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Cookie Day

April 3, 2020
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Ever since the lock down, ever since Indiana’s governor announced that we should stay home to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, I have been baking. If posts to social media are any indicator, I am not alone in my sudden domesticity. Today, I will bake molasses cookies, the kind that Laura Kuhn taught me to bake over fifty years ago.

Laura was Grampy Wagner’s distant cousin, and a visit to her farm was special. The day I learned to bake molasses cookies, she met Granny and me at the farmhouse kitchen, gray hair neatly curled, with cheeks rosy with the kitchen’s warmth. She was dressed in a calico dress with a cinched waist and lace collar. Over it, she wore a yellow half-apron with ruffles around the edges and red flowers embroidered on the pocket. The air was already rich with the fragrance of spices and strong coffee. I settled at the long, well-scrubbed kitchen table, opened my new cookbook, and took out my pen, ready to write down everything Laura told me.

She began by laying out the ingredients. You start with the shortening, she said as she measured out the Crisco, a little more than one cup. Maybe one and one-quarter cups. About a cup of sugar. Five or six cups of flour. Usually, it takes six.

By “cup,” she meant coffee cup. Laura didn’t have sets of measuring cups in her kitchen like we did at home.

Two teaspoons soda, one teaspoon salt. Make sure there is twice as much soda as salt.
One teaspoon each allspice, ginger, and cinnamon. There should be the same amount of each spice as there is of salt.

Laura measured with a spoon like the kind you eat with. The spices in the spoon looked like little hills.

One cupful of dark molasses. Be sure to buy the dark kind. Light molasses isn’t strong enough.

Laura’s oven was already hot, ready for us to start baking. Hers was an odd-looking stove, white and standing high up on curved silver legs. It had two oven doors, a small one and a big one, side by side. They opened sideways, like a cupboard.

One cup of strong, cold coffee. The coffee is left over from breakfast, so you don’t waste any. Use the same cup you used for the molasses. The coffee will help clean it out.

I noticed that there were two metal buckets and a basket on the floor next to the stove, one filled with thin slices of wood, the other with short, split logs. The basket was filled with old newspapers. A little tin shelf nailed to the wall above the buckets held a box of wooden matches.

Cream the shortening and sugar well. Add the spices, soda, and salt.

This is a wood stove, Laura told me. To my eye, it looked sort of like the gas stove we had at home. In this one, however, the little door was for the fire. You can make the fire hot or leave it awhile to let it cool, Laura said. It’s cooler after breakfast – still hot, but not too hot, so that’s when it’s time to make the cookies. You don’t want to waste a good fire.

Mix the coffee and molasses together. Mix them well, so they don’t separate.

I had never seen a wood stove like this before. I had never seen a wood stove in a kitchen, a real stove for cooking on. It didn’t look anything like the black potbelly stove in Laura’s living room. And, unlike our stove at home, this one didn’t have any dials on it to set the temperature. The burners were flat, with handles like pancake griddles. I was not sure what Laura means by hot but not too hot, but I wrote out the instruction anyway.

Add the coffee and molasses to the mixture of shortening, sugar and spices, and mix well. Then add the flour.

Laura’s fingers were as red as her cheeks. Her wedding ring was gold, without any diamonds like Granny’s ring. She looked happy while she worked, and she smiled when I wrote down her instructions in my homemade cookbook.

Stir the entire mixture together until it forms dough. Drop the dough onto cookie sheets.

I used a big soup spoon to drop the dough onto blackened cookie sheets. I thought the pans were dirty and set out to wash them, but Laura said that the dark color is a good thing. They are seasoned, she said. I do not understand what that means, but I nod. I would tell my mother not to make me wash our cookie sheets so well next time.

Bake in a hot oven (but not too hot, I remembered) until the cookies look and feel done. Then sprinkle them with lots of sugar so they sparkle.

Ten minutes passed, and the kitchen filled with a heady aroma of ginger and molasses. The cookies were the size of saucers, and the first warm bite was melt-in-your-mouth soft, with a little chewiness at the end. The cookies glittered with sugar crystals. Cracks like rivers branched across each one, and the sharp bite of ginger when you bit in was a tangy surprise.

Laura packed a dozen cookies in a shoe box lined with waxed paper, and handed it to me. This is for home, she said.

I hugged the shoe box with its batch of fresh-baked cookies to my chest and thanked her. I still thank her silently every time I come across the recipe in my now-battered cookbook, and today, I will make my kitchen smell like Laura’s did, all those years ago.

Laura Kuhn’s Soft Molasses Cookies

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

1-1/4 C shortening

1 C sugar

6 C all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. allspice

1 tsp. ginger

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 C dark molasses

1 C cold, strong coffee

Granulated sugar for sprinkling on top

Cream shortening and sugar well. Add spices. Mix coffee and molasses well; add to mixture. Add flour and mix. Drop batter by tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake at 375 degrees until they look and feel done. Sprinkle with granulated sugar while still warm.

