The fabulous Shauna over at Gluten Free Girl sent out a tweet last week asking everyone what the first thing they ever cooked was. I immediately thought of the simple basic snickerdoodle. Some people love it, some people find it boring and some people have never heard of it. For me though, it’s ripe with history and nostalgia…because it’s the first thing I ever learn to bake.
My mom always thought us kids (I have two siblings) should be in summer school. Though we never HAD to go to summer school (having never flunked a class) it was always a given that we would attend summer school, just to get us out of the house and to have something to do. And in truth, we never questioned that logic. While other kids complained about summer school, or complained about school in general, we mostly loved school. Well, to the extent that we could love anything that forced us to wake up.
My siblings and I are inherently a lazy bunch, and if given the choice, would probably go through life asleep, or at least doing as little as possible.
Case in point. My older brother is quite smart. He went to an ivy league school. He went to medical school and is now a successful forensic psychiatrist. His aptitude for schoolwork clearly showed, as he kept on setting the curve in his science classes all throughout high school. At one point his teacher pulled him aside and told him that he should really move up to the honors class, as he was smarter than the everyone in the regular science class.
My brother refused. Why bother working harder to achieve that A when he could achieve the same grade in an easier class?
Of course, a couple of years after he graduated, the school system changed their point system, such that an A in an honors class was worth more than an A in a regular class. This, of course, happened after he graduated. I’d like to think they my brother’s laziness ruined it for the rest of us, making it harder for me to get a higher ranking in my class. He graduated in the top 10 of his class of 400. I graduated in the top 10% of my class of 450. Big brother, I shake my fist at you!
Back to summer school. I wasn’t stupid (though clearly not as smart or as smart ass as my brother), but I did go to elective summer school. And the earliest memory of summer school I went to was taking a cooking class.
It was the summer between 3rd and 4th grade for me. Every day, we learned a new recipe. And though I can remember only one other recipe from the class (barbecue chicken), I have distinct memories of baking – and specifically baking snickerdoodles.
That summer school class class is where I fell in love with making food. Growing up Taiwanese, my mom made food that seemed completely normal to me, but baffled all my fellow classmates (and a few of my teachers too). In kindergarten my teacher went around the class and asked everyone how they liked to eat their eggs. “Hard boiled! I love to peel the shell!”, said one kid wearing his garanimals and mimicking the act of smashing the egg on the table and peeling it. “No! Scrambled is the best” proclaimed the next kid, as kids around the table nodded their heads in agreement. And you, Irvin? What do you like asked the kindergarten teacher? “I like brown eggs.” I said, wearing my hand me down 70’s polyester plaid pants. “Brown eggs?” “Brown eggs?” “Never heard of brown eggs.” “What’s brown eggs?” I was astonished to find that no one in the class knew what brown eggs were. Not even the teacher. She asked me to get the recipe from my mom and bring it in, but I never did.
Side note. Brown eggs, or soy sauce eggs, are peeled hardboiled eggs that have been later cooked in a rich soy sauce broth, taking on a chestnut brown color in the process. They too, remind me of my childhood, as I don’t think I’ve ever had them since moving out of my parent’s house. To this day, I still don’t know how to make them. I should really get the recipe from my mom.
As a small child, taking the summer cooking class was eye opening to me. The magic and the mystery of making food was revealed, and it wasn’t that hard! It was the baking of the snickerdoodles that stuck with me. Putting a stick of butter in the measuring cup and then putting white Crisco shortening in the rest of the cup to measure out an even 1 cup. Carefully dipping the cup in the bag of flour, leveling it off with the back of a knife. Measuring out the mysterious wonderful smelling murky brown vanilla extract and spooning out the baking soda from the cardboard box and the strange cream of tartar (I thought cream was like milk? I thought tartar was the weird sauce that Chris down the street dipped his fish sticks every Friday night?). Cracking the eggs into the dough and stirring everything together until it makes a substance not unlike playdough.
Then taking a spoonful of the dough and rolling it around in our hands (mom always told me not to play with my food, but here I’m being told by the teacher to do exactly that!) to make balls, and then rolling those balls into sugar and cinnamon.
And the stick it in the oven!
