Growing up I had a slight fascination with other “outsider” cultures. Perhaps it was because I was Asian, or “Oriental” as they referred to it back then, living in the Midwest surrounded by white people. I have specific memories of asking the one other oriental girl in my grade school if she spoke Chinese at all. She looked at me as if I were crazy and emphatically said NO with derision as she stormed off (later I would discover that Janet Kim was, in fact, Korean not Chinese). I was fascinated by anyone that identified as “other” and read young adult books voraciously whose themes were about growing up different. Looking back, this is pretty much the theme of EVERY young adult novel (who doesn’t feel different and alienated growing up?) but I loved my books.
The Girl with the Silver Eyes talked about a kid whose mom took a prenatal pain killer and instead of being born without arms, she was born with silver eyes and an ability to move things with her mind. Creepy and cool. A Wrinkle in Time has an awkward teen traveling with her near idiot savant brother and a handsome popular high schoolmate to a distant planet to try to rescue her father. Awesome. And The Westing Game had a neglected teen girl named “Turtle” who is finally solves the murder mystery that of the eccentric millionaire (aren’t all millionaires eccentric?).
But there was a book whose name I can’t remember that stuck with me all these years. It takes place in upper Pennsylvania about a teen that moves there and has to readjust to the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Though I have since forgotten the name of the book, I distinctly remember being fascinated by this subculture, with their own language and their own old worldly ways. Affiliated with the Amish and the Mennonites, the Pennsylvania Dutch were a subculture of people who refused to give up their own culture, even in the modern world.
I remember very little from the book or the plot. I believe there was an Anti-Semite subplot, where the girl befriends a Jewish classmate and other classmates warn her it was not in her best interest, but she sticks with it and eventually all the other classmates discover that having the last name Goldstein does not preclude you from being cool. I remember being surprised that the Pennsylvania Dutch were actually descended from Germans, with the word “Dutch” being a bastardized version of “Deutsch”. And I learned cool new phrases like “Grex” which means complaining, “Outen the lights” which means “turn off the lights” and “don’t eat yourself full” which is fairly self explanatory.
So it was no wonder, when I was flipping through Nick Malgieri’s book Perfect Cookies, Cakes and Chocolate and came across a recipe with the name Pennsylvania Dutch Soft Sugar Cookies that I had to make them. The name alone was calling to me, homey and no frills. And that’s exactly what they are, wonderful in their simplicity. And whenever I make them, I get nostalgic, for a childhood that I never lived, but still had, via a book that I can’t quite remember.
Pennsylvania Dutch Soft Sugar Cookies
By Irvin Lin
Now these cookies are a cross between a soft cookie and sweet buttermilk biscuit. Simple and basic, it’s believed that the Pennsylvania Dutch created them to use up soured old milk. Now I could have fancied them up, made them with honey, or added some lavender or Meyer lemon zest to give that special twist. But I didn’t, because the Pennsylvania Dutch are a simple folk. They don’t get all uppity with their food and so I decided not to either. I do occasionally serve them with homemade strawberry jam, but a lot of my friends love them just as they, soft, toothsome and just slightly sweet. If you want to make your own soured milk, place 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar (white or apple cider) into a measuring cup and then pour regular milk on top until you have 1 cup. Stir to combine and let it sit for about 5 or 10 minutes to thicken and curdle. You have soured milk. I like to make vanilla sugar with my leftover vanilla pods. Just place the pod in a jar with some regular sugar and let it sit for two weeks (or longer). Give it a shake now and then. The vanilla pod will have scented the sugar. If you have this around the house, you can use the vanilla sugar to sprinkle on the Pennyslvania Dutch soft cookies, but that might border on getting too fancy.
Adapted from Perfect Cookies, Cakes and Chocolate from Nick Malgieri
4 cups (560 g) all purpose flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup (225 g or 2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
2 cups (400 g) white granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk or soured milk (see note above)
2 or 3 tablespoons of vanilla sugar (see note above) or regular granulated white sugar
1. Preheat an oven to 375˚F. Line a baking sheet with a silpat or parchment paper. Place the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl. Take a balloon whisk and vigorously stir until the thoroughly combined.
2. Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, about three minutes. Take the vanilla bean and using a sharp knife, scrape the seeds out of the pod into the batter. Reserve the vanilla pod for another use (see note above). Add the vanilla extract and then beat until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and add one egg. Beat until incorporated and scrape down the sides again. Repeat with the other two eggs, pausing to scrape down the sides between additions.
3. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the batter and beat until incorporated. Scrape down the sides and add 1/3 of the buttermilk. Repeat, alternating with the flour and buttermilk, 1/3 each, remembering to scrape down the sides between each addition. Drop tablespoons of the dough about 3 inches apart from each other (the cookies will spread). Sprinkle the top of each mound of dough with granulated sugar. Bake until the cookies have spread, risen and turned lightly golden, about 13 to 15 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for about 10 minutes and then remove them with a spatula to a wire cooling rack to cool further.
Makes about 60 cookies.
What a wonderful post…love your story and book reviews 🙂
Those cookies remind me of my Auntie’s tea cakes. Not fancy but, tasty and comforting.
