Yesterday, Grandma turned 90. The year she was born (1925), both The Great Gatsby and Mein Kamph were published, Mt. Rushmore was officially dedicated to be the site of the now famous monument (carving began 2 years later) and the Scopes Monkey Trial took place. Grandma is the youngest of nine children, and the only survivor of her siblings. She has three kids, 11 grandkids, and 13 great-grandkids. Today we celebrated her. The love in the room was palpable. To see an actual living, moving, laughing family tree all stemming from our A-Family matriarch. It is incredible.
Although I am not blood-related, Grandma is my only surviving grandparent. She has taught me many things since our first meeting almost a decade ago, and I have tried to soak it all in. One thing Grandma is fiercely proud of is her baking. She is a true old-school baker. Nothing comes from a mix or a box, and everything is made with butter and love. Except the parve cookies. They are made with oleo and love.
Up until a few years ago, Grandma baked consistently. There were always cookies in the freezer, and when we would visit she would insist we eat a few. Then she'd tell us to wait a minute to eat them so we didn't break our teeth, and watch as we bit down. "Well, how are they? Are they any good?" she would always want to know. It wouldn't matter if you were there last week and had a cookie from the exact same bag. She wanted to know.
But she wasn't fishing for compliments. She did, in part, want to know if the cookie actually came out well, because baking is fickle like that and you don't want to keep feeding people awful baked goods.
What she wanted to know was if the cookie was to your liking. If you had enjoyed that cookie. If it made you a little happier. And as someone who never used to bake more than an occasional boxed cake or my Italian meatball cookies at Christmastime, I never really understood or appreciated that until now.
For Grandma's party, I wanted to make her cookies.
All her cookies.
All was pretty ambitious. I had to narrow it down drastically or go broke trying. I asked a few family members for favorites, took note, and set to work. Since this was largely done during the day, I took it on as a family project, in effort to teach my kids some of their heritage while honing math skills.
We started with mandelbrot. I have made biscotti that hasn't turned out awful (and some that has) so this seemed like a good starting point. Julia the Child was all about making this, and did a good portion of the mixing on her own. Our house smelled amazing. I didn't let anyone touch a single piece until Hubsy came home. He tried it and said it wasn't quite right. It was good, but it wasn't really like Grandma's.
Fortunately my recipe is dairy-free, and I have a DF friend who gladly took the "failures" off my hands. I tried again. And this would become the story of making 500 cookies. (Not an exaggeration. I feel a bit embarrassed about thinking I may have not made enough now...)
The kids and I would bake.
Then I'd torture my husband with something like this:
Even if they looked right, I'd make him eat some to be sure. I became an anxious hot mess over the replication of cookies. Once they were deemed perfect, I'd splash them all over Instagram with my #thecookieproject hashtag to document actually getting it right. Friends got used to being taste-testers and I got used to running errands covered in flour and smelling like creamed butter and vanilla.
Every dough I made, I'd remember a story or comment Grandma had told me when passing on her recipes. Meringues will fall if you make them on an overcast day. Yeast dough is a joy to work with once you work some flour into it. Richard always loved the crinkle cookies best. I'd tell the girls what Grandma told me. And I'll tell them again. And again. They'll get sick of it eventually, but then some day they'll roll out yeast dough with their kids and comment on how their great grandmother always said the dough was a joy to work with once you got flour into it. They'll defy old Jewish bakers' wisdoms and make meringues regardless of the forecast, just to see what happens.
They will know that baking these cookies isn't only for a treat, it is a labor of love. In a world full of shortcuts, cookies like these shine. I know it is commonly perceived that stay-at-home parents have the luxury of time, but not like these cookies took. (Or any, ever. Time is an illusion.) Good thing my kids like to bake and my husband is willing to do dishes and laundry when I abandon adult responsibilities for a project of this magnitude. Even the baking dishes from the day. He's awesome.
|Unwrap 72 Rollos? SURE! I wasn't doing anything with that hour.|
In the beginning, I thought I'd just whip up a batch of cookies every week for a month and that would be that. In the end, it turned into a multitude of ingredient substituting (seriously, Nestle, bring back the Choco-Bake. What were you thinking?), bulk orders of brickle, grocery store runs and late-night, all-hands-on-deck cookie rolling. And we had fun. A lot of fun.
This morning I found the giant tray I have never had need for and lined it with origami paper, since my doilies have been fashioned into doll blankets and Valentines. The cookie project capstone was Grandma's infamous chocolate cake, which must be made for every A-Family man's birthday, because it is what they grew up with and all they ever request. (This one I actually have down pat, for someone who "doesn't bake.")
|I forgot the chocolate chip cookies in the freezer.|
Meaning this isn't even all of them.
My husband drove to the party more carefully than he did when we brought our babies home from the hospital. No casualties were suffered.
Watching Grandma watch her family, all of which would not have been possible without her, I understood that although the countless number of cookies she baked over her many years were in part because they were delicious and in part that she found baking to be joyful and calming, the underlying reason for all her effort and time was love. Who doesn't love to make people happy? Baking is one way, a big way, Grandma conveys love. That's why she wants to know - are they any good?
With the blessing to share, Grandma's (and Pillsbury's) Rollo-filled cookies recipe: