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From simple butter cookies, a family heirloom

cookies The butter cookies are made using a cookie press, which makes ridged, flat bands that are baked first and cut apart later. (James Mayer for The Boston Globe)
By Amy Mayer
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2009

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The yellowed index card says “Mama Kahn’s Cookies’’ and when she typed up the instructions nearly 40 years ago, my maternal grandmother wrote “Can’t find the recipe/This is an approximation.’’ She was writing down her own mother-in-law’s recipe, which has become the focal point of a new tradition. The cookies, made for so many decades by my mother’s family, are now baked and taken to my paternal grandmother. You might say they’re a recipe on both sides of my family.

It all began two summers ago when my dad’s mom, whom we call Oma, had just moved to a new home. My mom wanted to bring her a little something, and these simple butter cookies were a hit. Oma later told my parents she was rationing them so she wouldn’t run out. When my parents visited again, they came with another box of cookies and committed themselves to being Oma’s personal bakers. They see her almost every month, bringing these sweet treats every time. My 4-year-old son and I were staying with my parents in Cleveland last summer before driving with them to Columbus, Ohio, for Oma’s 100th birthday party. He and I got to see the baking routine.

The cookies are made with a rich but easy dough squeezed out of Mama Kahn’s old, narrow cookie press. The tip they use in the press is a slit with ridges that makes very flat bands, which are baked first and cut later. Everything begins in the sturdy KitchenAid mixer and the finished dough does not need to rest. Using a press speeds up the process of making lots of cookies. My parents do three batches, producing 200 2-by-1-inch pieces, so Oma has a supply that lasts from one visit to the next. The parchment-lined cookie sheets are striped with rows of soft dough; each sheet is filled with cookies and returned to the oven many times.

After baking, my dad cuts uniform pieces and eases them off the pans onto a wooden cooling rack that he built for cooling loaves of bread. Once the cookies cool, he carefully packs them into decorative tins, handily dispensing with any ill-formed or overbaked sweet rectangles.

Watching my parents bake together from a decades-old recipe card and take the task so seriously was a moving sight. As a teenager, I scoffed at activities that seemed too domestic, partly because I imagined they’d have little place in the professional life I wanted. But cooking and baking never seemed ancillary. Throughout college and my 20s, even today, I called home to ask for favorite recipes or help in the midst of a kitchen crisis. I even have a few of my own index cards, though my heirloom recipes are mostly jotted down on scraps of paper that were handy during a phone call or they’re printed out on white computer sheets, complete with e-mail headers.

My mother and her mother taught me that cooking could coexist with professional ambition. My grandmother was a well-respected sculptor and my mom worked in many arenas before running an industrial business with my dad for over 20 years.

Oma, on the other hand, never enjoyed cooking and rarely baked. She’d make us dinners of fried eggs, instant mashed potatoes, and frozen spinach, with pudding-from-a-box for dessert. She is the grandmother who sewed and crocheted. My dad’s childhood kitchen memories are primarily of doing the dishes. Perhaps because cooking wasn’t a part of his upbringing, he made a point to learn it.

When my parents visit Oma and present her with the cookies, she sometimes asks where they can be purchased. (They’re so good, of course they must come from a bakery!) Her face lights up as she puts one in her mouth and passes the tin around the room. My son, who also loves the cookies, snags his and we all enjoy the melting sensation on our tongues.

My mother’s family recipe delights my father’s mother too. And, as it happens, everyone else who gets a taste.