Friday, June 14, 2013

Flashback Friday: Mrs. Alton's Brown Sugar Cookies

Flashback Friday: Revisiting a recipe from long ago

Going through my great-grandma's recipe notebook is going to be a little more time consuming than I first anticipated.  I decided to start off with a recipe she'd copied down twice- Mrs. Alton's Brown Sugar Cookies.  I haven't figured out who Mrs. Alton is yet, but my great-grandma must have liked her cookie recipe.  Though it appears in two separate places, neither recipe gives instructions or lists a measurement for flour. Great-grandma either knew it by heart, or couldn't quite figure out Mrs. Alton's secret.

I can only guess at what Mrs. Alton or my great-grandma might have done. What I wouldn't give to have just a picture or description of the original cookie! Was it a drop cookie or a cut-out cookie?  Do I add enough flour to make a spoonable dough or a rollable dough? (at least in these pfeffernusse cookies she noted to add enough flour to roll the dough like a rope).  There are more possibilities than I have time to test, so I'll just tell you about the assumptions I made.

Butter and Lard:
Her recipe calls for "1/2 cup butter and lard."  Did she mean 1/2 cup of each or 1/2 cup combined total?  After looking at numerous old cookie recipes with similar ingredients I decided she likely used 1/2 cup total fat.  I didn't have any lard and ended up using all butter.

Flour wasn't even included in the ingredients, but is obviously needed for the cookies. The amount of flour was my biggest variable as it determines the stiffness of the dough. Considering the amount of fat, sugar and liquids in the dough I knew I would need between 2-1/2 to 4 cups of flour.  The lesser amount of flour would make a soft, sticky dough for drop cookies, while a higher amount would allow for a rolled cut-out cookie.  I began by adding 2-1/2 cups of flour, but at this point the dough was still very wet.  I could either add more flour or chill the dough overnight, allowing it to absorb moisture.  I used a total of 3 cups of flour and felt that adding more would have resulted in a bland, floury tasting cookie.

Chilling and Baking:
The dough was scoopable at this point, but I decided to chill it overnight to firm it up a bit.  Looking back, I doubt my great-grandma would have had the means to readily chill the dough overnight.  Or maybe she varied her amount of flour depending on her baking schedule and the status of the ice box.  Anyway, I chilled the dough overnight for a stiffer dough.

Scoop, Roll or Cut:
The dough was still too soft to make cut-out cookies with a rolling pin. The raisins were also a good clue that these were not intended to be rolled then cut.  I was able to roll a few into balls using the palms of my hands, but the dough quickly warmed up and became too sticky.  In the end I went back to a drop cookie.  I tried baking the chilled dough at 350 and unchilled at 400.  Both gave similar results.  Had she written down instructions I'm guessing they'd be along the lines of, "bake in a hot oven until done".

Mrs. Altons Brown Sugar Cookies are not like sugar cookies made with brown sugar.  Think of them more like a soft and cakey molasses cookie, or like the top of a cupcake. (Or a huge version of Alvina's Ginger Creams.)  Raisins made a perfect addition to the sweet molasses and warm spices.  A thin powdered sugar glaze would also work well here but is certainly not needed.   I'll never know whether or not these turned out like Mrs. Alton's or my great-grandma's, but I had fun attempting to reconstruct the recipe.  I do know that cookie dough disappears just as quickly around these parts whether it's old-fashioned or not.

Mrs. Alton's Brown Sugar Cookies
recipe found in my great-grandma's notebook

1/2 cup butter and lard (I used 1/2 cup butter)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 large egg
1/2 cup buttermilk (I used 2 tsp lemon juice plus skim milk to make 1/2 cup, then let it stand 5 min)
3 cups flour (she did not include a flour measurement, see above)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch salt
1/2 cup raisins

No instructions were given, so I tried a few things she may have done. 
* In a large bowl cream butter and brown sugar.  Beat in molasses and egg, then buttermilk; mixture will appear curdled. (She may have added the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk to prevent curdling.)
* In a separate bowl combine flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon and salt.  Gradually stir flour mixture into wet ingredients.  Stir in raisins.
* Option 1: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Scoop rounded tablespoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets and bake 10 minutes or until an indent barely remains after pressing the edge of a cookie with your finger.
* Option 2: Chill the dough overnight or until stiff.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Roll or scoop the dough into balls and place on greased cookie sheets. Bake for 12-13 minutes or until  an indent barely remains after pressing the edge of a cookie with your finger.

Food for Thought: "The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting." -Andy Warhol

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