brown butter cookies

Sometimes I go through Grandma’s recipes, organized by me into two card-sized tins, and when I do, I find two things: (1) stained, cryptic notes in cursive penmanship and (2) torn clippings—from newspapers, from magazines, from the boxes of butter or oatmeal of decades ago. I have no idea, usually, if she’d tried and liked these torn recipes or if she’d been meaning to, but I keep them because, well, they were hers, things she thought worth trying.

My mom and I carry on this tradition, she with her labeled folders of cut-out recipes; I, with mine. This cookie, from Gourmet circa 1961, is one of those clippings. I caught it in the magazine’s recent Favorite Cookies 1941-2008 round-up, and I knew I’d like them, both because they are made with the complexity of brown butter and because of the simplicity of ingredients, all things you probably have on hand.

It took one whiff of browning butter, set in a pot on low heat to slowly melt and darken, for me to love it the way I love twinkling Christmas lights or the look of falling snow. As its color deepens, a nutty aroma fills the air, hinting at rich flavor. And put into cookies, this ingredient turns simple butter cookies into something magnificent: a crumbly sable texture with layers of subtle sweetness.

stacked butter cookies

You know, in all the almost-seventeen years I knew my grandma, I can’t remember ever baking her anything, not on my own, not without her help? I know I gave her cereal, toast, maybe cut-up fruit now and then, especially when she lived with us in that last year, when I slept in the same room with her to make sure she was all right. But I never cooked for her. And it’s a bitter irony that, almost ten years after she’s gone, I’m wondering which cookies she’d want for Christmas, when all my life, she knew which I’d prefer.

Those are the kinds of things one thinks about after losing someone: the questions you would’ve asked, the things you would’ve done while you still could. I will never bake for my grandma, but I will bake for you. And, in so doing, it seems to me, she doesn’t feel so far away.

Brown Butter Cookies
Adapted from Gourmet, 1961

The original recipe calls for a tablespoon of vanilla sugar, which I replaced with regular vanilla extract. I’d guess the alteration makes a slight difference, but, honestly, one bite in, you won’t mind at all.

1 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon vanilla
2 1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Blanched almonds, for topping (I used maybe a 1/4 cup)

In a heavy saucepan melt 1 cup butter over low heat until it browns. Add 2/3 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon vanilla and cool the mixture. Beat in 2 1/3 cups flour and 1 teaspoon baking powder to make a smooth dough. Roll spoonfuls of the dough into marble-sized balls and put them 1 inch apart on a buttered or Silpat-lined baking sheet. Press each ball down slightly with the tines of a fork, and top with half a blanched almond. Bake the cookies at 325° F for 20 minutes. Remove them from the baking sheet and cool. Serve half of the cookies. Freeze the remainder in a freezer container.

To serve the frozen cookies, defrost them at room temperature for 5 to 10 minutes.

Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, keep up with Food Loves Writing on Facebook and stay inspired with the monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Lan

    i love this post too! thanks for sharing yet again another grandma recipe.

    btw, i am totally loving your pictures lately! are you post editting them, doing anything different?

  2. amy

    such a sweet, moving post dear. i know exactly what you mean… i’m going to call my grandma now. tell her i love her.

  3. Molly

    Just caught wind of your site through the DePaul Alumni Linked In group. It’s great. Not a lot of time to read right now, but I love the cookie post. Good luck!

  4. Shannalee

    You’re so kind, Lan. As far as the photos, I spent way too much time last week reading articles about food photography, and the one thing everyone said was use natural light. I’m still experimenting, but since the natural-light thing is hard this time of year when you have a job, I’m also excited about another article that swears a wireless flash works just as well. (Something else to save up for!)

    Thanks, Amy—Your comment made me cry!

    Molly: Glad you found me! Always nice to meet DePaul alumns. So impressed by your catering, BTW!

  5. Megan

    what pretty cookies! they look like they’d simply melt in your mouth . yummy!

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  9. Elizabeth

    Such a sweet post Shannalee. I love that things like recipes can connect family across the generations. I’m also smiling because I see from your comments that you are a DePaul alum–so is my grandma (who is now 94)–I have always heard her talk about how she loved it!

  10. Shannalee

    Elizabeth! Small world! Tell your grandma she’s supercool, OK? :)

  11. Jennifer

    I think I’m going to make these right now! So nice to have a recipe that uses only staple ingredients, and I like the idea of trying the browned butter.

    In the ingredients list, you say 2 1/2 cups flour, but the directions say 2 1/3. Which is it? I’m just going to do something in between; it probably won’t make too much of a difference.

    Thanks! I’ve been looking through your blog trying to decide what to make for a thing at church tomorrow night. Nice to be able to count on you to always have something appealing! (The hard part is narrowing it down!) :)

  12. Shannalee

    Good call about the typo, Jennifer! So sorry about that! It should be 2 1/3 cups, and I’ve just now corrected the text above. You’re right, though: it probably won’t matter either way. My mom LOVED these (so did I), so I can’t wait to hear how they go over for you!

  13. Jennifer

    They were good! I ended up using a little more than 2 1/3 cups of flour, and I baked a small batch first to see how they turned out. They were good but maybe a little crumbly — probably a little too much flour.
    So for the next batch, I added a little shortening. (I had used the last of the butter — horrors!) The shortening addition was good; they were more melt-in-your-mouth.
    For the last batch, I took inspiration from your earl grey cookies and mixed in part of a chai tea bag and a pinch of cinnamon. Those were really good. I also mixed in a pinch of kosher salt, which gave it a neat quality. It was fun experimenting.

  14. Shannalee

    Love your variations! Sounds fantastic!

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  17. Mariana

    These are sooooooooo good!! I didn’t have any vanilla (I know! Such a crime!) But I added 1 tsp. ginger and 1 tsp. cinnamon instead, and the result was, I suspect, just as good! Also, I used a white chocolate chip instead of blanched almonds, and I didn’t press them with the fork, with the result that the outside layer was thicker and so soft….it melts in your mouth, and then in the center, crumbly and crunchy! So good. Why is it almost a general rule that grandmas always used the best recipes?

  18. Shannalee

    Mariana, I’m so glad you enjoyed them! Excellent substitutions, sounds like. You did my grandma proud. : )

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