Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Of Cookies and Proust

Perhaps no literary reference is appropriated as much as Proust's consideration of the madeleine in "Remembrance of Things Past." Go ahead, the next time you're browsing baking books at Borders, you will find that nine out of 10 recipe headnotes for madeleines will mention Proust. Considering that "Remembrance" is seven volumes long, I have doubts that so many food writers have truly read the book. I'm not a dilettante, I will not pretend that I have read Proust, although I have a copy of the first volume, "Swann's Way," somewhere in my home. However, I've read the allusion enough to submit my own substitute for the madeleine: the soft ginger cookie, a chewy disc, crackly with sugar, fragrant with cloves, cinnamon and the eponymous ginger, anointed with a puddle of raspberry jam right in the epicenter.

These cookies come from Becker's Bakery in Nashville, Tennessee, the Bakery of My Childhood. Bear with me as I reveal a bit of family history: my mom is a Nashville native, specifically of Brentwood, now a cornucopia of conspicuous consumption, but 60 something years ago just a small farm town near Music City. My mom likes to describe Brentwood as horse country, before all those country music stars built (really big) houses there. Although Dad's an Alabama native, he moved to Nashville in the early 60s for work, and then met and married Mom. My parents lived across the street from Mom's parents for several years, during which time my brother and I were born. Beginning in the mid-60s, better jobs called my parents to move to Texas and then South Carolina and finally, in 1978, Georgia. For me and my brothers, (two more would eventually come after me), the twin highlights of our childhood summers were a weeklong trip to the beach over the 4th of July holiday, and a week visiting my grandparents in Nashville. That visit always included a trip to Opryland, the Nashville Toy Museum, some really cool old folks, and Becker's Bakery at (I think) 8th Avenue.

I still remember the wood floors, wood display cases and fake wedding cake. Mom remembers the screen door in the back. While my brothers and I plastered our sticky hands on the display cases and shouted out the names of the treats, Mom would purchase the butter cookies, spritzes of pastel stars, in green, yellow and pink. We could each pick out a waving gingerbread man, one arm up and one arm down, sprinkled with red sugar. And no fewer than 2 dozen ginger cookies would come home with us. Or at least make it to the car, because I doubt they lasted more than 15 minutes with my sugar-crazed brothers (and me).

Every few years, we make a pilgrimage to Nashville, and that visit always included a trip to Becker's, until about 5 years ago when the store on 8th Avenue closed. There's still a Becker's in Donelson, on the north side of town, but the sentimental favorite near my mom's former home is no more. My daughter cried real tears when we told her. She was more upset than when I gave away her dog.

I have searched on top shelves and low shelves to find a recipe to equal Becker's, and this is the closest. It includes ground walnuts, which I don't think are in Becker's, but it makes for a tasty cookie. The texture is not quite as soft as Becker's, either, and I find that they are better after sitting for a day. These cookies are lovely on an autumn day, when you can sit with a cup of chamomile tea and curl up with a book, Proust perhaps, in a chair by a window with a clear view of the scarlet maple dropping its leaves.

Ginger Cookies

2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup ground walnuts
1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup Grandma's molasses
1/2 cup granulated sugar for coating the unbaked cookies
1/4 cup (approximately) seedless raspberry jam

1. In a bowl, stir together flour, walnuts, soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon and cloves; set aside. Preheat oven to 350.

2. In mixer bowl, combine butter and brown sugar; beat until well blended. Beat in egg, then molasses. Gradnually add flour mixture, beating until blended.

3. Spread granulated sugar in a shallow pan. Drop cookie dough by heaping tablespoons (I use a scoop for consistency) into sugar. Roll cookies to coat well, shaping them into balls as you roll.

4. Place about two inches apart on lined cookie sheets (I use Silpats, but parchment will work, too). With your thumb, make a small depression in the center of each cookie. Fill each thumbprint with about a 1/4 teaspoon jelly. I find that a baby feeding spoon, the narrow kind with the long handle, is just perfect for scooping the jelly and placing it on the cookie.

5. Bake the cookies until they are brown and feel firm when touched lightly, about 15 to 18 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

Makes about 30 cookies. Which means doubling is probably in order because these cookies go fast!

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