Cookie of the Month: Remembering a recipe box favorite

The longer you are around, the more holidays become about memories and missing those who are no longer here. 

I could write endlessly about how much I miss my mom at this, a second Christmas season without her. The depth of this loss, in particular, is bottomless. She was a part of everything I was and still am. Somehow, one of the only ways that I feel slightly better and almost as if I’m keeping her here still is to cook or bake some of her favorite foods.

I am the keeper of her recipe box, and brought it with me from Kansas a little over a year ago after we had her memorial. I actually gave her the box for her birthday when I was a little girl, saving some wadded dollars and asking my dad to take me to Gibson’s to find her a gift. The little cedar box, shiny and golden and smelling a little like new pencils, seemed the perfect thing, and over the years she filled it with handwritten recipe cards or cut out clippings or recipes from back-of-the-box or photocopies, and recipes contributed by my dad, too. And every time I visited after I moved away, I pulled down the recipe box to look through it again. 

Iused to the know the recipe box backward and forward. The recipes had category tabs, but those were irrelevant after so much shuffling, pulling cards out and putting them back. Still I knew the general spot where a certain recipe was or in what grouping of batter-stained cards a particular recipe huddled. Amid the many handwritten (some even by my late grandmother) cards, there was one in my mom’s very familiar script that I remember as a first. My first memory of cookies my mom made  — M&M Cookies.

She made them at Christmas, but I seem to recall them for the first time for a Tupperware party (now I date all of us…this was a ’70s thing where a Tupperware representative would showcase her wares — everything from lidded bowls to measuring cups and popsicle molds — at the house of a “host,” who would invite other ladies she knew as guests and potential customers). The custom was not really my mom’s style (she would have preferred to be outside, digging in the dirt), but she was a young mom who, for a little while, went along with the times. The cookies stood out (and still do) in my young memory as significant because, despite being simple, they were considered for a special occasion, and, despite being simple, they were delicious and — best of all in a child’s mind’s eye — they were full of CANDY. And not just any candy, but colorful M&M’s, one of my all-time favorites.

Every year at the holidays, I map out the cookies I want to make and share (via this blog), and of all the years — now that I have her own handwritten rendition of these cookies and the fact she is no longer here to make them — I thought this would be the year to break out the M&M Cookies recipe. It’s an old-school, reliably delicious, comforting tribute to the person who first introduced me to the fact that you could make cookies at home.

This original recipe called for an entire cup of shortening, which was common back in the day. Many baked goods — breads, cookies, cakes — used to always call for all shortening, no butter, as the fat. I’m not entirely sure, but I think shortening was popular for many years because of its availability, low cost, long shelf life, and the stability it provided in baked goods (unlike butter containing more water). I continue to use it when it is called for in retro baking recipes because I do think it affects the structure of the final baked good, but I sometimes adapt the recipe and try to use half butter to add fat with flavor.

This recipe is essentially like a chocolate chip cookie recipe, with creamed butter/shortening and brown sugar and granulated sugar (1 cup brown to 1/2 cup granulated). Two eggs and a large dose of vanilla (2 teaspoons) are beaten in. The dry ingredients are simply flour, baking soda and salt, which are added to the wet mixture and blended until a soft dough forms.

The recipe calls for adding 1/2 cup of M&M’s to the dough and saving a cup to decorate the top of the cookies. I reversed this by adding one cup to the dough and saving back a half-cup for topping. I had enough candies…I had picked up a whole pound of green and red holiday M&M’s, which, in my former days would have been truly dangerous (I was known to blow through a half-pounder of peanut M&M’s in an afternoon). But you could use any type M&M you wanted or other candies or chocolate chips, too.

I considered a cookie scoop for doling these out, but I remembered my mom, who used teaspoons for everything from measuring ingredients to mixing to scooping cookie dough, and in her honor, I mounded dough this way and dropped it out on the cookie sheets. I dotted the tops of the cookies with the extra M&M’s.

The cookies looked and smelled like I remember, a little sweeter aroma than a chocolate chip. They were not too thin and not too thick, puffing up slightly to a golden brown with hints of red and green throughout.

They were baked in three batches. In a nod to our mom, I fanned one still-warm cookie sheet over the empty tile floor, remembering our mother’s cooling method of doing this as we lay on the linoleum beneath. A waft of warm brown-sugar vanilla air came back up from the floor in a wave of remembrance.

These cookies were every bit as good as I remembered — soft, puffy, the right amount of salty-sweet in toffee goldenness and dotted with the chocolate candy crunch of childhood. As much as other fancy cookie recipes may entice, sometimes the simple, sure things are the best.

M&M Cookies

Makes 2 1/2 to 3 dozen cookies

  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon  baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups M&M’s candies

Cream shortening and sugars with a mixer until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs, mixing well. Add in sifted dry ingredients to make a soft dough. Stir in one cup of the M&M’s. Drop by spoonfuls about 2 inches apart onto uncreased (or parchment-lined) baking sheets. Decorate tops with reserved M&M’s. Bake at 350°F for 10 to 12 minutes until lightly golden brown.

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