Our Hired Girl, when it’s bakin’-day
She’s out of patience allus,
An’ tells us, “Hike outdoors an’ play,”
An’ when the cookies’s done, she’ll say
“Land sake! she’ll come an’ call us!
An’ when the little doughbowl’s all
1st heapin’-full, she’ll come and call —
Nen say, “She’d ruther take a switchin’
Than have a pack o’ pesky childarn
Trackin’ round the kitchen!
– “Elizabuth-Ann on Bakin’ Day,” James Whitcomb Riley
Unbelievably, the holidays are upon us already and my mind is already filled with recipes for Thanksgiving. I’ve been the unofficial dessert maker (okay, maybe it’s a bit official) since I was old enough to reach the oven’s temperature knobs, and my standards for a perfect holiday dessert are pretty high. So I’ve developed a technique. On the big day, sure, focus on your raspberry glazed dark chocolate tortes and salted caramel bread pudding, but have something in your back pocket. Bring a ringer.
And that’s where these perfect little shortbread cookies come in. We return to the James Whitcomb Riley cookbook for this recipe, which you can read more about here. When I’m in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, I’m a bit like Riley’s Elizabuth-Ann, although it’s usually my dad that I’m shooing away from the kitchen. (Sorry, Dad! I’ll make you cookies later.)
1 cup soft butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 1/4 cup flour
Preheat oven to 375. In large mixing bowl, beat together butter, sugar and vanilla until light. Add flour and mix well. Turn out onto well-flour board and roll dough to 1/2 inch thick. Cut cookies into desired shapes (I chose diamonds) and transfer to ungreased baking sheet. Sprinkle with sugar if desired. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes until set and lightly browned. Frost with confectioners sugar icing, if desired. Makes 4 dozen average cookies.
Source: The James Whitcomb Riley Cookbook, by Dorothy June Williams, Curator, Riley Home in Greenfield, Ind.
I’m not sure if you’ll have the same issue, but my shortbread dough didn’t quite want to come together. Shortbread is always a very dry dough — the melting butter during baking makes the cookies come together — but mine was so dry it didn’t want to come together. But that’s easily solved with the most common kitchen ingredient in the world: a few sprinkles of water. Lightly drizzle some cool water over your dough while mixing until it begins to stick together, then commence rolling.
Now: dip your shortbread in melted chocolate and sprinkle with sea salt. Frost them with a light confectioner’s sugar. Sprinkle them with crushed hazelnuts. Drizzle them with caramel. Dip them into coffee. Hand them out to your favorite kids — after all, Riley was the Child’s Poet.
A note on the historical availability of vanilla:
Thomas Jefferson is credited on introducing vanilla to the United States after first learning of its use while living in France. Although it was used almost exclusively by the very rich during that time, by the early 1900s, the use of vanilla was spreading to the wider populace.
Are you making vanilla flavored sugar already? There is no reason you shouldn’t be making — and then using, and then making more — vanilla sugar in your kitchen. It’s the easiest thing in the world; the only hard part is waiting until it’s ready. Take a vanilla bean and run a knife through the middle, long-ways. Then scrape the seeds inside the bean into the container of granulated sugar (2 cups will do) that you’re flavoring. Plop the bean into the sugar, seal tightly and wait for 2-3 weeks. Use as you would regular granulated sugar in all matter of things: coffee, cookies, etc. I used it here, obviously.
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