MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
As cookie-baking season kicks in full force, it's time for another in our Lost Recipe series. We've asked you to write us with memories of an old family recipe that you just can't replicate, and then we enlist a kitchen detective to come to the rescue to figure it out. Well, today, we're joined by listener Laurie Pavlos of Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Laurie, welcome.
LAURIE PAVLOS: Thank you.
BLOCK: And you wrote in asking for help with a recipe called Great-Grandma Rickmeyer's jumbles. I gather you never knew your great-grandmother, but you did know her husband, and you have the recipes that your great-grandfather wrote down.
PAVLOS: That's right. He and my great-grandmother lived for most of their married lives in a cemetery in Glendale, New York.
BLOCK: In what?
PAVLOS: In a cemetery. He was the superintendent. And he wrote recipes down in a printed cookbook.
BLOCK: And what was this recipe?
PAVLOS: Well, this one he titled my wife's jumbles, and it looks like they were baked in December, and maybe they were Christmas cookies. I don't know.
BLOCK: Because he puts dates on things.
PAVLOS: Right. It says 12-10-14, so it's 1914, and then there's a note that says as good as ever 12-14-1916.
BLOCK: I love that. You sent us, Laurie, a copy of the page from this book with his handwriting, and it's one quarter cup sugar, one tablespoon Crisco, a cup of molasses and then water, soda, flour, cinnamon, ginger. You tried making these? How did they come out?
PAVLOS: I tried a few times. There's just a list of ingredients. There are no instructions.
PAVLOS: So I...
PAVLOS: So I tried...
BLOCK: Leaves a little to the imagination.
PAVLOS: Right, right. They just were runny and strange. They smelled good until they started burning, but I really was at a loss. I couldn't figure out how to do it, and clearly, my great-grandmother had success with them, so I was a little frustrated.
BLOCK: Yeah. She had success because they were as good as ever.
BLOCK: Well, let's bring our cookie expert and baker Nancy Baggett into the conversation. She's the author of "Simply Sensational Cookies." Nancy, welcome.
NANCY BAGGETT: Oh, thank you.
BLOCK: And when you saw this recipe, this handwritten recipe from 1916, did it make sense to you?
BAGGETT: It made sense to me in a lot of ways, and I could look immediately and imagine that Great-Grandfather Rickmeyer was sitting there writing down, but he got it wrong. I could immediately tell why Laurie had had problems. There was too much liquid in the recipe. So I set to work fiddling with what I thought he should have written down. Folks, like my great-grandmother, would have made exactly this kind of cookie. They were late 19th century, early 20th century. We were still using a lot of molasses. The cakey gingerbread, as people are familiar with, is also of the same sort of style, except this is in a drop-cookie form.
BLOCK: I'm fascinated by the notion that there's Crisco in here, not much of it, just one tablespoon. I wouldn't have thought there was Crisco in 1916.
BAGGETT: It had just come on the scene, and there was a very audacious campaign to get all the ladies of the day to try it. And because it was white, it was touted as being pure, and so I suspect that Mrs. Rickmeyer wanted to be (foreign language spoken) and jumped right in and tried it.
PAVLOS: Right. I have heard that they would try anything new. They were right on the cutting edge.
BLOCK: Well, Laurie, you tried the reworked cookie recipe that Nancy came up with. You sent us a few cookies. They're sitting here in the studio. Why don't you tell us what you think?
PAVLOS: As the recipe shows, they're pretty different from our usual cookies. We usually take butter and sugar and beat it up and add an egg, and then we add the flour, and this is just a small amount of fat. So they're a little trickier to get them just right.
BLOCK: Mm. I'm taking a little taste as we talk here, Laurie. Well, they're really pretty dark golden brown, really chewy, not too sweet, which is great, but, yeah, they're very plain. They feel like sort of a vintage cookie to me...
PAVLOS: Right, right.
BLOCK: ...in a good way.
BAGGETT: Which they were.
BLOCK: Why do you think your great-grandfather was such a great note-taker and a recipe jotter?
PAVLOS: I have heard that he was fascinated with history. I think that in writing down recipes like this, he felt that he was doing some recordkeeping, and he was a kind of precise man, which troubles me a little bit with this question about the liquid but...
BLOCK: You're saying he was very precise, so it troubles you the notion that Nancy has raised that he may have gotten the proportions wrong.
PAVLOS: Right. I don't question her because I've tried doing it the way it's written, but I think that the flavor of the cookies is very close to what he enjoyed.
BAGGETT: You know, in his defense, Laurie, I'm thinking she's probably making them and telling him what she's doing. Remember, the home bakers often didn't really measure anything. I mean they might have - she might have used a coffee cup or a teacup to measure the flour and just throwing in a little of this and that. So it seems to me that it's quite reasonable that he could have been a very precise kind of person. But sitting at the table and just jotting down what she was saying would have led to a little bit of a problem for somebody 100 years later.
BLOCK: I bet, Laurie, that you feel a little bit more connected maybe to your great-grandparents by coming up with a recipe that may be similar to what they were tasting back then?
PAVLOS: Especially because my great-grandfather wrote down things like this, you know, as good as ever, and some of his recipes were like my wife's best. So he really enjoyed the cooking and wanted to record it for someone, and, you know, he recorded it for me.
BLOCK: Well, Laurie and Nancy, thanks to you both.
BAGGETT: Oh, you're quite welcome and happy baking.
PAVLOS: Thank you very much. This was fun.
BLOCK: Listener Laurie Pavlos and cookie detective Nancy Baggett. You can find Nancy's reworked version of the jumbles recipe at npr.org and get a glimpse of Great-Grandfather Rickmeyer's notes too.h