Mystery Cookies

In which Nancy Drew appears.

When I was very young (probably between 4 and 6) my mom walked in on me reading two Nancy Drew books at the same time. I would read one page of one book and then one page of the other book and then turn both pages at the same time.  I have a vague memory of this.  I explained to her that the stories were too formulaic and boring and therefore needed to be spiced up.  (Not quite in those words, but that was the thought.)Mystery CookiesFrom a very early age, I loved a good mystery.  More often than not, the books I have checked out in Overdrive are mysteries.  The really good ones have twists that you never see coming.  The silly ones are fairly obvious from early on and I spend most of the book waiting for the characters to catch up to where I already am.There was one book I read a few years back where the main character knew who the killer was by asking for them for an answer to a cryptic crossword.  I was confounded at the time, but have since learned to do cryptics.  Not nearly as well as my friend that takes existing crossword puzzles and then writes his own clues to the answers.  Also, not nearly as well, as our other friend who just has the sort of brain that overthinks everything (Yes, mom, even worse than I do.)  I do best when I have someone else with whom I can discuss the possibilities.  Mystery CookiesI am usually pretty good at sussing out secrets.  Not always to my benefit.  Occasionally, though, there are things that I just never see coming.  Like when my half-brother became my half-sister.  Never saw that coming.

Some of these recipes are like that.  Where I just have no idea what it is that I’m supposed to expect.  Like “Japanese” Chicken or Deviled Hot Dogs.  Then there are others that give me an idea, but don’t give me a lot of details.  Unbaked Cookies is a good example, as are most of the cake recipes.  I spend a lot of time assessing what I know about cooking and applying that logic.  That’s part of the appeal about doing this blog for me.  Solving the mystery of these recipes, taking some pictures, trying them out so people know what to expect.  It’s so easy these days to search for a recipe online.  Most of them have explicit how-tos and pictures.  It wasn’t always quite so easy.  Mystery CookiesThis recipe was an easy one.  It just didn’t have a title.  Or instructions.  It’s probably a good thing that the thing I like to read best after mysteries is cookbooks.  Yep.  Just read them like novels.  It’s a great way to see how ingredients are supposed to go together and which foods pair well with other foods.  It gives you an idea of the culture and values of populations.   Shows you how much time people have to cook or bake.  It’s an anthropological study (read: mystery).  DSCN2619

Another note about these cookies, I don’t like creamy peanut butter.  I know, I know, it might call one to question all sorts of things about me, but I said it.  Peanut butter without nuts is just like paste.  Texture needs to happen for me.  It needs some crunch.  It needs to be more than just glue that sticks to the roof of your mouth.  You may point out that this recipe calls for cornflake crumbs and that should provide the texture I say I need, but that’s crisp, not crunch.  Incidentally, these cookies are delicious.

Mystery Cookies

Mystery Cookies

I cup margarine (2 sticks) creamed with 1/2 cup peanut butter, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 1/2 cup brown sugar.  When while creamed, add one egg and 1 tsp vanilla.  Add 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1 1/3 cups of flour, 1/4 tsp salt.  After everything is mixed together, gently mix in 1 cup of cornflake crumbs.  Bake for 12-15 minutes at 350°.  Yield is 4 dozen.


Cherry Dessert

In which I explore some literature.

I have this view of Iowans as practical people.  People without a lot of nonsense.  Straightforward, honest, and hardworking.  It’s a stereotype to be sure. But then again, some of those stereotypes are reinforced by literature.  So maybe I’m not totally off-base.

In college, I would take weekend visits to my grandparents’ house.  I usually brought along homework of some sort.  One weekend I brought along a book I was reading for one of my classes.  It was called Making Hay.  Grandpa picked up the book, studied it for a minute and turned to my grandma.  “Dorothy, look at this. Verlyn Klinkenborg.” “Who?” I asked.  “Oh, he used to play with your uncle when they were kids.”  I almost asked if they were sure it was the same guy, but then I realized that the chances of two people having that name were slim.

For Christmas this year, my husband got me the book Prairie Fires since I have been a fan of the Little House books since I was young.   In it, the author discusses both Laura Ingalls Wilder and Hamlin Garland‘s connection to Burr Oak, Iowa.  My grandparents introduced me to Hamlin Garland’s books when I was young.  We went on a tour of his house.  I can barely remember the trip, but my copy of Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly has moved with me for nearly 30 years.  DSCN3362The practical people that named some of these recipes were not nearly as eloquent as the writers which is why we have recipes named things like “Darned Good Candy” and “Cherry Dessert.”

