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Recapturing a food memory

Just last weekend, someone asked me what the first thing I remembered cooking was. I thought for a minute, and then I lied to them, saying, "Pound cakes. I took decorated pound cakes to my teachers every year and I baked them myself!"

In my defense, I truly did think that it was the correct answer when I said it - and I did bake pound cakes for my teachers - but a few days ago, something else came across my desk and made me reconsider what was first.

I was presented with the need to pay tribute to Mimi, my grandmother - the woman who, more than any, shaped the kitchenMage I am today - in a single photograph, and one with odd constraints at that. Remembering that recent conversation, I once again went rummaging through cookbooks and memories for the very first thing I remember making.

Needless to say, it wasn't pound cake.

What it actually is is a cookie.Worse, it is a dead simple cookie. A cookie so common that it has a collection of names with different countries in them. Something I make every year around the winter holidays. The cookie that, for the people who baked with her, evokes memories of Mimi. It's one of the sacraments of my winter kitchen. But I have been making them wrong for far too many years to even think about.

The reasons why are too many to list, but they start with a truly sad bit: While I ended up with most of the family cookbooks a couple of decades ago, the metal box of 3x5 recipe cards covered with my grandmother's precisely slanted writing, was nowhere to be found. With it went most of a century of recipes.

Let us observe a moment of silence for this, and all other, lost recipes.

Even so, I have made a reasonable facsimile of these cookies dozens of times since then; switching recipes around, tweaking this and that, always in search of the exact right combination of flavor and texture yet never quite finding it.

Then a few days ago, I decided that that photograph, in order to be a true tribute to Mimi, had to have these cookies in it. Not some, almost-but-not-quite version of these cookies. These cookies.

So I did what any good ex-Apprentice would: channeled the elder mage. After making myself a cup of tea (with milk and sugar, naturally, because the nuns taught her the proper way to drink tea, and she taught me), I stood in front of the cookbook shelves with an empty mind.

The original recipe was likely to have come from one of a few books so I started with the most likely. There was a recipe, but it was obviously different from hers: too few nuts, not enough vanilla, and I remembered beating things together differently. I couldn't even count on finding scribbles in the margin because the ancient, torn and tattered copy of that book went to theKid a few years back.

But I stared at the page, thought WWMT (What Would Mimi Tweak?) and took a stab at it. Two ingredients were doubled, the method was adjusted (perhaps a bit too much) and a sheet of test cookies went into the oven. Thirteen impatient minutes later, I pulled out a tray of barely golden bits of rich, sweetness and waited impatiently for one to cool. (Note to self: Holding a 400 degree cookie in your hand while you frantically blow on it in a futile attempt to cool it just leaves you with burnt fingertips.)

They. Are. Perfect.

The recipe will make its appearance here soon, but at the moment, I am simply savoring my victory. It may not be the Dead Sea Scrolls, but finding one long-lost family recipe is good enough for now.

What about you? Have you lost a favorite recipe, discovered one again, or are you still searching?

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