Valentine's Day was one of Meme's (pronounced with long "e" sounds) favorite holidays. I mention her in the biographical information on the left because she was largely responsible for my early fascination with woodburning cookstoves. Meme was a great-great-aunt on my mother's side, and as she had no children of her own, she was very close to our family. She and I spent a lot of time together--much of it baking--and she would continually reminisce about cooking on a woodburning cookstove.
The 1920s Monarch range which had been her family's second wood cookstove rested in the washhouse on the farm where my cousin makes his home now. Fortunately, it had been removed from the beautiful farmhouse in 1948 because the house burned to the ground in 1962. As that farmstead with the gaping basements used to be a favorite picnic spot for us, I would always go into the washhouse and take a look at that beautiful stove. I can remember one time when all of my mother's family, including Meme, had a cleanup day at the "other place," and my uncle convinced Meme to give us a little tutorial about how she used to cook on that great range.
On our farm a row of cedar trees used to separate the two houses, the southernmost four standing in a perfect square, and I can remember that when I was five, I drew plans in red crayon for a summer kitchen to be built using those four cedars as the corners. My idea was that the Monarch range could be moved to our place. I can remember pitching the idea to Granny, who listened with amusement but obviously had no intention of making these dreams a reality.
So, during those early years I had to be content just pretending to cook on a woodburning cookstove while playing with the toy cookstove that Meme had in the spare bedroom of her apartment. You can see an identical toy at this post: The Stove That Started It All. I suppose that I was in junior high or early high school when Meme began to realize that my desire to cook on a real woodburning cookstove was more than just a passing fancy. I remember that we were in her apartment kitchen watching a pot on the back burner of her Hotpoint electric stove when she started back-pedaling on her romanticism of the woodburning range.
"Oh, you don't really want an old cookstove," I recall her saying. I protested, and she said, "You have to haul all the fuel in and the ashes out, and then there are some days where maybe it rains and then you can't get the fire to go at all." (My grandfather later explained the set up of the kitchen chimney in the house that burned, and I'm not at all surprised that they had trouble getting a fire lit on rainy days. I've never had such a problem.) However, her years of waxing poetic about the woodburning cookstove had made their mark.
If Meme were alive today, she would shake her head and be a little embarrassed to think that she had anything to do with my affinity for wood cookstoves. But the reality is that her influence on me was and is far greater than just that. I won't take the time and space to talk further about all of that here, but I will say that one of the areas of influence Meme had was on my chocolate preferences. Meme was a chocolate aficionado, even though I'm sure she'd never heard the word. Meme loved chocolate. Her favorite gifts at Valentine's Day were roses and a box of Russell Stover candies. Among her meager belongings at the end of her life were further evidence of her love affair with chocolate. She had used large See's chocolate boxes for storage of various articles, and at the end of this post you will see a vintage Mrs. Steven's candy tin that she used as a cookie can for decades.
Meme was funny about her chocolate, though. While I never knew her to discriminate between dark or milk chocolate when it came to those many boxes of Russell Stover's, in her own cooking she halved the chocolate in her recipes. Perhaps this was from motives of economy, I don't know. Whatever the reason, after a steady diet of lightly chocolated sweets all through my youth, I'm not a fan of dark chocolate, and I prefer baked goods that have had their chocolate content reduced too. As I write this, it just now dawns on me that perhaps this is the reason I'm not a chocolate cake fan.
The recipe that I'll eventually get around to sharing with you in this post is one of those where Meme always reduced the chocolate. Sometime in the 1920s, Meme left the farm to attend Iowa State College (later renamed Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa. She was nearly thirty years old at the time, and I imagine that after the great romance of her life had dissolved due to religious differences, she thought she ought to be prepared to support herself with a career. Meme spent only a year at Iowa State and then transferred to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she completed her Bachelors in dietetics.
During my own time at ISU, I had an American history class in the auditorium in MacKay Hall, which is the headquarters of the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, and I often wondered which rooms Meme would have spent most of her time in seventy years before I got there. I could imagine her as one of the women in the historic pictures of cooking classes in that building, standing in stiffly starched aprons over ancient gas hotplates. I knew about her time at Iowa State because in her kitchen she still had two stacks of recipes that bore the Iowa State College labels. These stacks were bound by elastic bands from panty hose, but one of the recipes was never with the rest; it was the recipe for Chocolate Drop Cookies. I have Meme's box of recipes now, so you can see the card in the picture below. It is hard for me to believe that it is nearly 100 years old today. Don't try to read the recipe the way it's written because she never followed this, even though you can see that she looked at the recipe many times!
Meme completed the four-year dietetics course in three years, and due to the stress of doing so she suffered what was then called a "nervous breakdown." She returned to the farm to recover, and events conspired to keep her there until 1947 when she left to make room for my newlywed maternal grandparents. I'd be willing to bet that several batches of these cookies were baked in that old Monarch wood cookstove in the twenty years between her return from college and her move to Council Bluffs. I KNOW that oceans of these cookies came out of the oven on the bright new General Electric Airliner range that she had for the thirty years that she lived on Grace Street in the Bluffs, and another large number of them were baked in the aforementioned Hotpoint in her subsequent apartment. These were truly one of her favorites.
