I remember the first time I made my favorite childhood birthday cake as an adult. It was a maple-walnut cake with a brown-sugar batter and brown-sugar maple icing decorated with walnuts. My mother had a small nut grinder, glass on the bottom with a milling mechanism attached to a screw-top lid. The ground nuts dropped into the glass below and when it was full, she sprinkled them on the cake. That was the best moment, because I knew that this glorious confection, looking grand on a cake pedestal, would now be studded with candles.
I should have left the cake to nostalgia, locked it in my mother’s red recipe box never to emerge again. When I made the cake long after my single-digit birthdays, the texture was unappealingly dry, the icing painfully sweet. Most disappointing of all was that the maple-walnut cake with its maple icing contained no maple. Whatsoever.
Many of us these days are busy recreating the tables of our childhood, not necessarily how they were, but looking back, the way we would have liked them to be.
Since this isn’t a parenting column, I’ll leave the family dynamics of the nightly dinner (then and now) to others. As for childhood food, mid-20th century cuisine was created after men returned from World War II, after the women at home had been dealing with worry and shortages, and as postwar prosperity was bringing appliances — electric mixers, blenders (my father called ours by its brand name, “The Osterizer”), dishwashers, and more — into newly constructed suburban homes.
And with those harvest gold, avocado green, and burnt orange appliances came recipes that food corporations already knew American women wanted. I wouldn’t be surprised if the maple-walnut cake came from the Domino Dark Brown Sugar box.
Many of these recipes are still alive and well in American kitchens. And in a time of crisis, we turn to them yet again. Which is maybe why I’ve been craving oatmeal cookies. With plenty of time on my hands, I’ve created a version I was longing for — crunchy, chewy, beautifully raisin-y, and a bit less sweet. Quite different, actually, from the cookies in my girlhood cookie jar.
Most oatmeal cookie recipes are a cinch to assemble and bake. Yes, you can mix this in minutes, but you can’t bake it right away — you have to wait several hours for this refrigerated dough to absorb its liquid. Melting the butter, instead of creaming it, is the secret to a really chewy cookie. Chilling the dough allows the dry ingredients to thoroughly incorporate the butter. You need at least two hours, or as long as overnight, for chilling. Then let the bowl sit at room temperature (you can use it right away if you chilled it for the short amount of time, one hour if you left it overnight) until the dough is soft enough to shape.
Through several iterations of testing, I found that I preferred less flour in the dough so the oat-y taste comes through. The oatmeal to flour ratio I settled on is almost two to one, yielding a very crunchy texture. I like to use old-fashioned oats. Save firm steel-cut for your morning porridge; instant oats (I’m not sure what their usefulness is) will get pulverized in the electric mixer and make a completely different cookie. Use the best brand of oats you have access to because they’ll give the finished rounds their best flavor.
In the oven the little walnut-sized balls spread and flatten. Don’t even think about grabbing a hot cookie off the baking sheet. You won’t get the full effect.
Wait until they cool and crisp and you’ll get a comforting, sweet classic — recalibrated for modern tastes.