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.
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.