Thursday, October 25, 2018

Nellie's Remembrance Cookies

An interesting treat to enjoy while sharing stories of the past!

Halloween is fast approaching, and if you want to try something a little different this holiday season, I can't recommend these cookies enough. They're unusual, and probably not for everyone, but if you're a fan of unusual flavors and cookies that are sweet, but not too sweet, this is definitely worth a shot. 

The historical accuracy of this recipe is maybe a little questionable, but if you'll stick with me, you'll see there's an interesting story in here, along with a nice way to pass along memories of those who have gone before.

Remembrance cookies are a sort of close textured rosemary shortbread. Rosemary traditionally is an herb associated with remembrance, and these cookies are apparently an "old" recipe made on All Hallow's Eve in Ireland, which have also been incorporated into some Wiccan traditions. They're rolled out and cut out with a gingerbread man or woman shaped cookie cutters. Families would get together to eat the cookies, share stories of their deceased loved ones, and then would burn any cookies that remained or left them outside as an offering to the spirits of the dead. 

Now I'm going to be blunt: I couldn't find a really good source for the recipe I used, meaning I didn't find one that specifically cited a historic cookbook where this exact recipe was printed, and I didn't find any specific references to this tradition outside of a few blog posts about modern Wiccan customs and practices. But it is true that a lot of our Halloween customs are modern interpretations of Irish pagan customs originally preformed on Samhain, the Celtic festival marking the end of the harvest season when the spirits of the dead were thought to return home looking for hospitality. What better way to greet them than by celebrating their lives with their descendants with cookies? 

This recipe - and the broader custom of honoring deceased loved ones - felt especially significant for Nellie and Samantha because both of their stories involve personal loss, and trying to preserve the memory of loved ones who have passed on. Samantha treasures what few reminders she has of her parents, such as her mother's sketchbook...

And Nellie would no doubt want to find ways to keep the memories of her parents alive after they died and she and her sisters were adopted by Uncle Gard and Aunt Cornelia. Although the O'Malley kids were likely raised Catholic, they probably would have kept some customs from Ireland alive and would have wanted to share these traditions with their new family. These cookies might have been a way for Nellie to share stories with her adoptive sister and parents.

The key ingredient here is fresh rosemary. Rosemary was considered sacred to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, used as a medicinal herb (with questionable success), and has symbolized remembrance for a multitude of cultures. Ancient Greek scholars apparently wore wreaths of the herb when they were studying for exams, and rosemary has featured prominently in more modern commemorations of war dead. Sprigs of rosemary are often worn on ANZAC Day by Australians, and the herb grows wild on the Gallipoli peninsula. 

Wash, pat dry, and chop up 1 1/2 tablespoons of fresh rosemary.

Add that to a bowl along with the rest of your wet ingredients: 1 1/2 cups of powdered sugar, 1 cup of softened, unsalted butter, 1 egg, 2 teaspoon of vanilla, and 1 teaspoon almond extract. 

I got to break out our brand new stand mixer to make these cookies. Isn't it a pretty shade of blue? It was a wedding present from my mom!

Cream the wet ingredients together until they're well combined, and then add your dry ingredients: 2 1/2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, and 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar. Mix these in until a dough forms, which shouldn't take too long.

It is, however, a very soft dough, so it needs to chill in the fridge for three hours before you can roll it out and cut it into shapes. Once that's done, split the dough in half and roll it out on a floured surface until it's about 1/4 to 1/8th of an inch thick. Using a floured cookie cutter, cut out your rosemary shortbread men (and/or women) and line them up on a cookie sheet.

They bake in the oven for 5 to 7 minutes at 375 degrees. They should still look pretty pale, but there might be a little bit of browning on the bottom and sides if you've made them very thin.

Once they've cooled down, they're ready to eat!

Like I said, these cookies are a good balance of being sweet without being too sweet or savory. I know the rosemary might be a hard sell for some people, but it's really not all that different from cooking with lavender: too much could probably feel soapy, but rosemary is just floral enough to be really pleasant when used like this. The cookies also have an interesting texture. They're not doughy or chewy, but they're also not crunchy. They sort of melt in your mouth and have a very soft texture, even though I would say they are pretty similar to shortbread. 

A word of warning: they do get a little doughy if you roll them too thick. I actually made these last year for Halloween and didn't post about them on the blog because I was just too busy to photograph them properly, and the first batch was kind of unpleasant texture wise. The plus side of making them thinner is that you get more cookies out of the recipe too! The first time I made them, the dough made about two dozen cookies, but this time was a little over three dozen. Much nicer for bringing into the office to have people give them a shot. The feedback from my officemates was overall positive as well. Apparently I have a lot of people in the office who like treats that aren't too sweet, and the fragrant rosemary really seemed to intrigue them. Good to know for the future! 

Whether or not these cookies are wholly authentic to Halloweens of years past, it's a nice idea and the result is pretty tasty. I would definitely make these again - and already have made the recipe twice - and think incorporating the tradition of sharing stories about your loved ones is a really sweet message that could easily be worked in to trick or treating or carving pumpkins. What do you think? Will these be making an appearance on your Halloween table?

Do you have other ways of remembering loved ones who have passed on?


  1. Interesting. I wonder how rosemary and lavender would do together in a cookie?

    1. I've been wondering the same thing! My coworker has a really delicious recipe for lavender shortbread I've been dying to try myself. Maybe I'll throw in a little rosemary too.