Cracking the recipe

A round metal mesh cooling tray covered in dozens of pale brown cookies, on a brown marble like counter.

I am baking on a Tuesday evening. This is unusual for me. Normally my Tuesday evenings are tied up with choir practice or volunteer work, but in the summer, these things are on hiatus. And even though we have central air, baking isn’t something I do much of in the summer. But this evening is different as it’ll only come once. It is the 100th anniversary of my paternal grandmother’s birthday, and so I’m marking the occasion by attempting her signature cookie recipe once more. This time, I hope to get it right.

The recipe is known as Melting Moments. It’s one that Nana collected from her mother-in-law, so it’s at least as old as 1953 when my great-grandmother died. If I had to wager, then I would bet that it comes from the 1930s or 1940s. The ingredients appear simple: margarine or butter, brown sugar, an egg, cake flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, and vanilla. The process of creation is similarly easy: mix wet ingredients, mix dry ingredients, mix it all together, drop from a spoon onto a greased cookie sheet, and bake in the oven.

Sounds easy, right? Don’t be deceived. If I want to make them as Nana made them, I have to make some adjustments. First, margarine over butter, but the margarine can’t have an aftertaste, otherwise it’ll affect the taste of the cookie. Next, white sugar over brown sugar, otherwise they don’t turn out the right colour. Third, no amounts are listed for either the salt or the vanilla, so you have to make your best guess. Finally, the baking time is something you only determine by trial and error. The first two times I tried making this recipe, they did not turn out right, although the second batch was pretty good.

As I prepared to try again, I was reflecting that however this batch turned out, it would be an imperfect replication. Certainly, it would never be exactly as my great-grandmother would have made them, or even how Nana would have started making them. In part, it’s because ingredients have changed (margarine in particular) but more, it’s because I’m working from a recipe and memories. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve last had Nana’s Melting Moments. In all likelihood, the last batch I did have was the ones she made and had sent to me in Japan as part of my Christmas parcels. They arrived intact and were a welcome taste of home. Although I know she had help from my parents, that she tackled this at 85 years old was remarkable in itself.

I never baked with Nana. Shortly after I was born, and about a year after my grandpa died, she moved into the one-bedroom apartment that was her home for the next 37 years. The kitchen was very small, but she made it work for her, and for the occasional family dinner. While she wasn’t the best at apple pie, she made great cookies and lemon meringue pie. In addition to the Melting Moments, which were my favourite, I remember chocolate chip and walnut cookies. And when I was older, she delegated the lemon meringue pie-making to me, but she didn’t show me. She trusted me to figure it out myself (hint: pre-made crust and the Shirriff kit).

You can’t replicate the recipe that makes up a person. While we all start with the same ingredients (flesh, bone, blood, etc.) and all have the same outcome, how we get through life is highly individual, influenced by environments and events. There are thousands of factors to capture. Looking back on the 97 and a half years of Nana’s life, I realize that there’s a lot I do know about her, but a lot that I don’t. She was 59 when I was born, already silver-haired, already widowed, already retired. While I have my parents’ memories and her “snippets of memory” that she wrote down, I still wonder what she was like as a young woman? A young mother? How did she cope all those years without my grandfather?

I know that she had a very active social life until she wasn’t able to go to church anymore. She loved music and the theatre and travel. Bridge and quilting were passions of hers as much for the intellectual stimulation as the social aspect. I know that her upbringing on a farm and her family’s adherence to Methodism (later United) taught her discipline. That her brother’s early death must have had a profound impact. That the traumatic accident she and my grandfather and my father were involved in when Dad was very young, was probably the defining event of her life, leaving her in a body cast for months. But this is an incomplete summary at best.

I know, too, that she had trouble cracking my recipe. To start, I was the first girl born on her side of the family since her own birth, and you had to go back even further on my grandfather’s side. Despite her years of teaching, by the time I came along, I don’t think she really understood anymore what it was like to be a little girl. This became particularly noticeable once I started to outgrow things, including her! By the time I was in middle school, I had to wear adult-sized clothing because I was so tall.

I think she was disappointed that I didn’t take to sewing like she had. I could never get the hang of the sewing machine, and while I could sew by hand, quilting wasn’t much of an option aside from one cushion we made together. She was thrilled when I took up knitting and crocheting later, always interested in seeing my work, and giving me her mother and sister’s antique crochet hooks and her own knitting needles, which I still use.

Still, the Depression survivor and the Generation X’er got along all right. We bonded over the theatre and the royal family, even making a road trip to Brantford on the off-chance we might see the motorcade (which we did, twice!). The June before I went to Japan, we visited her family’s home, and I was able to see where she had grown up, and where many of the incidents she’d written about in her “snippets” had taken place.

As we got older, she mellowed a bit, as did I. We came to be on a more equal footing, particularly after I married and gave her two stepdaughters as great-grandchildren. One of my favourite pictures is of my stepdaughters showing her a video on one of their tablets. A simple act crossing generations. I’m sad my stepdaughters will never get to try her cookies, but I’m glad they were able to have a relationship with her.

And, I’ll be able to share my Melting Moments with them instead. This batch that I’m making today turns out almost as they should. The flavour’s about as near as I could get to what I remember. The appearance isn’t quite there yet…I can’t figure out how she got them so delicate around the edges and how to mark them with a fork without making them deep furrows. But for tonight, they are close enough.

Copyright Jessica Allyson 2018

Author: JAllyson

Jessica Allyson is a pen name derived from a fictitious twin (the doctors were mistaken). During the day, I work for a national members association, at night, I unleash my trivia-loving choir-singing fangirl self. I live in Ottawa, with my husband and our cats, who are our most vocal critics.

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Copyright Jessica Allyson 2018