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

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