-create the cinnamon cookies. My mother worked full time and had four children, so one of the luxuries she afforded herself was a cook. Evelyn was amazing. She was from Louisiana, weighed 200 pounds, chewed tobacco after dinner and was proud of saying she was " 3/4-and- 1/8 Negro and 1/8 Cherokee Indian," which I believed, because she could sneak silently into a room whenever I was doing something wrong.

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She was always happy, if a bit gruff, and dinner was always perfect unless the Dodgers were losing. In fact, we could always tell by the second course how the Dodgers were doing because of Evelyn's mood and the way the food tasted. During the World Series (which the Dodgers were in almost every year of my childhood) we were sometimes afraid to go into her kitchen.

Her fried chicken, her pancakes (her secret was to separate the eggs and beat the egg whites separately), her macaroni and cheese, her baked beans (made with bacon), her ham, pierced with cloves with a brown sugar crust, her turkey, her stuffing, her lemon meringue pie with its golden brown top, her black-bottom pie, her apple pie, which was not too sweet and had the lightest, flakiest crust (which she swore she made from the recipe on the back of the Crisco can), her anything-American-you-can-think-of, are still the best I've ever tasted.

And because of the years she had spent with my mother, who was a couch gourmet (she rarely ever cooked but loved to read cookbooks), Evelyn was a fabulous gourmet cook as well and could make bouillabaisse, Yorkshire pudding and hollandaise sauce (those signature gourmet dishes of the '60s) with the best of them. Evelyn also had another talent--she could make anything after she tasted it once.

So, one afternoon after Grandma died, my sister and I went into Evelyn's kitchen and asked her if she would help us make Grandma's cinnamon cookies. She didn't say, "I ain't sturtin' you," which is what she said when she meant "no," so we figured that we'd won as Evelyn took down the pale-green mixing bowl that she made everything in and put the bin of flour, a carton of eggs, the sugar tin, a jar of cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder and the vanilla on the kitchen table.

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The first batch was too heavy, more like a shortbread cookie than the light, flaky, cookie we remembered. The second batch had too much butter and brown sugar and tasted like Tollhouse cookies without the chocolate chips. The third batch was too gooey. The fifth batch was close, but Nora, who was critical even at the age of 18, rejected them, saying that they weren't crisp enough. She was right. By the sixth batch, we gave up.

Nora was baffled: Evelyn could make anything if she'd tasted it once. I suspected it was because Evelyn didn't really think too much of my Grandmother's cinnamon cookies. Compared to Evelyn's cream cheese pastries, which were rolled and filled with homemade raspberry jam and topped with powdered sugar and toasted walnuts, they weren't much, but, if you were a kid, they were exactly right--a crispy, flaky cookie that crunched in your mouth, with a thin layer of air beneath the top crust, not too sweet, and topped with the perfect combination of cinnamon and sugar. You could eat about a hundred of them. We were sure the recipe was lost, and every four or five years, one of us would say, usually when one of our own children was around, "Remember Grandma's cinnamon cookies?"

About a month ago, Anna, my 7-year-old daughter, was bored one day after school and said, "Mommy, can we make some cookies?" From the shelf I pulled down a cookbook I'd bought at a garage sale. The book was "A Cook in the Parlor," an American cookbook from the '40s that has such chapter headings as "The Husband Cooks," "The Men Are Wearing Black Ties" and "Cooking in a Bandbox" (i.e., a small apartment).

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