Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Revisionist Personal History: My Grandma's Oatmeal Cookies

(My grandmother, Mary Birse Sheldon)

When my grandmother died, she left me the world's ugliest ring.

Gaudy, cluttered, and roughly the size and weight of a Big Mac, it is the epitome of bad design and bad taste. Pearls, diamonds, and jade all compete for room on a thick, winding ribbon of gold, the gems piled on like candy on a child's gingerbread house.
If you judged my grandmother on this ring alone, you would assume she was a tacky, silly woman, and you would be wrong. The world's ugliest ring is simply proof of my grandmother's sentimental economy: it contains every gift her beloved husband ever gave her. Her husband, the grandfather I never met, died of cancer too young, when my mother was only 13, and the ring is what she kept of him.

(Mary and Mel Sheldon, on honeymoon, 1940)
In what I assume was an act of my grandmother's overweening pragmatism, she took each precious gift -- engagement ring, wedding ring, anniversary earrings, tennis bracelet, as well as a pair of his jade cuff links -- and had them melted into one monstrous monument of their marriage. I suppose she thought it was less fuss, to keep them all together; I know she certainly hated fuss in any form. But in her effort to be practical, she created a ring that is anything but: it's completely unwearable; in fact, I don't have any memories of her wearing it. But I do remember that she kept a picture of her husband next to her bed for the rest of her life, and lived out the next 40 years without looking at another man. And I remember how that stubborn independence eventually gave her a hardness that you don't usually associate with grandmothers: she could be stingy with her love, her words could leave scars, and she was more than a little critical.

She was, to borrow her phrase, a real tough cookie.

But there were other sides to her, parts of her softer former self that lingered. She used to let me sleep with her, and in the dark, would trace shapes with her fingernail on the inside of my wrist, and I was to guess what she was drawing. We used to go to the movies and smuggle in the most wonderful treats in her over-sized purse: deviled eggs, and ham sandwiches and cream soda in bottles. At night, she let me help with the popcorn, and we'd lick the salt from our fingers as we watched Fawlty Towers and The Golden Girls. (She even let me eat popcorn for breakfast once, making me promise I would never tell my mom our little secret.)

When she visited, she brought baskets full of odds and ends she'd collected from around her house that she knew I would love -- pictures cut from magazines, official rubber stamps and half-used ledgers so that I could play "secretary." I spent weeks of my summers with her, counting the red pins on her giant atlas that represented the dozens of far-off countries she'd traveled to in all her years alone. I thought I wanted to be just like her: smart, independent, a world traveler. She was a true broad.

(White sunglasses, 1942)

But as I got older, and she got older, the crustier sides of her became more dominant. Or maybe I finally began to see them through less-forgiving adult eyes. By the time I was in college, I would find myself a little nervous to call her, intimidated by her hardness. And then she died quite suddenly, before I could ask her how she felt about her life, or about being alone. But she left me that ring, which I think answers a lot of those questions.

So let me revise: when my grandmother died, she left me the world's ugliest, most beautiful ring.

But she didn't leave me a single recipe. Not one.

Which means I will have to invent one, the same way I invent answers to questions she's not here to answer. And I think I found the perfect recipe: a spectacular oatmeal cookie that is crunchy and salty on the outside, with a soft and chewy sweet center. Kind of like the old cookie herself.

The original recipe doesn't call for chocolate, but as much as my grandmother loved France, I think she would have definitely added a little fine chocolate to the mix. You should, too. But be sure to get a high-quality bar of white chocolate, and not those so-called white chocolate chips. (She would never approve of those waxy chips.) And even more than the melt-in-your-mouth texture of these divine cookies, what makes them so exceptional is that little sprinkle of salt on the top. If I re-write her a little, I can almost picture her, my sweet Scottish Grandmother Mary, leaning over the baking sheet, sprinkling each one carefully with a few precious flakes.

So what if she never actually made them, or any other cookies that I recall. We revise history all the time, remembering what we want to remember, adding and subtracting and forgetting the rest.
For all of her faults, my grandma is still one of my heroes, and she deserves a place in my recipe box. And someday, when I bake these cookies for my kids, and then my grandkids, I can tell them all about my grandmother Mary... or at least the parts I'll want them to know.

