Baking by Senses and Memories

Emily Smith

hide captionEmily Smith majored in English and Spanish literature at the University of Texas in her hometown of Austin. She is now pursing a Master of Divinity degree at Atlanta's Emory University. Smith plans to become a minister in the United Methodist Church.

Photo courtesy of Emily Smith

I have gone through 10 pounds of flour in three months. I know that's not normal, but I believe baking is an expression of love — not only for the person being baked for, but also for the person who taught me how to bake, for the person who gave me the recipe, for the past and tradition.

Grandma Dottie lives on in her recipes that I continue to bake. Her molasses cookies are so good they need to be shared with the world. The batter is sticky and has to be refrigerated for four hours. It turns the whole thing into more of a production, but it's impossible to roll the dough into balls when it's that sticky. I know; I've tried.

So I wait — just like my grandmother waited four hours — while the dough chills. Then I roll the dough into balls, roll the dough balls in sugar and smash them with a fork twice, creating a criss-cross pattern, and put them in the oven. I look at the cookies instead of relying on the timer. I'm beginning to bake with my senses and my memory instead of with the recipe.

My Grandma Dottie abbreviated everything in her recipes so it took me a while to figure it out. Is the batter the right color? The right consistency? Does it smell right? My dad's job is to compare my reproductions to the originals of his childhood. If they turn out the same, they're more than cookies — and that's what I'm trying to do. I like to watch my father's face when he remembers his mother.

Because we're Texan, my mother needs a pecan pie for it to really be Thanksgiving. Pecan pie is mostly corn syrup, a few eggs and pecans. It doesn't look appetizing. But amazing things happen in the oven. The filling caramelizes and turns a dark brown. I baked my mom a pecan pie. I made the crust and everything—and even she doesn't do that. The recipe I used yields a stiffer filling. It's not the gooey pecan pie I grew up with. So I was worried at first that I'd done something wrong. But my mother said it was the best pecan pie she'd ever had.

And right then and there my pecan pie recipe, the one that I'd found in the cookbook my grandmother gave me, became the new family recipe. So, this Thanksgiving it's my job to make the pie. For me, it's a symbol of becoming an adult, and the pecan pie becomes my contribution to our family tradition.

I believe that as long as I keep baking, my grandmother hasn't really gone. I believe baking is the best way for me to express love for my people in the present and honor the people of my past, all in one batch.

Dorothy Smith's Molasses Cookies

Grandma Dottie's molasses cookies require several hours preparation time, mostly to allow the dough the chill.

3/4 cup melted butter

1/4 cup molasses

1 egg

1 cup sugar (plus extra sugar for dipping the cookies)

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine the melted butter, sugar, molasses and egg, and mix thoroughly.

Sift dry ingredients, and then add them to liquid mixture. Beat well. Chill the dough at least 4 hours.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls then dip in sugar. Place on a greased cookie sheet, and flatten with a fork.

Bake at 375 degrees 8-10 minutes until flat and dark brown. The cookies should be slightly crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside.

Pecan Pie

A perfect dessert for the Thanksgiving dinner, this pecan pie has a flaky crust and rich filling.

Pastry for Single-Crust Pie

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup shortening

4 or 5 tablespoons cold water

In a medium bowl stir together flour and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut in shortening until pieces are pea-sized.

Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the water over part of the flour mixture; gently toss with a fork. Push the moistened dough to the side of the bowl. Repeat moistening flour mixture, until all the flour mixture is moistened. Form dough into a ball.

On the lightly floured surface, use your hands to slightly flatten dough. Roll dough from center to edges into a circle about 12 inches in diameter.

To transfer pastry, wrap it around the rolling pin. Unroll pastry into a 9-inch pie plate. Ease pastry into pie plate without stretching it.

Trim pastry to 1/2 inch beyond the edge of the pie plate. Fold under extra pastry. Crimp edge as desired. Do not prick pastry.

Pecan Pie Filling

1 recipe Pastry for Single-Crust Pie

3 slightly beaten eggs

1 cup corn syrup

2/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup butter or margarine, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/4 cups pecan halves

Combine eggs, corn syrup, sugar, butter and vanilla. Mix well; stir in pecan halves.

Place the pastry lined pie plate on the oven rack. Carefully pour the filling into the pastry shell.

To prevent over-browning, cover edge of the pie with foil. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil. Continue baking 20 to 25 minutes more or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Cover and refrigerate within 2 hours.

Excerpted with permission from Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, 12th Edition. (c) 2006 Meredith Books. All rights reserved.

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