Did you ever make something that you either made yourself often when you were a kid or someone made it for you? And you ate it, and it was good, but it didn't wing you back to your childhood and you weren't quite sure why? You followed the recipe exactly, maybe even including the little tweaks written in the margin or on a piece of paper tucked between pages. So you just accept that it'll do and that maybe, some day, you'll get that wave of nostalgia and know that this was exactly what you were looking for.
I made a batch of sugar cookie dough today, from The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook, copyright 1963, which my mom received as a wedding shower gift. Just for fun, here's a picture:
Anyway, we made the sugar cookies every Xmas, the full batch, rolled them, cut them, and we lived dangerously and sprinkled them with colored sugar and jimmies *before* we put them in the oven so the decorations would be all sticky and melted and look nothing like they should but taste divine.
I've been making these same cookies for many years now; I stopped when I first got married because I was just too lazy but started up again about 10 years ago because they're fun and I like them. But something always was missing and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I didn't use the sugar or jimmies because I didn't always feel like it but that wasn't it. It was the cookie itself that was mocking me.
Until today. I decided this morning that I wanted to make cookies and pulled out all my supplies after I came home with the boys from school. The original recipe calls for shortening; however, we never used that, it was always butter. So I pulled that out. The recipe also called for cake flour but I've lost my taste for that over the years. I use unbleached flour exclusively and the cake flour always tastes tinny to me so I don't use it. I refilled my 10lb jar with a fresh batch of King Arthur and started the dough. We never softened the butter so into the mixing bowl went fresh-from-the-fridge chunks. In short, I made two subs to the original recipe: butter for shortening and AP flour for cake. Added the rest of the ingredients, blended, etc., then licked the beater.
Oh my heavenly Nigella. I'm back in the big kitchen on Duncannon Avenue with my mom, my grandmom's rolling pin, and my dad watching football and doing crosswords in the living room. I ate a massive blob and had to stop myself from consuming the rest. Finally, I had the cookies I had been waiting for.
It was all in the subs. And then I remembered. We kept Swan's Down cake flour in the house and my mom used it only for her jelly rolls, never for cookies or anything else. And--the kicker--SALTED butter. Unsalted was not readily available from the grocery store back then; we'd usually buy it by the pound from the Amish farm market on Saturdays but that was for toast and pancakes and eating, not cooking or baking. For other uses, it was always--always--Land o' Lakes salted. And that's what I use today for eating but I've been buying the unsalted for as long as I can remember for my baking because I admit to being slightly brainwashed by the chef types who swear that it's better.
Well, I do believe I've proven them wrong. I've got the dough chilling now and, although I don't have any jimmies in the house, I know for a fact that finally I've got the recipe right. And this pleases me greatly.