The family recipe

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Cookies have gone soft, complains Uncle Howie. They've got no gumption, no backbone. They're weak, pudgy, tender in the tummy. "That's not a cookie!" he shouts. "That's a cake."

News to me. I like my cookies soft in the middle. They're friendly.

Uncle Howie points to his mother's recipe, handed down from her mother and titled My Mother's Cookies. It calls for the usual: flour, butter, sugar, eggs. And the slightly unusual: sour cream.

The painstaking print prods the baker to roll thin and bake hot for half an hour, until, as might be expected, "brown." Producing, Howie smiles, "a solid, beat-on-the-table cookie." With backbone.

"I don't want them hot out of the oven," he warns. "I want them cold and a day old. Stick them in your mouth and they crunch apart."

He hands me a scan of my great-grandmother's yellowed recipe and prods: "Try it."

I do. My first batch, hot from the oven, is thick and soft. I try again, rolling thin, baking hot, at length. I get a cookie with character. Bad character, I'd say.

I mess with the hand-me-down, producing a thin, crisp, cinnamon-brown cookie that won't tolerate table-banging. It may lack gumption. But it's deliciously tender, in the tummy.

Great-grandmother cookies

Prep: 30 minutes

Bake: 15 minutes

Makes: about 6 dozen

For cookies:

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

1 egg yolk

2 tablespoons sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon salt

2 1/3 cups flour

For topping:

¼ cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon


Using a stand mixer on medium speed, beat butter and sugar fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add yolk, sour cream, vanilla and salt. Beat fluffy again, about 1 minute. Add flour. On low speed, mix only until dough begins to clump, about 20 seconds.


Divide dough and pat into 2 disks. Settle one between 2 sheets of parchment paper. Roll dough 1/8-inch thin. Repeat with other disk. Slide dough (still in its paper, resting on a baking sheet) into freezer. Freeze firm, about 20 minutes.


Pull one sheet of dough out of the freezer. Peel off top sheet of parchment paper, pat it back into place. Flip dough and peel off the other sheet of parchment paper. Use a 2-inch round (or other shape) cookie cutter to punch out cookies. Pull away excess dough (the "negative space" between the cookies), leaving cookies on parchment, ready to bake. You can reroll and refreeze excess dough once. Repeat with remaining dough.


Stir together sugar and cinnamon to make topping. Sprinkle each cookie with cinnamon sugar. Slide into a 350-degree oven and bake until golden-brown, about 15 minutes.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune Newspapers special contributor. Email her at

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