December is coming to an end and South Dakota Magazine will remove my favorite issue from the shelves, soon restocking and mailing the January/February edition. More than 45,000 subscribers will toss the holiday copy onto a towering stack of magazines or they’ll donate it to a local library. (Some might even throw it in the recycling bin. GAK!)
Although I didn’t frame it, the November/December issue of South Dakota Magazine will be my most treasured because it’s the first publication that printed my writing and my photos. The people who publish it are truly devoted to the history and future of my home state of South Dakota. They are storytellers and photographers – they are my kindred spirits. And more personally, I am honored to share a family recipe and a story about my Grandma Janet.
My grandma Janet has arrived at Christmas dinners carrying a tall plastic bucket delicately packed with thin, white cookies twinkling of fine sugar for as long as we can remember.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that we allowed ourselves to accept that grandma, who turned 87 in October, would not be the white cookie matriarch forever. She happily shared the recipe with us, which is particularly light on instruction, and said, “I don’t do anything special to them.” I knew it was time for me to learn how to make her signature cookies.
Shortly after she married my grandpa Elroy in 1945, grandma purchased a hefty Sunbeam Mixmaster electric mixer from a store in a town near their farm. She thinks they got it from Hanson’s Hardware in Astoria, S.D., which is also where they bought the only toaster her and grandpa ever owned.
The day grandma taught me how to make her white cookies, she pulled the faded rooster terry cloth cover off the mixer, releasing a flood of sweet memories into the kitchen. It was like peeling back the dusty cover on a hot rod after countless years in storage.
She chuckled a little when I expressed amazement that with all the baking she has done in her lifetime it is the only electric mixer she’s ever used.
“I was happy when I got it because I did a lot of beating by hand,” she laughed.
Grandma almost crawled into the cupboard to unearth her favorite cookie sheet. “They don’t make them like this anymore and it’s the only one I have,” she told me as she handed me the heavy piece of stainless steel. She won the pan, made by Clydeware Manufacturing Company in Chicago, Ill., at a home party in the early 1950s.
As we baked that day, I pictured grandpa, with his hands the size of Little League gloves, grabbing a handful of grandma’s white cookies, his long legs pulling up a chair at the kitchen table, steeping the crispy round cookies into his steaming coffee until soggy crumbs floated to the top of the cup. It was one of his favorite cookies.
It’s no surprise – his mother, Ruth Moe, is the one who gave the white cookie recipe to his lovely bride. His father, Edwin Moe, made the richly marbled apple wood rolling-pin that grandma still uses.
After almost 70 years of warmly saturating her home with the sweet scent of homemade goodies, grandma’s baking sheets have become almost too heavy for one oven mitt to hold, the dough is getting harder for aged hands to stir, and her kitchen counters have mysteriously gotten taller.
Although my first crack at baking grandma’s cookies taught me that it will take practice before they look perfect like hers, my kids devoured them when I got home. And grandma asked me to come back and make them again because she’d like to have more around. To me, that’s what baking and sharing is all about.
Now it’s my turn to give grandma a tall, plastic bucket overflowing with family tradition and sweet memories that will spread farther than a handful of flour tossed into the South Dakota wind.
Grandma Janet’s White Sugar Cookies
2 cups white sugar
1 cup vegetable shortening (NOT butter-flavored)
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup sour cream, room temperature
1 teaspoon baking soda
6 ½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
White sugar to sprinkle on top of the cookies
Flour for rolling out the cookies
Prep work: Bring the eggs to room temperature, approximately 30 minutes. At the same time, measure 1 cup of sour cream into a medium bowl and stir in 1 teaspoon of baking soda. The sour cream will begin to swell as the soda dissolves. Let set while the eggs are coming to room temperature.
Make the dough:
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat white sugar and shortening together until creamy.
- In a separate bowl, vigorously stir eggs with a table fork or small whisk until well beaten. Add to the sugar mixture and beat on medium-high until combined.
- Spoon sour cream into the batter and pour in the teaspoon of vanilla. Beat on medium-high for 3 minutes, turning off the mixer a few times to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Into a separate large bowl, dump 6 ½ cups of flour and 1 teaspoon of baking powder, stirring together so the powder is dispersed throughout. Add the flour to the cookie batter 1 cup at a time, beating on medium-low speed after each addition until all the flour is incorporated and the dough is stiff. If it’s not firming up, sprinkle in more flour until stiff. Depending on how powerful your electric mixer is, you may need a thick wooden or heavy metal spoon to stir in the last few cups of flour by hand.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least two hours or overnight. The batter is ready when it’s firm and doesn’t stick on your finger. If the dough still seems sticky after refrigerating, stir in a little more flour.
Roll out and bake cookies: Preheat oven to 350˚. Grab a cooling rack, rolling-pin, two cookie sheets, and two spatulas (metal works best).
- On a heavily floured surface, roll a huge handful of cookie dough into a flattened 1/8-inch thick sheet, dusting with flour to keep it from sticking to the rolling-pin or counter as you rotate the dough.
- Cut the cookies using a lightly floured 2 or 3-inch round biscuit or cookie cutter, turning the cutter slightly as you lift it off the dough. Slide a lightly floured spatula under each cookie to ease it from the surface and transfer it to a cookie sheet, lining cookies 1 inch part. (If the cookie sticks to the counter, there wasn’t enough flour on the rolling surface so add more next round.)
- Scatter a generous amount of sugar onto the tops of the cookies.
- Bake 7-8 minutes. The cookies go from white to golden brown in a matter of seconds so watch closely in the last minute. The whiter the cookies, the softer they are in the middle. For a crisper cookie perfect for coffee dunking, bake 8-10 minutes removing from oven as they turn a darker shade of brown.
- Transfer to cooling rack. Let cool completely before stacking cookies in an airtight container, where cookies will keep nicely for at least three weeks.
- Repeat in batches until the dough is gone. Makes approximately 7 dozen cookies, give or take the few you eat along the way.
If you really want to get your hands on this issue, it will probably be on the shelves for another week or so. You can follow South Dakota Magazine on Facebook and Twitter. And join me and 45,000 others who subscribe to the magazine.
Maybe I’ll get to share your story next…
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