Saturday, December 26, 2015

Grace makes Cookie Brittle & Elevator Lady Spice Cookies

Happy Holidays from A Peek into the Pantry!

Happy Holidays, everyone! Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I hope you've had a good December so far and can get a kick out of hearing about some of my family traditions. I've had a chance to highlight a few of these in the past, but the recipes I'm sharing today are something I took charge of making this year, rather than learning from the original masters: my two grandmas!

It seemed only fitting that Grace be the host for this post. Grace's books center around her love of baking, which started because her grandparents run a successful bakery in town. She loves visiting them and helping them out in the kitchen, and turns to them for advice when she and her friends decide they want to start their own baking business! I don't exactly have a tradition of baking with my grandmas and we definitely don't own a family bakery, but I definitely do think of these recipes as "their" recipes. I hope you'll enjoy hearing about how to make them yourself!

My girlfriend and I have done a lot of story swapping about our different Christmas traditions this year. Since she lives in Australia and it's summer down there, they have quite a different idea of what makes a traditional Christmas than we do, even if it's been unseasonably warm this year in my neck of the woods and the only snow we're seeing is in the movies. It's meant I've done a lot of thinking of what exactly makes the holidays for me, whether it be what shows we need to watch or what food we eat on the day itself. Jessi's family's big desserts are puddings (the steamed kind, traditionally depicted with white icing and holly on top) and pavlova, an Australian favorite that's basically a meringue with whipped cream and fruit arranged on top. Other families I've met have spice cakes, pies, puddings, or bûche de Noël (which I'm sure Grace would be all over!), but in our family, I definitely feel like we're all about the cookies.

There have been years where we've made cakes or had ice cream treats, and a staple of the holiday dessert menu is a Christmas cake with cherries and walnuts in it, but rolled sugar cookies almost always make an appearance alongside the highly addictive, definitely delicious, utterly notorious cookie brittle. Someone announcing they've made this comes with a chorus of excited wails and agonized groans, because you know it's going to be delicious, but you also know you're going to eat way, way too much of it.

What is cookie brittle, other than upsettingly tasty? Well, it's basically a crisp chunk of chocolate chip cookie. Chocolate chip cookies (also known as toll house cookies) were invented in New England, are the state dessert of Massachusetts, and are my hands down favorite cookie. I've joked that if I ever was on a baking show and tasked with making a cookie that best represented me, it would be a slightly salty chocolate chip cookie because I'm slightly salty and a New Englander.

The recipe we started off with comes from the Toll House Heritage Cookbook, which was originally published in 1980 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the invention of chocolate chip cookies. My mom has become the official keeper of the cookbook, and often makes cookie brittle herself. She's made a few tweaks to the official recipe, but the book is a nice little bit of history on its own.

As a bonus bit of history, my mom has a habit of stashing clippings, art projects and notes in different cookbooks (and books in general), and when we opened this one up, we found a bookmark my sister made for a summer reading project that I was (predictably) excited to find.

It says "Don't you know there's a war on?" and "Buy War Bonds", but we're not sure what book it's for.

The book has a variety of tasty sounding recipes, most of which have nice photos or old fashioned looking black and white illustrations representing the finished product. There's an introduction that explains the history of the chocolate chip cookie - something for another post! - and instructions and tips for cooking with chocolate. There's brownies, cakes, cookies, pies, and pretty much any other dessert you can make with chocolate in here. My mom also uses the magic cookie bar recipe in here, and they're definitely to die for.

So, there are two versions of cookie brittle in our family: the way the book tells you to do it, which is how my grandma makes it, and the way my mom makes it. Both are delicious, and really, the only immediately noticeable difference is that one cookie comes out quite a bit darker than the other.

This is because the original recipe calls for you to make the cookies with a cup of softened butter, a cup of white sugar, a teaspoon of salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract. My mom uses 1/2 cup of brown sugar and 1/2 cup of white sugar, because brown sugar is delicious. It just adds an extra something to anything you put it in! This all gets mixed together, and then you gradually add two cups of flour. Once that's done, the recipe calls for half a bag of chocolate chips, but we used the whole bag. Why not, right?

Oh, and we don't add nuts at all. We're not a nuts in chocolate chip cookies or brownies sort of family.

Once the dough is well mixed, you press it flat into an ungreased cookie sheet. It can take some manipulation, but you should be able to fit it into an 15 x 10 or 9 x 13 pan. Also, it's definitely better to cram more dough into a smaller pan than try to partially fill a large pan, because the brittle that isn't pressed up against the sides of the pan tends to get nice and charcoaly.