So, as of today, these are my Grandma's Crispy Salty Oatmeal Cookies. They're so good, it's a shame she never got to taste them.

(My Grandmother's) Salty, Crispy Oatmeal Cookies

adapted from Cook's Illustrated

1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon table salt
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
1 bar (3.5 ounces) good quality white chocolate (or dark, if you prefer), chopped
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt, preferably fleur de sel

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl.

2. In standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter and sugars at medium-low speed until just combined. Increase speed to medium and continue to beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Scrape down bowl with rubber spatula. Add egg and vanilla and beat on medium-low until fully incorporated, about 30 seconds. Scrape down bowl again. With mixer running at low speed, add flour mixture and mix until just incorporated and smooth, 10 seconds. With mixer still running on low, gradually add oats and chocolate and mix until well incorporated, 20 seconds. Give dough final stir with rubber spatula to ensure that no flour pockets remain and ingredients are evenly distributed.

3. Divide dough into 24 equal portions, each about 2 tablespoons, then roll between palms into balls. Place cookies on prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 2 1/2 inches apart, 8 dough balls per sheet. Using fingertips, gently press each dough ball to 3/4-inch thickness. Lightly sprinkle sea salt evenly over flattened dough balls before baking. They will spread and flatten quite a bit during baking.

4. Bake 1 sheet at a time until cookies are deep golden brown, 13 to 16 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack; cool cookies completely on sheet.


  1. Cookies? Delicious. Ring? Hideous. It looks like an metal everlasting Gobstopper. In that top picture, you look so much like your grandmother. She's your doppelgrandma.

  2. that first photo of your grandmother is positioned ever so slightly below your profile photo. and when i first glanced at the two, i held my breath because i saw her features in yours. you are both absolutely gorgeous.

    and that was a sweet and beautiful story; your grandmother sounds like such a strong woman. thanks for sharing.

  3. A poignant reminder not to let questions go unasked or unanswered, much less stories unshared. None of us knows how many days we will have together. I have to gently disagree with the ring bashers. To me it looks like love.

  4. What a lovely and touching story. I got goose bumps several times. I don't think the ring is ugly at all - just original. Sounds just like your grandmother.

  5. My grandma was one of those tough cookies, too - hard broads, but worth exploring, for sure, and what a lovely, touching job you've done of it here. Love tracing pictures on your wrist, and salt on your fingers; all those things that stay forever. Delicious!

  6. Cool post! I love crusty old broads! I totally agree you look like your Grandma.I would wear that ring and smile:D

  7. Grammy would be proud. You made me miss her, love her and dread her all over again. She was an amazing woman!

  8. THAT is how you write about "Grandma." I loved this post. If you are ever feeling nostalgic...I know where you can find Nana's Drawer full or recipes!

    You know what is funny. My Grandmother's wedding ring (2nd marriage) looks like that. yep, and she got married for the 2nd time in the 90's! yikes!!!

  9. Thanks, guys. My grandma was lots of things, some parts good, some parts not so good. But we admire the good parts and learn from the rest. And Cess, that's big of you to say... I know what a bitch she was to you.

  10. so I made these today. A neighbor passed away, and the boys and I whipped these up to bring to some cheer to a mourning widow. They turned out amazing! She even called to tell us how delicious they were. I added chocolate chips instead of the chocolate bar. We will definitely be making these again.

  11. Sara, remember when you shared your grandma with me on "Grandparents Day" at Fallbrook Street School? Mine were far away in upstate New York so you, your mom, and your grandma invited me to join you for a picnic on the school lawn. Your grandma was really charming and made me feel special. I guess that was about 22 years ago, but your post totally reminded me of that day. Also, I'm not sure if this was the same one, but you used to do a great impression of your grandma seeking out and circumnavigating her straw with her tongue. Ah, memories.

  12. you are a fantastic writer!

  13. I don't believe that the ring is ugly. I actually find it neat! And the cookies look/sound delicious :) Your story is very touching,thanks for sharing :D