I now have access to a Super Secret Family Cookbook from a Danish Grandmother in the Midwest. The Danish Grandmother came to America in 1933 when she was 16 years old. And she came alone. Her recipe book is filled with things that a Southerner finds strange: kolaches, fastnachts kuchle, boter koekjes (guess what those are), a recipe simply titled “Danish Pastry,” and all sorts of jello-esque salads that seem to be a hallmark of Midwestern American church lady cooking. I love these kinds of cookbooks; personally compiled by family members, not for the purpose of making a buck when it sells a few copies on Amazon, but because family members recognized that if no one wrote these things down, their own family foodways and traditions would become lost over time. Each successive generation makes its own changes, partly out of necessity and partly out of a lack of knowledge.
I’ve been trying lately to involve my son, henceforth “Mr. McCool,” and my daughter, henceforth the “Postmodern Daughter,” in the cooking process, especially over the holidays when I tend to be making more traditional foods. You can only imagine my foodie delight when she said last night, “Move over, mom. I need to be able to watch your technique.” Really!?
The Postmodern Daughter has been bugging me for weeks to make shortbread. The Danish Grandmother’s Super Secret Cookbook actually contains a recipe for Holiday Shortbread. It seemed like a good recipe to try with 4 people in my tiny kitchen, so we piled the ingredients up on the counter and got to work.
This is a good time to make a little confession: I’m a bit of a control freak in the kitchen:
This is especially true when it comes to baking. It’s odd, because I tend to think of recipes more as “guidelines” rather than rigid instructions; but after a series of chocolate chip cookie disasters in my early twenties, I decided that when it comes to baking, I should always play by the book. And let me tell you, that’s about the only place in my life where I voluntarily follow the rules.
But there were 4 of us in the kitchen last night trying out two varieties of shortbread: one from Betty Crocker (a Butter Pecan Shortbread) and the other from the Danish Grandmother (Holiday Shortbread). Two kids under the age of 10, me, and the Hot Boyfriend all mixing away. The anxiety I was feeling was probably palpable (flour on the floor, kids with freshly licked fingers in the cookie dough, nuts flying everywhere because someone was crushing them with the butt of a honing steel). People kept adding extra stuff to both the mixes and I was nearing a full-blown panic attack, sputtering “but…but… you’re supposed to…” And then the Hot Boyfriend said, “There you go again, with your Supposed To’s.”
Well, that shut me up. I like to think of myself as a Renegade, a Maverick, someone unafraid to play fast and loose, a girl who knows how to improvise, how to be creative.
So I shut up. I let all 3 of them add whatever they wanted. I even stopped adding flour when it felt like the dough was dry enough, even though the recipe called for more. I was wild. And I was free.
Anyways, it sounds like the Danish Grandmother was a bit of a rebel herself, never cooking from recipes too religiously and frequently tweaking her own recipes when she had improved them. So here is the recipe for her Holiday Shortbread. Don’t follow it too closely. Even the 9 year old Postmodern Daughter knows that “you should always add as much butter as you want.”
- 1 cup butter
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 375ºF. Cream butter until fluffy. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Gradually blend in flour and salt. Roll out on lightly floured surface to form and 11″ x 7″ rectangle, 1/2 inch thick. Cut into 1″ squares. Bake on unbuttered cookie sheets 12-15 minutes or until a pale golden color. Cool completely on wire racks. Store at room temperature in container with tight fitting lid. Makes about 1 dozen.
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- Holiday Sweets: Empire Cookies and Shortbread (theclothnapkin.wordpress.com)