So what is Cherry Dessert?  It’s a nut and cherry filled cake topped with a jammy cherry sauce and whipped cream.  It is delicious and addicting.


The first time I made it, I mixed everything up together (with cherries from my trees) and put it into a prepared 9×13 pan.  Before I even got it all into the pan, I realized that I probably should’ve used a smaller pan.  The cake layer was about equal to the whipped cream layer.  The bad part about this was that it took a large piece (or two) to leave me feeling satisfied and the cherry dessert would call my name as it sat in my fridge.  DSCN3368The second time I made it, I had much better results in a smaller 8×8 pan.  I neglected to let the cake cool completely before adding the whipped cream to the top.  The results were a bit runny and messy, but nonetheless incredible.


The sweetness of the cake, the tartness of the cherries, and the creamy layer all combine to make a dessert that satiates every dessert craving except chocolate.  It’s cool and a bit crunchy.  This is going to be a staple at my house during cherry season.   Cherry Dessert

Cherry Dessert

1 c sugar
1 egg
1 TB butter, melted
1 c flour
1 t soda
1/4 t salt
1 c sour cherries (reserve juice)
3/4 c nuts

Bake at 350 for 35 minutes

Cool.  Cover with whipped cream.

Heat juice, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 TB flour, 1 TB cornstarch.  Cook until thick.  Add 1 T butter. Chill, spread over cream.


Christmas Sugar Cookies and Peanut Brittle

2 Days Until Christmas…

2 days until Christmas…

It seems appropriate to finish off my cookie plates with classic treats that are as good today as they were when my great-grandma made them.  These are the sorts of treats that most American kids grew up eating.  I am not sure I remember a single Christmas without Sugar Cookies and peanut brittle.  DSCN3532Being a very modern woman, I’ve dabbled in other types of brittle.  We’ve made bacon almond brittle with hints of rosemary and chilis.  We’ve tried pecan brittle with a bit of orange rind.  I’ve even tried to make brittle in the off-season.  Somehow, though, we always find our way back to peanut brittle.  It’s crunchy and caramel-y.  It’s chunky, salty, and sweet.  This is better than the weird boxes of peanut brittle you can pick up at the drug store.  It’s worth risking the burns. DSCN3531 Another thing to note, I had a heck of a time finding appropriate peanuts to put in the brittle.  I just wanted some Spanish peanuts.  I feel like I used to see them all over, but I went to a couple of different stores and didn’t see them.  I used cocktail peanuts instead, lightly salted. DSCN3529 There are an insane amount of sugar cookie recipes available.  This one is one that you should not make according to the recipe.  If you follow the recipe, the thing you make will be a sweet quiche-y sort of thing.  It will not be cookies.  The recipe is missing flour.  I don’t know how the proofreader missed that.  After consulting various cookbooks, I determined that for the amount of fat and eggs in the recipe, about 5 cups of flour was the right amount.  I was slightly wrong.  I think 4 1/2 would’ve been better.  I added a couple of tablespoons of milk to hold everything together.

The best part of making sugar cookies is decorating them afterwards.  We cheated this year and bought cookie frosting.  I get a break on this one, I made 6 different kinds of cookies and 6 different kinds of candy in 2 days.  It allowed me to sit down with the kids and decorate with minimal clean up after.  The kids love to decorate cookies.  They are getting quite accomplished at it.  There was some marbling going on and some fancy sugar work.

That wraps up the cookie plate for this year.  Plates were taken to neighbors, plates were taken to work.  We are going to need to have people over to help us eat the rest of them.

Christmas Sugar CookiesPeanut Brittle(Velva)

