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O'TOOLE: Fresh-baked Christmastime cookies bring warm memories

• Dec 4, 2018 at 4:00 PM

Two smells always remind me of my Grandpa Smith: pipe tobacco and molasses cookies fresh from the oven. I can’t remember the last time I smelled the sweet scent of pipe tobacco. At least I can count on the mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked molasses cookies once a year at Christmas time.

Grandpa baked other cookies besides molasses — I remember his peanut butter cookies were especially tasty — but molasses was his specialty. He baked several dozen every winter, and gave away more than he kept. He spent as much time, maybe more, delivering his scrumptious treats as he did baking them. Family and friends for miles around were the lucky recipients of Grandpa’s sweet-yet-spicy cookies.

When Grandpa came to the door, brown paper sack in hand, we stopped what we were doing and gathered in the kitchen. Mom brewed a pot of coffee for the grownups and poured glasses of cold milk for the kids. Damp circles on the sack meant the cookies were still warm from the oven. Molasses, ginger and cinnamon perfumed the air when Mom opened the bag and piled the cookies on a plate. We gathered around the dining room table chewing those soft, crumbly disks of deliciousness, sipping our milk or coffee and joking and laughing and sharing the family news.

I don’t know when or why Grandpa started baking his molasses cookies and distributing them to loved ones; I just know he baked them every winter from as far back as I can remember.

Whenever my parents took my siblings and me to visit Grandpa and Grandma Smith, we knew to visit on an empty stomach. Before we situated ourselves around the kitchen table, Grandma brought out Tupperware containers full of food from the fridge and set clean plates and silverware in front of us. There was always Faygo in the freezer on the porch and a fresh pot of coffee brewing. Feeding us was how my grandparents loved us, and eating their food was how we loved them in return. Love meant never having to say you were hungry.

Frank Smith, my cookie- and candy-baking grandfather, was born April 5, 1912. That was 10 days before the Titanic sank. He and my grandmother, Edith, had six sons. Grandpa died on Halloween after 9/11. At his funeral, mourners received cards with the recipe for his “Old-Fashioned Molasses Cookies.”

It’s not the same eating molasses cookies without Grandpa, Grandma and my whole family around the table dropping crumbs everywhere and wearing milk mustaches, teasing and talking loudly, but it’s close. Some of the glow of those happy family bonding times returns with the scent of the baking cookies and it grows with every tasty cookie bite and milk slurp. Milk and cookies are good for the soul.

Here is my grandpa’s recipe. It makes five dozen cookies, enough to share.

Cream 1 cup shortening and 1 cup sugar. Add two eggs one at a time and beat after each one. Pour 1 cup molasses and 4 level teaspoons of baking soda in a bowl and beat until light and foamy. Add this to the sugar mixture and beat again. Add 5 cups flour sifted together with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon cloves and 1 teaspoon ginger alternately with 6 tablespoons sour milk or water. Mix dough with your hands and chill overnight or for four hours. Bake at 360 degrees for nine minutes.

My grandfather used a glass to cut out perfect circles. Of course, cookie cutters will make any shape you choose. Grandpa’s precise circles were generously sized. It took several bites to finish one. That was part of the appeal.

“Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap,” said politician Barbara Jordan. Sounds like the way to world peace right there. How soon can we make this official?

Today, National Cookie Day, is the perfect day for baking and sharing Grandpa Smith’s molasses cookies, or whatever cookies get your mouth watering. If not today, then sometime this Christmas or winter. Nothing takes the chill off like warm cookies with your favorite people.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist and cookie monster

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