Sunday, May 12, 2013

Like Mother, Like Daughter: Kittie and Minnie's Sugar Cookies

In honor of Mother's Day, I decided to write this post about Grandma Minnie and her mother:

Kittie Van Slyke mid-1880s
Great-grandma Kittie Van Slyke Fineour gave birth to her daughter Minnie on Christmas Eve in 1890. The family would soon move from Mindenville along the Erie Canal to Lockville on the eastern edge of the village of Fort Plain. It was there that Great-grandpa Fred Fineour would manage a grocery and feed store over the next decade.

Keeping house along the canal, Kittie must have tried out recipes from her volume of household hints and cookery entitled Queen of the Household. But tucked in at the end of this voluminous tome, she also inserted a few pages of handwritten recipes that she must have collected from friends and relatives, as homemakers have done over the ages.

Imagine if you will, sacks of flour and sugar delivered to Fred's Erie Canal store, along with tins of coffee, tea, oatmeal, and other foodstuffs. Kittie would make use of many of these ingredients, along with local fruit, milk, and eggs, to concoct the cakes and jams that she taught her daughter to make. Sure enough, as I might have guessed, when Minnie grew up and married, her mother passed some of these family favorites along to her. Seventeen of Kittie's recipes are repeated in Minnie's handwritten notebook; among these are cakes, cookies, and jams. Some that I have tried out already are: raspberry cake, cherry cake, ginger pears, and oatmeal cookies.

Grandma Minnie 1908 (high school graduation photo)

I was intrigued to find two different recipes for sugar cookies in Minnie's handwritten book. This is the one she copied from Kittie's pages:

The other recipe calls for "shortening" rather than "lard"; sour milk rather than sweet; baking powder rather than cream of tartar. Strangely, neither recipe mentions flour. Perhaps the notation "mix soft" in the second recipe is an indication to the experienced baker to add whatever amount of flour would yield a pliable cookie dough. Other more modern recipes that I consulted for the purpose of comparison varied between 2 1/2 to 3 cups of flour for an amount of sugar and shortening comparable to that in Minnie's recipes.

The recipe that calls for cream of tartar is the one that Minnie copied from her mother; it is thus the earlier of the two recipes. I wondered then what was the composition and function of this white powder that I surmise Great-grandpa Fred also sold in his Erie Canal grocery store:

Antique cream of tartar tin from Albany, NY

I learned that one of its culinary functions is as a chemical leavening agent in baking. As the cream of tartar is acidic, it will react with baking soda, which is alkaline, when a liquid is added, creating gas bubbles which make the batter rise. This system of leavening was used before the development of baking powder, which contains both an alkaline compound and an acid salt, thus eliminating the need for the cream of tartar.

Here is my modern adaptation of Great-grandma Kittie's recipe:

Kittie's Old-Fashioned Sugar Cookies

- 3 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar (If you don't have cream of tartar, use 2 teaspoons of baking powder in place of the baking soda and cream of tartar.)
- 1 cup margarine or low-fat baking stick
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon almond flavoring (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a medium bowl, sift together dry ingredients.
In a large bowl, cream together the margarine and sugar. Beat in the eggs, milk, and vanilla.
Stir in the dry ingredients gradually.

And now you have a decision to make: Should you chill the dough, roll it out and cut it into fancy shapes with cookie cutters, or simply drop the dough onto the cookie sheet in tablespoon-size balls and flatten them a bit before baking? It's your choice!

In fact, Minnie had a third recipe for sugar cookies that she got from a certain Emma, who says, "Vanilla or lemon and pat'em for God's sake!" That's my choice as well  --  rather than rolling out the dough, I find it much simpler to chill the dough a bit, drop the little dough balls onto the ungreased cookie sheet, and pat them down slightly with the bottom of a glass. You can leave them plain or sprinkle with multicolored sprinkles to give the cookies a festive look.

Whether you roll'em or pat'em, I hope you enjoy this old-fashioned recipe for sugar cookies.

Minnie and Kittie wading in the creek at a 1908 picnic - dressed like mother like daughter in the latest fashion!

Happy Mother's Day to all you mothers! I hope someone bakes some sugar cookies for you!

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