Church Windows and Darned Good Candy

3 Days Until Christmas…

3 Days until Christmas!

Before I even begin with discussion on these recipes, I need to comment about those mini colored marshmallows.  Do they really exist for a reason outside of small children, jello salads, and grandparents? DSCN3523The first time I heard about Church Windows cookies (are they cookies or are they candy?) was after our tree fell on our neighbor’s fence.  It might be the biggest event this neighborhood has seen in a while.  It was such a big event that as we were cutting it down, neighbors from the senior housing facility put out their chairs, plugged in their crockpots, and sat outside to watch.  I treated them to some rhubarb brownies and some chocolate chip cookies.  Some of the men came over to help.  We started chatting about Christmas cookie plates and he told me about the church windows cookies.  I assumed he was talking about stained glass cookies, but when he described them, this was exactly what he meant.  I never expected to find that recipe among my great-grandma’s.  DSCN3526No matter what the recipe says about double boiler, melt the chocolate in the microwave.  It’s so much easier.  Put it in for a minute, stir it after a minute, it might need another 15 or 30 seconds, but it won’t need much more.  Stirring these bad boys is hard.  It’s messy and involved.  DSCN3520Ok, so flavor…think something like rocky road.  But vaguely fruity with coconut.  They aren’t bad, but probably best in small doses.

As for the candy…who in could resist something called “Darned Good Candy”?  I made it wrong the first time I did it.  Use chopped pecans instead of whole pecans.  It makes a difference.  I also learned to not put hot candy on waxed paper.  Guess what happens?  It sticks.  You end up with delicious candy that leaves paper in your mouth.  So these pictures are of the second time that I tried making the candy.  DSCN3522

Darned Good Candy is like a caramel taffy.  It’s stiff and it’s creamy.  It’s got buttery undertones and the pecan flavor permeates the whole candy.  Yeah, it sticks to your teeth, but in the best possible way.  It’s really darned good.

Church WindowsDarned Good Candy

Darned Good Candy

3 cups sugar
1 cup sweet or sour cream
1 cup white corn syrup

Bring ingredients to a boil.

Add 1 heaping cup of chopped pecans and 1 tsp salt.  Boil to a very hard ball.

Add 4 TB butter and 2 tsp vanilla (mix until butter is melted).

Let cool 10 minutes.  Start beating lightly until mixture begins to hold its shape.  Drop by spoonfuls onto a greased sheet.  (I shaped the warm candy into small oblong pieces).


Crispy Spicy Cookies and Seaside Candy Roll

4 Days Until Christmas

4 days until Christmas…

Christmas flavors.  Ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, chocolate, peppermint, and…maple?

Since I know everyone loves when I do my true confessions, the big reason I decided to make the Seaside Candy roll is because it was on the same page as the Crispy Spicy Cookies and the Easy Divinity. As I was making it, I realized how much my friend’s mom would like it.  When I was done making it and firmly into the tasting phase, I realized that it was very much like something you would find for sale at Cracker Barrel.  (My husband’s family’s natural habitat).  For some people it probably does bring back memories of vacations in those beach towns on the East Coast.  I’ve never been, so I don’t know.  There is something sort of Christmassy about it, though.  Pecans and maple and sweetness.  DSCN3518This is one of those candies that requires no heat.  If you are going to use your handy Kitchen Aid, you want to use the paddle attachment until everything comes together.  At that point you can switch to the bread hook to knead the candy.  DSCN3519

We had friends over to help decorate the Crispy Spicy Cookies.  My darling, patient husband led a 3 year old, 4 year old, and 6 year old in the process while I was out Christmas shopping.  I’m only kind of sorry that I missed it.  I walked in to the house to see little hands putting the lightly spiced cookies into open mouths.  The flavors are gingerbread without molasses.  We had a minor issue while making cookies.  Someone didn’t really understand the directions and didn’t know to cream the butter and sugar before adding the dry ingredients.  It dried the mixture out a lot.  We ended up adding a bit of liquid to loosen things up a bit.  I don’t think it affected the flavor.DSCN3517

Christmas isn’t Christmas without something like gingerbread.  My son is describing gingerbread as “that soft, sweet, spicy deliciousness that tickles the back of your throat.”  I keep telling him that I’m not writing about gingerbread right now, but it doesn’t stop him from telling me.  DSCN3516That’s what these cookies are like.  Snuggling with your oldest on the couch, with a Hallmark Christmas movie on, and the tree lit.  The smell of cookies in the air and the sound of your middle child reading a bedtime story to his younger sister.  Just light perfection.  Crispy Spicy CookiesSeaside Candy Roll


