Over a century ago, my great-grandmother Darlington promised her children that if they would sit quietly and do as they were told during the long journey from their native Rhode Island to the promised good life of the Ohio River valley, they would be rewarded with their very favorite—and rare—sugar cookies. My grandmother, Cate, and great uncle, Ollie, were so excited they could hardly contain themselves. They strapped themselves into the wagon so that they wouldn’t jump around with anticipation at the thought of those huge, crumbly sugar cookies, which they hadn’t eaten in years, well before the Irish potato famine. Their mother had been hoarding ingredients for weeks, and as the trip wore on, she became nervous that she wouldn’t have the supplies she needed. On more than one occasion she had to dip into the sugar and flour reserved for the cookies, just to make a bit of frycake so that her family wouldn’t starve during the arduous journey.
An early winter storm stopped the travelers before they reached the land they were to claim. They built a small but cozy cabin on the edge of the forest in western Pennsylvania, and prepared to stay the winter. On Christmas Eve, 1892, Mother Darlington went to make the cookies she had promised Cate and Ollie. She realized that she had not nearly enough dry goods to make the giant sugar cookies she was known for. Instead, she opened a storage barrel (long empty from their failed vineyard in Rhode Island), and scraped out enough of the calcified buildup to fill her marble mortar. She ground the dry acid into a powder as fine as the bit of baking soda she had saved, and rolled out small, delicate cookies, cookies that while not sweet, had an oddly satisfying texture. Crispy on the outside, and chewy inside, with just a vague hint of something indescribable; as if someone had taken a sip of sauvignon blanc a few hours before eating a bit of sugar.
These are the cookies that Mother Darlington would have made, had any of that story been true:
- 1 cup shortening (I use Crisco)
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
Drop small rolled balls of dough into a bowl of sugar. Coat the balls with sugar and put on a Silpat-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 11 minutes. Allow to cool a minute or two before removing the cookies to a cooling rack. Makes about five dozen 2-inch cookies.
These cookies are tasty but unassuming. They are perfect with tea, with a glass of creamy limoncello (as we discovered a couple weekends ago), or as I served them at a luncheon I recently catered: as an accompaniment to a parfait of lemon curd, whipped cream and fresh raspberries.