My mother is not an easy person to pin down. Describing her is like describing the sky; I know her many sides too well to prioritize one attribute over the other. I want to describe her as serious, but the image of her that is fresh in my mind is of her on my brother’s wedding day, and she looks brilliant and radiant in flowing sea foam fabric over a brilliant skirt full of pinks and yellows and browns. I want to describe her as strict, but she has a habit of following her pleasures when they arrive. She will take trips to New York to visit her son, or pick up a trinket at an artist’s market that strikes her fancy. She fills her life with beautiful things in whatever ways she can.
My mother and I agree that one of the most beautiful things in the world is food. While you can’t tell from her diet nowadays (she avoids gluten and innumerable other things), our shared sweet tooth has been dangerous, and I grew up chasing crumbling coffee cakes and cookies that crunched on the outside and chewed in the center, and chugging Coca-Cola at children’s birthday parties. My behavior was not explicitly encouraged by my parents, but in my formative years there was no stopping my steam-engine- esque sugar consumption, especially having been set in motion by my Dr. Pepper-drinking father and my mother’s soft spot for pastries. However, it was noted and observed, and would eventually lead to trips to the dietician to try and convince me to start eating salad. My mother, a nurse, was constantly aware of my candy-charged crashes through the kitchen, and would regularly try to counteract it with vegetables, usually hidden (one scheme involved putting sprinkles on mashed potatoes to disguise them as ice cream). But come Christmas, these attempts were temporarily called off, and my grandmother’s recipe box would come down from the cabinet for the ritual Christmas baking.
Not all the recipes came from my grandmother. I think most of them were clipped from somewhere or another, like the tea cakes that left my fingers dusted and streaked with chocolate. Or the raspberry bars that I was never entirely sure about, but which eventually won me over with their sharp tang of fruit, crunchy crust, and sweet savor of chocolate. But, from the recipe box, there came forgotten cookies.
For a while, I had no idea what actually made up a forgotten cookie. I don’t know why, since I know I watched or helped my mother make them every Christmas. I was amazed by them because they seemed like they shouldn’t exist. They were little airy crisps, like puffed clouds of sugar that had been left out to freeze overnight. The recipe we followed left the cookies studded with chocolate chips (most all our recipes involve chocolate), and if we were feeling especially festive we would put in food dye to make them red or green. As soon as I bit into a forgotten cookie, I had a couple seconds to consider it before it slowly melted away. Years later, I would finally grasp the concept of what exactly an “egg white” was, and how one made a “meringue.”
However, these realities didn’t take away from the true magic quality of these cookies. The secret was in forgetting about them: you put the cookies in a hot oven, turned it off, and left them overnight. They transformed from small lumps of whitish paste into stiff, crispy meringue simply by the act of sitting in an oven that wasn’t even turned on. It was an act of discipline to ignore what was going on in the oven. I couldn’t even open the oven door to get a glance. These cookies are exceptionally gentle, and a little less heat (or a little extra humidity) can make or break the process. As I child though, I had no idea about science behind the situation. I just knew there were rules to be followed, just like in church or school. Maybe that’s why I have no memory of ever making them; I forgot about these cookies so much that their creation became a new thing to me each and every time.
This is the original recipe that stays tucked in my grandmother’s recipe box. It has never failed, but remember, don’t make them on a humid night. And no peeking.
Beat egg whites until foamy (be sure eggs are at room temperature before using). Gradually add sugar and continue beating until stiff. Add salt and vanilla and mix well. Add choice of other ingredients. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drop cookies by teaspoon onto ungreased foil covered cookie sheet. Place cookies in oven and immediately turn oven off. Leave cookies in (closed) oven overnight.
––By Nick Patton