Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From Nellie's Kitchen - Sugar Cookies

I am a firm believer that the most potent memories are those that call upon sound, sensation or taste to render an impact. Which is why I am fascinated by recipes, musical scores and physical objects of the past. At every opportunity, I attempt to cook with recipes that are from the previous generations. By sharing a taste experience, perhaps we can get just a bit closer to those who came before us. So, from time to time, I hope to share a recipe or two, to bring out the more flavorful elements of my family memories.

Some of my most precious, as well as tactile, memories from childhood are centered on visits to my great-grandmother, Nellie Isabelle Cox Beyersdoerfer's home. She lived to be 90, but passed away when I was nine, so even though my years with her were few, she made quite an impact.....and continues to do so. She was the family's keeper of history. Not only did her collection include stories and family heirlooms, but also antiques from her community of Pendleton County Kentucky. My mother spent many a weekend taking Nellie around to estate sales to buy up some of her favorite items. I have even heard tale of grandma Nellie (aka "Ma") instructing my mother to crawl down into the cellar of a burnt house because she could see a fancy teacup lying among the debris.....a sort of accepted form of looting, I suppose, but Mom still has the teacup, complete with blackened melted glass stuck on the side. Those two were quite the wild pair, but their closeness meant I was taken along for visits to Ma's on a regular basis.

Whenever I would arrive, there on her kitchen table was an antique cut glass covered bowl full of her signature sugar cookies. I would pull up a stool that was part ladder and had supported many of the children in our family over the years, and devour a big, delectable cookie. However, Ma's recipe was not exactly HER signature recipe since she got it from an old William Tell flour package or booklet. My mother still has the original as Ma used it, a roughly torn out piece of paper from the early part of the century. Sadly, Dad laminated it years ago, before we all understood the implications of lamination from the preservation point of view, but we've since made multiple scans and copies to pass out to the family over the years. I have a copy framed and sitting on my counter at all times.....I love decorating with old recipes!
At first glance, this appears to be just your standard, run of the mill, sugar cookie recipe, but it is the addition of nutmeg that makes this little cookie unique. As you can see, the recipe calls for a half teaspoon of nutmeg, but no salt, which is a staple among other sugar cookie recipes. I will confess that I use salted butter when making this recipe, so there is a little salt in there. Otherwise, I can say I don't miss the extra saltiness. Although, if you can swing freshly grated nutmeg, which is much easier than it sounds, the taste is a bit more robust.

All in all, it turns out to be a very light and soft cookie. Ma always followed the tip at the bottom and added sugar with her own addition of cinnamon to the top of the cookies prior to going into the oven, and I completely agree with this little step. The cinnamon, sugar and nutmeg, make this cookie a delicious little treat.

When I make this one at Christmas, I forgo the cinnamon and sugar in lieu of a simple confectioner's sugar icing which adds even more sweetness with a bit of a bite. I have always noticed that the fine print at the bottom suggests the addition of lemon for a smart little lemon cookie. I haven't tried that simply because I love the original version so much. Either way, the secret to this cookie is taking the cookie out of the oven after it has puffed up a bit and before you notice any golden color at the base. If you see the light brown forming, the end product can be a little more crispy than desired. One thing I have changed from the recipe, I cook them at 350 or 375 instead of the 450 as recommended. It cooks them a little slower, and gives you plenty of time to watch over them to prevent burning. One other thing I remember....Ma's cookies were much larger than the standard cut out we use today. I was never around when she made these, but I'm guessing she used a lid or jar for her cookies to get them so big. All kinds of shapes work well with this cookie, as long as it has been well refrigerated first! Oh, and be sure to keep them in an air tight container to keep them soft!

Enjoy this family memory, and have some fun experimenting with it!

In case you can't see the print of the original recipe very well, I have transcribed it below:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar (granulated)
2 eggs
1 tablespoon cream
2 1/2 cups William Tell Flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Cream butter and sugar; add beaten eggs and cream. Sift the dry ingredients and beat into mixture. Roll and cut. Sprinkle with sugar or nuts and bake at about 450 degrees F.

Note: Grated rind of a lemon and a tablespoon of lemon juice will make delicious lemon cookies over this recipe.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sepia Saturday - Looking at Anna

By all genealogical accounts, Anna Beyersdoerfer runs a high risk of becoming invisible to history. Known as the maiden aunt of our family, there are no pictures of her in a wedding dress, nor any of her holding babies. She had no descendants, and therefore, very few people to remember her. We have a few pictures of her, but none or next to none within the larger family gatherings. Anna seems to stand alone in artifact as well as she did in life. However, Anna recently made a grand showing that has piqued my interest in this very independent woman.

Born to John and Emma (Fliehmann) Beyersdoerfer in 1901, Anna was the youngest daughter of nine children. Her parents had a farm in Bracken County Kentucky, near the small town of Foster, which sits on the Ohio River. Both sets of grandparents, the Beyersdoerfers and Fliehmanns had large farms overlooking the river. Her family's small farm was tucked down in a valley known as Willow Creek. The steep hills of northern Kentucky meant a pretty challenging farm life, but her parents tapped into their German heritage and produced wine to sell in Covington as a supplement to their income.