Nutmeg Cookie Rolls and Easy Divinity

5 days until Christmas…

5 days until Christmas…

Around here, Christmas means eggnog. As soon as it starts appearing in stores, the kids start asking for it.  I make it a point to never buy it before December (and I know, I know, I could just make it, I even have a few different recipes for it).  But there is something about that thick, rich, creamy nog all scented with nutmeg.  It finds its way into my morning coffee.  (Not the Martha Stewart version, but there are times where that might be nice.)  Someone just told me about eggnog bread.  Who was that?DSCN3513I swear I am not just rambling about eggnog, I actually have a point.  Nutmeg cookie rolls.  YUM.  A nice little stick of a cookie with rum and nutmeg flavors.  I was hoping that this recipe would be nutmeg-y enough to be a suitable replacement for the drink and thus save me some room in the refrigerator.  The verdict is that it’s just not quite creamy enough.  These cookies are crisp and sweet.  The nutmeg is sort of a warm afterthought.  You can smell it as you bite into them, but it’s not the first flavor in your mouth.  I decorated these with melted white chocolate and some red things to make them look festive.  I think they kind of look like matches.  Whatever.DSCN3511Now, divinity.  I’m sure if you read through cookbooks the way I do, you have seen recipes for divinity, but you may not know what it is.  Imagine if meringue cookies and marshmallow fluff had a baby.  Divinity is light fluffy clouds of vanilla flavor.  They have a bit of a brittleness about them like the crunch of your feet on grass after the first frost.  But instead of being cold, it’s warm and gentle.  It’s not exactly sticky, but it’s kind of got the memory of being sticky.  Nuts are optional here.  I figured I had enough nutty things on my cookie tray and more would just make it unbalanced.  DSCN3512Ok, so if you’ve made it through making butterscotch and anise candy, you may already know that making candy can be hard.  Molten sugar is HOT! And sticky.  And it will burn the crap out of you if you let it touch your skin.  Cold water will harden the candy and help with the burn, but you need to act quickly.  Anything that is over 200 degrees is going to hurt.  Sticky things are worse.  BE CAREFUL when pouring the hot syrup into the egg whites.  Pouring slowly will lessen the chances of hot liquid splattering up at you.  Scrape down the sides as necessary.  When it is time to spoon out the warm candy, work quickly.  It gets harder to scoop as it cools.DSCN3509

Easy DivinityNutmeg Cookie Bars


Brownie Cordial Cookies and Anise Candy

6 days until Christmas…

6 days until Christmas…

DSCN3503Growing up we went to a church that had a phenomenal Christmas bazaar every year.  There were certain things that could not be missed.  In the tearoom, you could sit and drink hot cider and eat a selection of Christmas cookies and cream puffs stuffed with chicken salad.  There were the baked beans.  Sadly that recipe didn’t make it into the church cookbook.  I’ve been attempted to recreate the beans.  My mom had the recipe at one point, but it might’ve gotten lost in a move.  The beans were that good. DSCN3504You could tell it was time for the bazaar weeks ahead of time.  The familiar fragrances of the church, the incense, Murphy’s oil soap, old wood, and beeswax, would start to become entwined with the smell of sugar and anise.  DSCN3507At the bazaar, a cut glass punch bowl would be piled high with baggies full of jewel-like red and green candies.  My siblings and I would always make sure that my mom bought at least one bag.  There were a few years where I would bring my own money to secure my own bag.  Anise is one of those flavors that not everyone likes.  I get it.  But it takes me back to those days of helping in the tearoom, exploring all the goodies, conversations in the kitchen with the “old” church ladies.  And the color is so pretty and this anise flavor isn’t very strong. It’s more of the suggestion of anise than a powerful anise flavor.  DSCN3506Since those days I have helped 2 churches start their Christmas bazaars.  One turned into an event with a fancy wine and cheese night and silent auction.  The other is an amalgamation of sewn crafts, canned food, lefsa, fresh bread, herb butters.  I was the official bread maker for years. DSCN3508 Ok, enough of the sentimental drivel and let’s get to cookies.

Chocolate, cherries, coconut.  They are soft and chewy and vaguely taste like the cherry cordials that my husband insists on every year, but grown up and better.  I considered breaking into my stash of brandied cherries that I made earlier this summer to experiment with, but realized that these cookies should be more child friendly. (Which is the same reason I didn’t put brandied apples in my apple pie, although that was tempting also.)  The recipe does not call for any decoration or frosting, but I had melted chocolate leftover from decorating the Real Orange cookies and thought it might look pretty and add a touch of class to the chunky brown cookies.  They provide a nice foundation to my cookie plates and create a nice balance of flavors and textures.  (And aren’t they pretty?)AniseBrownie Cordial Cookies