Oh cute pic! I loved a wrinkle in time!! I used to have that book! My family went on vacation to amish country in maybe early highschoolish or something and we bought an amish cookbook. I think the only thing we tried from it was some lemonade but its SO GOOD! That is def a very interesting culture.
I hear ya…although I didn’t grow up looking different from most others, I also led a somewhat “outsider” childhood being Jewish where there weren’t that many around. Virtually every year, school picture day in September fell on Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) so some years i’m in the class picture, other years not so much!
Thanks for the snapshot into your childhood and the matching bowl cuts are rockin’!
I want to dive into that bowl of cookies, then take a quick dip in the strawberries, and then go back to rolling around in the cookies.
Also, I LOVE “The Girl with the Silver Eyes.”
pickyin @ LifeIsGreat says
Hilarious story on Janet Kim! I tend to have leftover buttermilk sitting around so I’m keeping this recipe.
Maggie @ Flour Child says
What a lovely post, as always. (You have a true gift for storytelling.)
I especially related to this post because I was an outsider growing up, alienated by and relentlessly (and cruelly) bullied for my parents’ choice to raise me in a cooperative mountain community where we grew our own food, sewed many of our own clothes, and ate sea vegetables, sprouts and tofu.
Books helped to ease the pain and and make sense of being different — A Wrinkle In Time was a favorite — but I never stopped longing for a “normal” childhood punctuated with Nikes, Ditto jeans, Jif and Betty Crocker brownie mix.
But these days, I’m grateful for the life (and love of real, honest food) my parents gave me, and look forward to celebrating it by whipping up a batch of Pennsylvania Dutch Soft Cookies. Thank you, Irvin!
Could it be Gideon’s People by Carolyn Meyer? Seems to fit your description.
Brian @ A Thought For Food says
HAHAHA! I think you have to submit that second family picture to Awkward Family Photos. 🙂 This is an adorable post… though I wish I could tell you what that book is, I never read anything that sounds remotely similar. The other books were all childhood favorites, though… thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories.
And, of course, you have me drooling over these cookies!
Cookin' Canuck says
What wonderful memories of your favorite childhood books. I, too, was a voracious reader and remember being absorbed by a Wrinkle in Time. These cookies look so simple and completely addictive.
For the record, Westing Game and Wrinkle in Time were on my top list of pre-teen reads. I can totally relate to fascination with the “other” – I mean my name didn’t exactly inspire the sameness I found repeated around me in Texas. It figures that most of my friends in high school were Filipino or black…
I remember, as a child, being fascinated by the Amish and any other culture that was so different from my own. It was so difficult to fathom.
uh, YUM, those cookies look GOOD. And I wanted to drink that drink, but upon further inspection I’ve concluded that it’s jam. I don’t want to drink that.
I am embarrassed to say that I’ve never read A Wrinkle in Time. I was always looking at it at the library, but the cover just turned me off (same with The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I really need to read this book too). Must read someday.
Thank you, growing up PA, near Gettysburg, my mom made these so often she didn’t use a recipe for these cookies! So I have been on a quest. I have many cookie books, and will give these a try. I’m sure it will be close. Thanks again.
Let me know how they turn out and if they are what you are looking for!
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These cookies sound so good. Growing up in Reading, I ate a lot of Amish-based foods. The local Amish restaurants served the best “home” food. I used to really enjoy a cookie called “Lepp” or “Lebb” cookies. It was soft and puffy. I have numerous Amish and PA Dutch cookbooks but none of them feature a cookie anywhere near them. I have asked at Amish baked goods stands and was always told it was a recipe only passed from mother to daughter. I’ll try this one. Maybe this is it, I hope
We just made lepp cookies tonight…recipe has been passed down for generations. It’s a butter cookie. They are my favorite Christmas cookie. I’m Pennsylvania Dutch myself…born and raised in northern Berks.
I just finished a batch of my Gramma Sadie’s sugar cookies and on a whim decided to google ‘Pennsylvania Dutch Sugar Cookies’ and yours was my first hit. Her recipe varies just slightly, but I can tell from the photo that they have that same soft texture.
Thanks For Sharing this amazing recipe. My family loved it. I will be sharing this recipe with my friends. Hope the will like it.
Nori Kirisaki says
Very nice post…i loved reading it. Your experiences are wonderful. THanks for sharing your story with us.. I would like to hear more stories.
I am going to try this particular recipe tonight. It is slightly different from the one I grew up with, having grown up in the heart of Pa Dutch/Amish Country in York County PA (by the way as a native we call Pennsylvania PA pronounced pee-ay instead of the entire thing). Also, many of us with Pa dutch heritage actually have Ashkenazi Jew heritage as well if you look at our families. I recently discovered this while doing my family tree via DNA testing and speaking with family members on that side. Pa became a safe haven for German and Jewish alike during WWII. It’s not spoken about much, but the communities provided protection for German families during that time as they where being persecuted heavily in the US at that time. It was an open secret. The Jewish families were a bit self explanatory, as they were smuggled into the US from other countries. My hometown was heavily Roman Catholic and we had a Catholic church and a synagogue in nearly every neighborhood.
I’m sorry I went on a bit long, you said that you enjoy other cultures, and I love history. I thought I would share that bit of culture and history from where I grew up.. I have 100’s of recipes from Pa Dutch and Amish Country if you would like any of them please let me know, I l9ve to share them. [email protected]
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