According to census records, most of the children stayed on the farm to help well into their twenties. Marriage was usually the impetus to move on and begin a life for themselves, but when marriage did not appear as an option for Anna, she moved forward on her own, opting for life in the big city of Cincinnati Ohio. Her brother Lawrence and his family lived in Cincinnati as well, so she was not completely alone. However, she did not live with her relatives, but took a job as a domestic servant.

By 1930 she was residing in the home of Walter and Francis Klein up near Clifton. This couple apparently had no children and she was the only servant in their household. At the time, she was 28, and the Kleins were 44 and 38. Hardly elderly, this merchant couple also piques my interest. They must have had a decent size home to have a servant during the depression, yet, not a house full of servants, which demonstrated either a sense of modesty, or frugality in tough times. But at such a young age, with no children to care for, I can't help but wonder if they had a more exciting social life.

Skipping ahead to her death in 1988, we knew Anna had been a nurse most of her life. By 1951, she was listed in the city directory as a "nurses aide" at Bethesda Hospital. My mother visited her shortly before her death in Newport Kentucky, and she had a sharp, clear mind. She gave my mother details about the family history that we had never heard before. She included maiden names, burial locations, married names, etc. As an evident keeper of the past, her information turned out to be priceless as I began my own journey into our family history a few years later.

However, it is the time frame between about 1920 and 1951 that has set off my detective radar. An independent woman of the 1920s and 30s was not a common thing. Spinsters were, of course, fairly common, but Anna somehow did not fit that mold.

A few years ago, due to my main Journeys Past web site, a relative by marriage learned of my existence, and decided to send me some family artifacts they had in their possession. They were the family of Anna's brother Myron's wife. Ok, try to un-cross your eyes on that one! Anna's brother Myron married rather late in life to a woman names Eleanor, but they had no children. After Eleanor's death, her family found some items that belonged to Myron and they decided to graciously return the items to our family. After checking with the other Beyersdoerfer men, they unanimously chose me to be the recipient since they weren't all that interested in the family history - definitely a perk to being known as the family historian! I plan to write a piece about Myron soon, because his artifacts included some things from his service in WWII, and one picture in particular that had me up in the stacks of the library researching campaign stay tuned for that one.
Among Myron's things, was a photo of him and his sister Anna sitting on the front of matching cars. I could tell the cars were sitting at the farm on Willow Creek, and the back of the photo said "Myron & Anna, Brother & Sister, with our new cars, Ford bought same year, Richie Brothers auto Dealers took it." According to the license plates, the year was 1935, and both brother and sister look rather dapper in their fancy outfits and brand new cars. After a few minutes of awwing over this awesome photo, it suddenly hit me that Aunt Anna was a single woman in 1935. How could a single domestic servant make enough money to purchase a brand new car during thos tough economic times? I'm assuming Myron was still on the farm since family reports says he even lived there as long as Grandma Emma was still alive. But then, those don't exactly look like farmer duds. Interesting, since he would have been about 28 while she would have been about 33.

I'm not positive that Anna was with the Kliens in 1940, but in that year's city directory, Anna was still listed as a "maid", and living either in her own place, or in another family's household. Her new address was 2831 Vernon Place, which was in the same general Clifton area as her 1930 residence on Alaska Avenue with the Kleins. So needless to say, in 1935, she was still a domestic servant, and obviously a well paid one. I can't help but think there may be more to her story than she is telling us, but conjecture will only go so far until it reaches my frontal conspiratorial romanticized lobes, and loses all sense of I will speculate no more.

Since researching her paper trail only created more questions, I started looking for more pictures of Anna. As I stated before, I'm having a really hard time finding her in the family group photos, but I did find a few more of her with two different men. Both men were from the area and about her age, but both went on to marry other women. I cannot say for certain that they were love interests, but in one photo from May of 1926, the two are sitting very close together and she is holding a small bouquet of flowers. She is obviously fairly young in the photos, no more than her twenties, but usually with that trademark tilt of her head and wry smile. I get the feeling I would have gotten along very well with the young Anna. I sense she had a tremendous amount of spunk and independence......or perhaps spunk and the determination to work hard enough to forget a broken heart? Sorry, couldn't help that one.

Even though I cannot remember meeting "Aunt Annie", as the younger generation called her, I remember her estate dispersal. We were allowed into a storage room full of shelves that were loaded with odds and ends. Her life was scattered about the room in the form of tangible objects. If she could have been there, what stories could she have told us about each item? Were there family artifacts there that were rendered silent as we passed by and therefore left to be sold to a stranger? My mother tried to locate things she thought looked old enough to be from the family. She picked up a depression era pink cherry blossom glass bowl, and a single glass goblet with bubbles in it. Several people in the room passed by a very large portrait that leaned against the shelves, until my mother recognized the was Anna's mother, Emma Fliehmann Beyersdoerfer. Mom quickly brought it to the attention of my Grandmother (Anna's niece) Frieda, and they quickly saved Grandma Emma's portrait from the auction block. Reflecting back on the things we don't know about Anna, were there mementos among the possessions that spoke of lost or unrequited love? Sadly, or maybe appropriately, that remains Anna's secret.

This is my first Sepia Saturday post - week #27! To join the fun, click here.


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