The Cook in Me: Pecans Roasting on an Open Fire (Thumbprints)©
I married into a family that had two amazing cooks. One was my husband's mother, and the other was his maternal grandmother. Because my father-in-law's mother, Nellie, was quite elderly when we started dating, and moved to a nursing home shortly after we married, I never had the opportunity to taste her cooking. One of her legacies to me however, and that I still have to this day, was her 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book©¹. Of course, the metal center is rusted, the pages are now disintegrating and pulling out of the loose leaf binding, and some of the index has disappeared. But I treasure that book and know that I will never throw it away. Written on the pages of the recipes she had made are her handwritten notes: "Ed didn't like," and "needs more salt" or "too much marjoram." I can visualize her in her little ruffled apron jotting down her suggestions for additions or changes to the recipes, and critiques of the dishes she made. Those notes make me smile whenever I see them, and keep her alive in my memories.
Nellie was a small woman. She stood about 5 feet tall with heels on, and she weighed in at about 95 pounds soaking wet. This always amazed me because the story goes that my father-in-law was a very large baby (over 12 pounds) and that the only way they could weigh him was on a meat scale! We'll never know whether that was a true story or not, but it hurts me just to think about how she got that big baby out of such a small body! She was always immaculately dressed, and regardless of the season, she never went anywhere without wearing a hat and gloves. Not a hat and gloves for the weather but rather fancy, stylish ones. I grew up during the 1950s and 1960s, and it wasn't that common to see women wearing hats and gloves unless they were going to church. My mother never wore a hat or gloves. I remember my sisters and me wearing them only to church on Easter Sunday, but that was about the only time I had the need for a bonnet or a pair of white gloves. Even before I knew who she was, I can recall Nellie standing on the corner of the block where I grew up waiting to take the bus downtown. She was always all dressed up and wore her hat and gloves. This was in an age when it was considered a special occasion to go "downtown," and people dressed up for the trip. These are about the only memories I actually have of Nellie; the rest I learned through stories from my husband and in-laws.
I love that old Betty Crocker Cook Book©. It has old fashioned pictures and "How-to" instructions for beginners. It also has a dictionary of special and foreign terms like, "éclair" and "ravioli," terms that we don't even think of being foreign words anymore. It was a great book for a beginning cook like I was when I inherited it from Nellie. I considered it my bible for home cooking. I found a lot of recipes in that book that I still make today. I also made a lot of the recipes that she did; many times I would try something just because she had made it. That's probably one of the reasons that the pages started disintegrating. Sadly, one day I noticed that the pages were crumbling in my hands. I began to worry that the cookbook would eventually turn to dust and I wouldn't be able to pass it on to my daughters-in-law or my grandchildren. That was heartbreaking to me. If it disappeared, those constant reminders of Nellie would eventually disappear as well. So I curtailed some of my use of the book, and began copying the recipes onto my computer instead. If I didn't have the actual cookbook, perhaps I could still save the recipes.
But, alas! In the summer of 2003 when my family and I were driving to White Birch Lodge in Elk Rapids, Michigan for our annual pilgrimage to the lake, we stopped at a Cracker Barrel Restaurant in Monroe, Michigan for breakfast. Lo and behold, when I looked through the glass as I approached the entrance, I saw what looked like the same cookbook on display. Could it be? I couldn't get through that door fast enough! Forget about breakfast—there was something more important in that restaurant than food! After I nearly knocked down everyone in front of me, I made it to the display. The book looked exactly the same (well, except that the cover on mine had faded and the binding was falling apart). I picked up the book and held my breath as I opened it. Sure enough, it was a reprint of the first edition of Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book©! I can't tell you what I had for breakfast that day. And I can't tell you how the weather was at the lake that week. I can't even tell you whether we took any guests with us that year. But I can tell you that I bought that cookbook and it, together with Nellie's original, shares a place of honor in my kitchen on my cookbook shelves.
One of the recipes from the book that I make at this time every year is Thumbprint Cookies. And as with almost every recipe that I've made over the years, I've altered it from the original version. Not because there was anything wrong with the original recipe, mind you; it's just that I've adapted ito the way my mother-in-law (Nellie's daughter-in-law) made them. I prefer finely ground pecans mixed into the dough instead of rolling the balls of dough into the nuts before baking. And I add the whole egg to the dough because you don't need to roll the balls in the egg white if you're not going to roll them in the nuts. And I add about 1/2 tsp. almond extract to the dough in addition to the vanilla extract. I also prefer filling the 'thumbprint" with tinted Buttercream Icing flavored with almond extract because that is the way I have made them since the first Christmas Alma and I made them together. These cookies are so simple to make that you might find you'll want to put them on your Christmas Cookie list every year. In fact, I make them in quadruple batches because they're small and they disappear very quickly at our house. Because after all It just isn't Christmas without them!
¹Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book ©1950, General Mills, Inc.
²Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book ©1950, General Mills, Inc., reprinted 1998 by Wiley Publishing, Inc. and General Mills.
© 2012, 2013 The Cook in Me: Pecans Roasting on an Open Fire by Kathy Striggow.
This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author.
- For Cookies:
- 1/2 cup Shortening (half Butter), softened, not melted (You can use all butter but chill the dough for appx. 30 minutes before baking)
- 3/4 cup Brown Sugar
- 1 Egg
- 1/2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
- 1/4 tsp. Almond Extract
- 1 cup All Purpose Flour
- 1/4 tsp. Salt
- 3/4 cup Pecans, finely ground
- For Buttercream Icing:
- 2 cups Confectioners' Sugar
- 1/4 cup Butter, softened, not melted
- 2 Tbsp. (more or less) Warm Water
- 1/2 tsp. Almond Extract
- 1/2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
- Red and Green Food Coloring, or other colors of your choice
- Heat oven to 375° F.
- Cream together shortening, butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy.
- Mix in egg, vanilla and almond extracts and blend well.
- Sift together the flour and salt and stir into the creamed mixture together with the pecans.
- Form the dough into 1" balls.
- Place about 1" apart on ungreased baking sheet. (There is no leavening agent in the dough so the cookies will not spread that much while baking.)
- Bake for 5 minutes. Remove the cookie sheet from the oven.
- Quickly press your thumb gently into the top center of each cookie.
- Return to the oven and bake for approximately 8 minutes longer.
- Remove from oven onto cooling rack.
- When cookies are completely cooled, place a bit of tinted Buttercream Icing³ into the "thumbprint."
- Blend together the confectioners' sugar and the butter.
- Add the extracts and the water and stir until smooth and of the right consistency for filling the "thumbprint."
- Divide the icing into as many portions as you want to have colors and place in separate bowls. Add a few drops of the food coloring to each portion to achieve the desired color.
- Place about 1 tsp. icing into each cookie's indentation. Let the cookies set completely before storing them in a tightly sealed container and store in a cool, dry place.
³You may use other fillings for the cookies such as sparkling jelly, jams, candied fruit, or whatever else you like.