Monday, December 19, 2011

Trying to bake like Grandma

Eight autumns ago, I was fortunate enough to go to Saskatoon to visit my godmother, my dad's oldest sister. While I was there, I asked for some of my grandma's cookie recipes, and came home with recipes for German Buns and Jam Jams -- and a plan to make some Jam Jams for my dad for Christmas.

The only problem is that I don't bake like Grandma. She visited us many times as we were growing up, and baked all sorts of wonderful things for us. She taught me to make robbeshtivel -- I don't really know how to spell that, but it's my best guess at Grandma's Russian-German word for "rubber boots," amazing little pasta-like mouthfuls of yumminess, the dough of which we stretched out until it was translucent and as big as our kitchen table before we rolled and cut it into bite-sized pieces. I think I wrote the recipe down somewhere (I'll have to check if it's still in my mom's recipe box) -- but somehow, I doubt I'd be able to recreate that recipe, for several reasons.

The first reason is that I'm not Grandma.

The second reason is that I'm pretty sure her cup measures weren't the same as my cup measures. I like to cook by guesswork to a certain extent, but I also like to know that things will turn out roughly the same whenever I use a recipe. Grandma was the kind to measure things by feel, so what are the chances that my teaspoon measure will agree with the one she poured into her hand?

Even so, I have tried Grandma's Jam Jam recipe three times now. The first time, I followed it using my usual measures, and must have done something wrong when it came to the "two small teaspoons of baking soda mixed with a little bit of water." Exactly how big is a small teaspoon, Grandma? The cookies came out of the oven big and puffy, not at all like jam jams should look. I can't remember if we ate them or not, but I was too embarassed to give them to my dad!

The second time, I cut down on the soda and the flour (because the first cookies were much dryer than I remembered Grandma's cookies being), and they looked right. I even cooked some dates and made date filling, but there was still something wrong. They were denser than Grandma's cookies, not soft and delicious like hers, but it was already Christmas, and I had run out of time, so Dad received them as a Christmas gift. He did agree with me when I said something wasn't right.

So I forgot about Jam Jams for a while... and then the other day, as he drove me to work, somehow, we got to talking about Christmas cookies, and he said something about Jam Jams with peach jam filling. Aha! I thought. Peach jam! Maybe that's the secret ingredient! And I even had a jar of homemade peach jam from the boys next door!

So on Saturday morning, I found Grandma's recipe once again, used a china tea cup to measure the flour, used a demi-tasse spoon to measure the baking soda, and had to guess again at how long to bake the cookies because I had forgotten to note what "until done" was in minutes. Once the cookies had cooled, I spread homemade peach jam between them. I was excited. I figured these would be the perfect Jam Jams once the jam seeped into the cookies and softened them a little.

But no. They didn't soften to the consistency of Grandma's cookies. This morning, I gave the Jam Jams to my dad (I figured he might as well enjoy them fresh)... and discovered that the secret ingredient was right in front of my nose all along, right there on the recipe card. Here's the recipe:

1 cup lard
1cup brown sugar
2 eggs
6 tbsp Roger's Golden Syrup
2 small teaspoons soda (more like 1 tsp dissolved in a bit of water)
1 pinch salt
5 cups flour (small china tea cup -- somewhere between 3 and four regular cups of flour!)
2 tsp vanilla

Roll dough out (might want to chill it a bit first) and cut circles. Put on greased pans and bake at 350F until done (10-12 minutes). Put together with jam or date filling.

Can you guess the thing that messed me up? The first ingredient. Oh, our twenty-first century sensibilities! When I read LARD, something in my dietary upbringing resisted. I thought I should be able to substitute butter or margarine. I tried both. Butter didn't work, and I had forgotten that margarine is a latecomer in our world of food. When my dad was growing up, food was fried or baked with lard or butter, and Jam Jams just don't work without lard! As for the peach jam filling, it was more likely to be strawberry or raspberry because peaches only came to Saskatchewan in August.

So, now I know. And you do too. And Jam Jams really are wonderful, when they're made right, the way Grandma did. You can be sure I'll try again sometime, and post a picture of my success. And maybe I'll get brave enough to try German Buns, too, eventually!

Click here for Trying to bake like Grandma Part II.

1 comment:

  1. I was JUST writing about this to someone. I have the old "Boston Cooking School Fanny Farmer Cookbook" circa 1900. Lard. It's hard to FIND lard in the USA. But there it is and you are so right; it makes a difference.

    I skipped back here because I love Christmas...

    Okay. I had better root around your blog another day. I have painting to do, and writing, and singing. I am so glad I found you!

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