 

Sing, Birds, Keep Singing

March 31, 2020

Summer is i’cumen in

Sing, laud, cuckoo

— Cuckoo Song, mid-13th century

In southern Indiana, birds begin to sing in mid-February. First, we hear the early chirps and warbles from sparrows and finches, chickadees and wrens, and a multitude of tiny birds. Soon after come the bigger cardinals and robins, arriving in flocks and joining their voices to the chorus of their smaller cousins. As the sun continues its march toward summer, mourning doves coo counterpoint to the melodies of the rest. Sing birds, keep singing.

By March, each morning we hear a few bright voices rise to greet the dawn before the sun is even over the horizon. Soon after, an avian choir fills the air with birdsong that will not cease until dusk. Males loudly claim territory and flaunt brilliant plumage to lure potential mates. Never is the cardinal as red as it is in early spring. The goldfinch is resplendent in a jacket of brightest yellow, and even the humble house sparrow looks a little spiffier than usual. And, oh, how they sing. Sing birds, keep singing.

By April, grass as green as emeralds and spring flowers of every color burst from the brown mud of winter and cover lawns and gardens, woodlands and meadows. Trees and flowering shrubs everywhere dazzle all pink and yellow and blue and white, and their blossoms fill the air with perfume. In May, we have chives and asparagus and sweet strawberries to eat. By June, summer is indeed a-comin’ in, and cows and calves, ewes and lambs, goats and kids fill pastures in the countryside. People leave their houses and bask in the warmth of the late spring sun. And the birds keep singing on. Sing birds, keep singing.

In my corner of southern Indiana, there are no cuckoos to herald the summer’s advent. Instead of the cuckoo’s song, I wait for the call of the gray catbird. With its arrival, I am sure that summer has at last come in. Catbirds dance in and around thickets of honeysuckle, and their jazzy improvisational, improbably long songs delight me. And songs, in the plural, is an accurate description of the jazz-like, sounds a catbird makes. In recent years I’ve come to call them scatbirds – the avian equivalent to legendary jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald. Sing birds, keep singing.

Once, I lived in northern Illinois near a cattail marsh, and our harbinger of spring with its promise of summer to come was neither cuckoo nor catbird. Rather, the bird I listened for each spring was the redwing blackbird. Once its conk-la-reeee arrived, it never seemed to cease. The air was still cool, but the trill of the blackbirds’ song signaled summer just around the corner, and I loved that sound.

I loved that sound because the redwing blackbirds also heralded the almost-end of the school year. Freedom lay just a few weeks away, and my friend Jeanne and I stopped paying attention to our homework and focused instead on escaping the house and running wild through hayfields and climbing the tallest trees in the windbreaks and stalking tadpoles in the scum-filled pond. And the blackbirds sang. Sing birds, keep singing.

The conk-la-reeee of the blackbirds’ presence marked the margins of the muck-bottomed pond where we caught tadpoles and dared each other to wade into the ooze and slime of the green scummy algae that clotted the surface of the water. Quicksand lay below the surface, we told each other, so we only ventured in up to our shoe tops. The blackbirds were none too pleased with our presence in their territory, and sometimes they’d chase us away, our mud-soaked sneakers squelching as we ran back home. That was in nesting season, our mothers told us as they made us hose off our shoes. And still the blackbirds sang. Sing birds, keep singing.

I am sure there were other birdsongs in the summers of our tadpole years, but I don’t remember them. I don’t remember them, but I do miss the blackbirds. I am old now, and I live in an urban forest, far away from the cattail marshes of my childhood. Now, I mark the arrival of summer and its tadpole-less freedom by the song of the catbird. Sing, catbird, sing, and I’ll know that summer’s here.


Waiting. Not Waiting.

May 12, 2015

I’ve just returned from a two-hour visit to my doctor: 10 minutes of interaction with the doctor, one hour and fifty minutes waiting to be seen. I am glad I was not feeling sick and miserable, or the wait would have felt intolerable. Mine was just a routine check-up to see how I’ve been coping with my allergies this spring. I am in good shape, and the long wait was tolerable.

There was a time I would have spent my long wait fretting and feeling anxious. I would have become increasingly irritable, and my crankiness would have left me fatigued and frustrated. Not a good state of mind for a meaningful office visit. I’ve learned over the years that waiting time is better spent keeping occupied by either diverting my attention (perhaps by reading a few chapters in a detective novel or by writing notes to friends). Sometimes, however, instead of diverting, I choose to focus my attention through meditation.CantignyBuddha

Meditating during a long wait in a doctor’s examination room may seem difficult (it is, at first), but it can be calming. Anger and frustration torment only me. They do not affect the circumstances that have triggered the emotions. And so I acknowledge my feelings, and I meditate.

