Su Lum: Slumming
December 10, 2008
The owners of the Cottage Bakery in Boonton, N.J., my hometown, gave me the recipe for their Christmas cookies with the strict admonition to share it with no one.
This was in 1977, long after the owners, Jim and Trina VonVliet, had retired and moved to a house next door to my parents.
Six months later, Jim and Trina both died, he of a heart attack quickly followed by her broken one. Of course it must have been a coincidence that they expired right after giving me their secret recipe, but still it gave me the creeps to make those great cookies every year while feeling like the key-keeper of a deadly vault.
When I started writing this column in 1989 (gads, almost 20 years?) I decided to break the curse by publishing the recipe and have run it annually ever since.
My hard drive blew up this summer, so I couldn’t go back and retrieve last year’s column and just repeat it. Instead, I went back and reviewed Trina’s original letters and, to my astonishment, found three deviations from the recipe I’ve been giving you for two decades.
Trina called them German Honey Cakes, and here is the recipe more or less in her own words:
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One-third cup molasses, two-third cups honey, 1 cup brown sugar, two tablespoons of water (I swear I never noticed that water), bring to a boil, watch because it will be foamie and will cook over (translation, will foam up all over the stove). When it cools a little add one-third cup shortening, let it melt.
When the shortening is melted pour mixture into your mixing bowl. You are working with a small amount so scrape your bowl good. Let stand until cool.
Second step: mix 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 egg (I’ve always written one egg WHITE, did she tell me that later?) and two tablespoons of water, add 1 tablespoon of anise (ground seeds or extract), 3 teaspoons cinnamon and 1 teaspoon of allspice.
Add this to the cooled honey mixture (which will foam up like a chemical experiment), mix in cake flour (4-6 cups) and PUT IN ICE BOX for about two days, an instruction I ignored because it’s easier to roll out when it’s warm, but which I now think seasons the dough.
Roll out dough, cut with cookie cutters, bake until brown at 350, ice with a teaspoon of gelatin softened in a little cold water mixed with 14 oz of powdered sugar.
I made these cookies last year, having skipped a few years here and there since I received the recipe, and doubt that I will ever make them again. My daughter Hillery has taken up the banner, making them very thin, rolled out on a marble slab, lines her baking pans with parchment paper and ices them with delicate squiggles squeezed out of an icing bag.
Hillery has reported she has cookie fever again this year and I’m relieved of the chore. To me the pleasure was always in the eating, not the making. As long as someone else is doing the making, I’m delighted to retire.
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