Essays on Faith, Family and Culture

The Quest for the Perfect Oatmeal Cookie Continues

I hope you’re doing well during these crazy times. Since I last wrote, I recovered from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and the 2020 election. Both left me exhausted and depleted.

We now have some semblance of closure, the assembly of a reasonably moderate cabinet under a new president-elect, and my white blood cell count is back to normal. Eating all that kale over the past year has done more than help me lose 50 pounds; it’s helped me rebound very quickly from what could have been a long-term illness. I am gateful my doctor encouraged me to adopt the nutritarian diet developed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman.

So, to celebrate, what do I do? Enjoy a berry kale smoothie?

No. I continue my quest for the perfect oatmeal cookie, a.k.a. a cookie like the one my German grandma made so long ago.

Spicy German Oatmeal Cookie or Chock-A-Block?

As some long-time readers of my work know, I’m obsessed with finding the perfect oatmeal cookie recipe. Not just any recipe will do. It must recreate the cookies that my German grandmother (who never wrote down her recipes) made sometime around 1972 when I remember clutching a thick, sweet, spicy cookie in my grubby little hands as I played with my brothers’ train set in the basement.

It was a winter day sometime around 1972 or 1973. I place the date around then because my brothers were still playing with my dad’s old model rail road set. They had set it up in the basement play room. It had huge cars marked “Long Island Rail Road” on the side. When the big transformer box lit up and the cars began to shoot around the track, a light inside the passenger cars illuminated the silhouettes of men in fedoras reading newspapers and ladies in elegant hats peering out of the windows of the train. My imagination leaped at the little silhouettes. I was one with them, peering out at the blurry countryside as the train whisked me to Manhattan.

My dad came home from a trip to his mother’s house and called down to the basement, “Grandma sent sinkers!” My dad nicknamed the German drop doughnuts “sinkas” or “sinkers” because he joked that they were so heavy they sank to the bottom of your stomach.

In reality, sinkas were probably faschnacht, German drop doughnuts. These friend dough balls are very similar to the Italian zeppolis (zeppole) that you can buy at street fairs or on Long Island at pizzerias along with your Coke and a slice.

Now, much as I love baking…I think my husband would have a fit if I friend up 277 calorie dough balls, no matter how delicious and nostalgic they made me.

But I can get away with oatmeal cookies. Oatmeal, raisins, walnuts, they’re all nutritious foods. Of course, they’re mixed with heaps of butter or shortening, brown and white sugar, and eggs, but….oatmeal is healthy, right?

So I turn to the cookies I recall from that day in 1972: my grandmother’s oatmeal cookies.

Grandma’s German Oatmeal Cookies or What Was That Spice?

Along with the sinkers (faschnacht) my grandmother sent home a plate of oatmeal cookies. Giant, thick cookies packed with stuff: nuts, raisins, chocolate chips.

And a heavenly spice I have yet been able to duplicate.

The cookies were thick and solid, not the soft, squishy things you get when you make the recipe on the back of the oatmeal canister. I’m sure they kept for a long time, too, in Grandma’s ever-present cookie jar.

As the quarantine continued and summer turned into fall, I decided to pull out my mixer and continue my question to find a version of my grandmother’s oatmeal cookie recipe.

Dorie Greenspan’s Chock-A-Block Cookies

The logical thing to do when trying to recreate an old-fashioned German oatmeal cookie recipe would be to search online for recipes, right? Of course, but who said I’m logical?

I turned to my cookbook collection first: Fannie Farmer, Better Home and Gardens, Betty Crocker, and Dorie Greenspan’s book, Baking: From my home to yours.

My husband bought me this book many years ago when I first took up cooking as a hobby. I haven’t used it much over the years. Although the recipes looked good, I was intimidated by the techniques and special ingredients needed. It wasn’t until this year that I picked up the book again seeking new oatmeal cookie recipes and found a treasury of interesting recipes to try.

These recipes are not for the diet conscious. Sticks of unsalted butter, several eggs, and lots of sugar ensure that each cookie is a calorie bomb of delightful sweetness and artery-clogging cholesterol. But they taste heavenly and the ChockABlock cookies recipe on page 86 of the book came the closest to my grandmother’s recipe as I’ve ever baked.

The secret? Molasses.

I had only blackstrap molasses on hand, and the recipe specifically said NOT to use blackstrap molasses, but in the middle of a pandemic it’s not smart to hop into the car and head out to the store for a spontaneous additional grocery store trip. Catching COVID-19 isn’t worth baking the perfect cookie no matter how much I would love to find the right medley of flavors to recreate that long-ago childhood memory.

So I used blackstrap molasses, added walnuts, raisins, and chocolate chips, and….oh, so close. So very, very close to grandma’s cookies!

The molasses added the spiciness that traditional oatmeal cookie recipes lacked, but still, there was something missing. I suspect it’s cloves – my grandmother loved to add cloves to her baking and I love cloves, too – but it could have been allspice.

ACK! Will I ever find the perfect recipe?

I am now doing the logical thing – searching online for German oatmeal cookie recipes. Perhaps it is the spice that is missing. Or perhaps traditional molasses, not blackstrap, would give the cookies the right spicy-sweet blend.

Or perhaps it’s my grandma who is missing, or me missing her bone-crushing hugs. Maybe grandma’s love was, all along, the secret ingredient to her cookies.