This bakes in the oven at 375 degrees for 25 minutes, and should come out looking nice and golden brown. You cake break this right out of the tray once it cools. The irregular chunks you wind up with won't be winning any baking beauty contests, but they taste amazing. This is my mom's side of the family's swear to baked good because it's so easy and incredibly tasty. I've brought it to bake sales, cookie parties and given it away as gifts, and have always gotten compliments.

Also, it travels very well, so if you're ever looking for a cookie to ship, look no further!

My other favorite Christmas cookie comes from the other side of the family. My dad's favorite cookies are always on the spicy or molassesy side of things. It's pretty safe to say he'll enjoy anything you give him with that flavor profile, and for years, his mom made these yummy spice cookies. I'm pretty sure she had them on hand when we were visiting outside of the Christmas season, but they were almost always available at her house on Christmas, so I still think of them as a Christmas cookie.

I'm actually pretty sure this was the first spice cookie I ever ate, and I definitely remember looking forward to them when we went to visit, usually on Boxing Day after spending Christmas with my mom's family. Sneaking an extra one when no one was looking was always a lot of fun!

My grandma doesn't have opportunity to do much baking these days, so it's been a while since I've had these. I've been missing them - and I think other people have too - so I was excited when I found out that we have the recipe copied in a book of handwritten family recipes my grandma gave my mom as a wedding gift. Some of them are from her, her mother and her mother in law, but others were copied down from favorite cookbooks. This one has an interesting original source, which I have to admit I've already added to my Amazon list so I can get my own copy someday.

As it turns out, these are not just my grandma's spice cookies. These are "Elevator Lady Spice Cookies" from the I Hate to Cook Cookbook by Peg Bracken, originally published in 1960. A 50th anniversary copy was released in 2010, so it's possible to get both the original and the reprint, if that makes a difference to anyone interested.

Peg Bracken was a wildly successful author because her books emphasized that you didn't need to be perfect or even particularly enjoy being a domestic goddess. Her cookbooks and other etiquette and house keeping books were down to earth with amusing illustrations and witty or sarcastic comments throughout. Her first cookbook was the result of brainstorming with friends who also didn't feel like perfect housewives, and was a huge hit. These cookies apparently got their name because while on her way to work one morning with a batch of spice cookies in tow, Bracken offered one to the other woman in the elevator - "the Elevator Lady" - who remarked that she could make a better spice cookie than that. She gave Bracken her recipe, and Bracken conceded that yep, these are a lot better! The rest is history.

To make the Elevator Lady spice cookies, you mix together 3/4 of a cup of shortening, one cup of sugar, one egg and 1/4 of a cup of molasses. This mixes together really easily into a good wet base. Then, you sift together two cups of flour, two teaspoons of baking soda, 1/4 of a teaspoon of salt, one teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 3/4 of a teaspoon of ground cloves, and 3/4 of a teaspoon of ground ginger and add it to the mix.

You take the dough and roll it into walnut sized balls. I used a scoop to get them uniformly sized and put them two inches apart on the cookie sheet as instructed. These bake at 375 for ten to twelve minutes, and the recipe made almost exactly two dozen cookies.

The result should be a cookie with a good amount of chew to it that's just a little crisp and an awesome amount of spice to them. The jury's out on whether or not my grandma put sugar on top of them, but I think she might have. Maybe that'll be my new addition to the recipe when I make it moving forward!

So there you have it: my favorite holiday treats. It was a lot of fun to dig out these old recipes and learn their history, both in our family and out. They've been staples for so long that most of the time, it doesn't even occur to you to take a second and think about where exactly they came from. They've just always been there!

How about you guys? What food do you celebrate the holiday season with? Is there anything you look forward to more than anything else? What was the best thing on your table this year?

Hope you're all enjoying your weekend!


  1. Love the pictures!

  2. Nice tribute to your grandmothers! And the cookies were awesome too.

    1. Too bad we don't have more of them!

  3. The cookie brittle looks awesome - I'm just going to stare at the photos and make cookie monster noises for a while now... ;)

    1. You and me both! I'm so sad we've eaten all of them, haha.

  4. I was looking for the Elevator Lady cookie recipe and didn't even know it! Thanks! Another great post!

    1. You're very welcome! Enjoy your cookies. :D