When I meditate, I begin with simply being. I sit quietly and focus on my breathing.I notice when I inhale and when I exhale. I count my breaths, and I try to exhale longer than I inhale: breathing in 1, 2, 3, 4; breathing out, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Somehow, making the exhalation longer than the inhalation is calming. I might repeat to myself “breathing in, I know that I am breathing in” and “breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” My breathing soon slows, and I notice that my busy mind grows quiet. I notice my body relax, one part at a time from top to toe. And, I comment to myself with each stage of relaxation that “breathing out, I feel my jaw relax,” “breathing out, I feel my neck relax,” breathing out, “I feel my shoulders relax,” and so forth, with each exhalation, relaxing from arms, fingers, hips, thighs, calves, feet, and toes.

When my body grows still, I begin to notice the air around me and how it feels on my skin. I see the carpet, the walls, the ceiling, and I acknowledge them and my place within their embrace. I notice the furnishings: chairs, table, desk, every item on the desk, one thing at a time. And I contemplate how each thing I observe has a purpose in the room. I think of how each thing is made, and I reflect on those who made those things. I reflect on the makers’ lives and on the origins of the materials gathered and used to build each object.

From inward observation to outward reflection come peace and acceptance. Waiting ceases to be an annoyance to be endured. With quiet meditation, waiting becomes a welcome opportunity to enjoy peace, a respite from care and worry. And so I become grateful for the respite in my day that waiting has given me. Through meditation, I am no longer waiting. I simply am.

May Day

May 1, 2015

May Day coneToday is The first of May, a day on which we children used to surprise our neighbors with small bouquets of spring flowers. The posies were plucked from our mothers’ gardens and tucked into small paper cones made with ribbon handles. We made the cones from colored construction paper covered with springtime decorations (usually crayon-drawn tulips because tulips are easy to draw). We’d punch holes in the tops and tie ribbons or string across the top of the cones. The bit with the ribbon was tricky — you had to make it long enough to loop over a doorknob without it smushing the flowers, and you had to tie it to the cone loosely enough that it wouldn’t tear the paper. Sometimes it took a few tries to get the cone and string just right.

After we’d made enough cones, we’d sneak over to each neighbor’s house (sneaking was important because the whole operation was meant to be a surprise), hook the flower-filled cone over the doorknob, ring the doorbell, and then hide around the corner of the house. When our neighbor opened the door to answer the bell, we’d leap out and yell, “Happy May Day!” The neighbor would pat her chest and exclaim “Oh, my! What a surprise! Happy May Day to you, too.” We learned quickly not to offer our May Day surprise to the house where the husband worked nights and tried to sleep during the day.

I am pretty sure this sort of May Day celebration is a thing of the past. Mothers have jobs and are no longer around to answer the door. Children rarely move beyond their yards without a parental escort. Amateur crafts have become major projects involving military-like strategic planning and trips to Hobby Lobby for professional-grade supplies. In my memory, May Day was simple. Paper, crayons, scissors, and string. And, most importantly, it was a day of kindness. Neighborly love extended and accepted in a sweet springtime ritual.

Happy May Day to all of you. May your day be full of special surprises.

Blustery Day

April 21, 2015

“The wind was against them now, and Piglet’s ears streamed behind him like banners as he fought his way along, and it seemed hours before he got them into the shelter of the Hundred Acre Wood and they stood up straight again, to listen, a little nervously, to the roaring of the gale among the treetops. ‘Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?’ ‘Supposing it didn’t,’ said Pooh after careful thought.” ― Milne, A. A.

Today is a very blustery spring day here in southern Indiana, with flowering trees tossing their slender branches back and forth like bright scarves fluttering in the wind. Cherry blossoms lie scattered like snow on the sidewalk, and the bright buds of the crabapple tree are doing their best to hang on. When the gusts come, the house makes mooing noises and frightens the cat.

I am planning a visit to my parents’ house, and I worry, much like Piglet worries about a tree falling on him in the gale. I worry that I’ll pack the wrong clothes for the weather and that I’ll be too cold or too hot. I worry that I won’t pack the right shoes. What if we go out to a nice dinner? What if we go for a hike? What if it rains? Is there room in the suitcase for an extra pair of shoes and a raincoat?

I worry about the drive. Will there be road construction and detours? Will I get lost? Tired? What if the hotel loses my reservation? Where will I go? What if I can’t handle the traffic and get into an accident and die? Will my husband remember to water the plants?

A lot of “what ifs” plague my thinking, and when that happens, I need to remind myself that I am really not thinking at all. In reality, I am reacting to something that may never happen. I am allowing myself to get sucked into the future – into a space and time over which I have no control. On a good day, I will catch myself catastrophizing and will remind myself that the only time is the present moment. I can deal with a moment. I am here. I am now. If I breathe deeply, I become calm, and I feel free from worry. I can even smile.

Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?’ ‘Supposing it didn’t,’

I’ll suppose the tree will not fall, and I will pack my suitcase — one moment at a time, and I will breathe.

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