Honestly, they're one of mine too, but I discovered that I hadn't made them since before Nancy and I were married, so it was high time that I introduce her to them! One last note before we get to the directions: when I spent my two years at Iowa State University in the mid-1990s, I lived in the dorms, and these cookies were still on the menu of the food service system. You can't imagine how excited I was to see them. They were served two on a plate, and I knew immediately what they were and was surprised that seventy years later ISU was still using their recipe. However, when I took my first bite, I was so disappointed. They didn't taste anything like Meme's because they followed the recipe and used the full amount of chocolate. They bordered on bitter, in my opinion, but I ate them anyway.
To make these the way Meme did, here is what you'll need:
1 oz. Bakers' unsweetened chocolate
1 cup light brown sugar (the lighter the better)
1/2 cup butter, very soft but not melted
1/2 tsp. soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 c. + 2 Tbsp. sifted flour
Here is what you do:
1. Build your fire so that you will have a moderate oven.
2. Over the coolest part of the cooktop, melt the ounce of unsweetened chocolate. (Does anyone else miss the individually wrapped one-ounce squares as much as I do? I have a terrible time getting the new solid bars to break right along the lines.)
|The chocolate melting in Meme's old Mirro saucepan|
on the far right side of the Margin Gem.
3. While the chocolate is melting, cream the brown sugar and butter.
|The soft butter and the light brown sugar|
being creamed by Meme's 1950 Sunbeam
Mixmaster. You can tell already that this
recipe doesn't make a large number of cookies.
4. Add the melted chocolate to the sugar and butter mixture.
5. Beat in the egg. You'll have to scrape the bowl carefully to make sure that any chocolate that stuck to the bottom of the bowl is thoroughly incorporated.
6. Add the baking soda, baking powder, and vanilla.
|The measuring spoon you see here was|
7. Add the flour and the milk alternately.
|The two measuring cups and the plate|
in this picture belonged to Meme. The
plate is part of a set of Homer Laughlin
Eggshell Theme from the 1940s.
8. Mix all just until well blended. The dough will feel much more like thick cake batter than cookie dough.
9. Drop by heaping teaspoonfuls onto a lightly greased cookie sheet. Make sure the cookie sheet is only lightly greased. You can see in the first picture below that I was too generous with the Crisco. That is why in the second picture two of the cookies have slid into their neighbors once they were exposed to the heat of the oven.
|This is Meme's cookie sheet. She'd be|
so embarrassed if she knew how
"seasoned" I've let it become.
|Photographing fire is so difficult! I wish you could|
really see what kind of a fire it takes to keep a
10. Now, baking these is a little tricky because you can't tell by looking at a chocolate cookie just how brown it is becoming. Instead, you've got to poke these with your finger. They are done when they have spread out flat and feel like they have just begun
to form a slight
crust on the top. They are overbaked if they feel like they will be crispy. This should take anywhere from 8-12 minutes depending on how hot your oven is running. Remember that the end product here is more like a little flat cake than what we usually think of when we think of a chewy or crispy cookie.
11. Remove the cookies from the pan and put them on paper toweling on the countertop to cool. You'll ruin them if you put them on a cooling rack. Trust me on this one!
12. Once the cookies are baked, it is time to make the frosting. If you looked at the recipe above, you know that it came with a frosting recipe, but that was never what Meme did. Instead, in a small bowl, she would put about three tablespoons of butter, a teaspoon of vanilla, and perhaps a tablespoon or so of Hershey's cocoa. Add two or three tablespoons of water and stir.
|A little more cocoa than I wanted jumped out of|
the jar when I poured it in, so my frosting was a
little darker than Meme's. Oh, and you guessed
it: this is Meme's bowl too.
13. Beat in sufficient powdered sugar to make a thick but spreadable frosting. Frost the top of each cookie, and don't be too stingy.
Now, you could eat these at this point, but try not to. Yes, I know that is much easier for me to say than it will be to do!
14. Pack the cookies into an airtight container, using waxed paper to separate the layers so that the frosting doesn't glue them all together. Let these sit with the lid on overnight. The next day they will be at their peak, and what a peak it is!
|This is the vintage Mrs. Stevens' Candies tin that|
Meme always put these cookies in. It was her widest
tin, so the cookies didn't have to be stacked high,
which would mash them.
Grandma Marian told me once that Meme used to get the lightest brown sugar that she could, and these cookies would have a reddish cast when you bit into them. I didn't have very light brown sugar, but the batch that you see here did have a slight reddish cast inside them. If someone can explain that to me, I'd appreciate it.
These were a huge hit with my resident picky eater, and they really aren't difficult to make. I don't know why it has taken me over seventeen years to make these for Nancy, but I'm not planning on waiting that long again!