Out came cookies. Not the store bought cookies that I was used. Not the hard, tough, flavorless cookies that the cartoon elves made. Nope. These were soft, chewy, melt in your mouth, light as air, magical cookies. Sweet, slightly spicy, cookies that I had never had before, never had at home, nor even at my friend’s houses where I usually was introduced to the foods that I could never find at home like Captain Crunch or frozen Totino’s Pizza. Nope this was foreign, exotic and I was in love. With the cookie and with the magical process that made them.
After the class I started making them at home. I once accidentally made them without cream of tartar. They came out flat and rock hard. I got impatient and put more balls on the sheet than I was suppose to. They cooked into a puzzle like sheet of snickerdoodles that I loved because they were all soft, no hard edges. I called them my snickerpuzzle cookies, all of the cookies melding into each other, but easily broken apart at the seams. I baked them for friends when they came over, and I baked them alone on a weekend afternoons.
Finally my mom told had enough. She was tired of me making a huge mess in the kitchen. And she struck a deal with me. I was only allowed to bake if I also cleaned up the mess I made. After that, I baked and clean as part of the ritual. I remember having baking and cleaning so ingrained in my head, that when I went to my cousin’s house in Washington D.C. to visit a few years later, I baked cookies and was confused when their housekeeper cleaned up after me. I remember turning to her and scolding her, telling her that I was the one that baked, I should also be the one to clean up! She looked at me confused, bemused at this 10 year old boy telling her how to do her job. Or maybe she only spoke Chinese and didn’t understand a word I said to her. Either way, she ignored me and proceeded to finish the dishes, leaving us to the baked cookies.
Nowadays, I don’t make snickerdoodles that often. I’m busy running around trying to build fancy desserts (croquembouche!), use different ingredients (sorghum flour!), different techniques (royal icing cookies!). But when Shauna tweeted about the very first thing I learned to cook, I knew I had to write a post about it, even though I had no time to.
Because sometimes you don’t want the fancy, crazy dessert. Sometimes you don’t want to try the new technique or experiment with a different ingredient. Sometimes you don’t have time to think of what challenging new experience you are up for. Sometimes you want comfort. You want familiar. You want to be reminded of who you were back then, and how that informed you of who you are now.
Snickerdoodles is where it all started for me. And I was happy to make them again, before my crazy short trip I was making to L.A. this past weekend, and share them with all my friends down there. I went down to to pick up my amazing boyfriend who just cycled from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for AIDS, and to get away from San Francisco for a few days. I stayed with my awesome friends Rita and Damon who just bought an amazing condo in Santa Monica. I baked a couple of pies, brought a few cookies, baked a few cookies and had nearly 20 of my favorite people over to their new place. One of them, my dear friend Sara, totally light up when she saw the snickerdoodles sitting on the table. She had just been to a dessert party the night before and was so happy to see snickerdoodles there as well. She ate a bunch there, took some home and ate them breakfast the next day, and then saw them at Rita and Damon’s that afternoon, and proceeded to immediately eat some more of them because she loves them that much, showing the power of the snickerdoodle. She then proceeded to thank me for making them.
I didn’t tell her my story of the snickerdoodle. I just smiled and said it was my pleasure to make them. And I couldn’t have meant it more.
For a gluten free version of these cookies – check out my other post, Gluten Free Snickerdoodles – The Very First Thing I Ever Baked Redux, where I revisited these cookies…
Whilst baking these cookies, I decided to be thematic and go old school and listen to the very first cassette tape I purchased, Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual and the very first vinyl record I purchased New Edition (their very first album). It took me back…
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cup + 3 tablespoon white sugar, divided
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup trans-free shortening
2 large eggs
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 3/4 cups all purpose unbleached flour
1. Take the butter out of the refrigerator and cut it into 1/2” chunks. Put the chunks into a mixing bowl of a standing mixer (outfitted with the paddle attachment).
2. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F
3. Line two baking sheets or cookie sheets with silpats or parchment paper
4. Combine 3 tablespoon of granulated white sugar with the cinnamon together in a shallow bowl. Put aside.
5. Put the shortening in the bowl with the butter and turn on the mixer to medium, beating them together until they are well blended.
6. Add the 1 1/2 cups of sugar, and continue to beat until light and fluffy.
7. Add the eggs, one at a time beating after each addition and scraping down the sides with a spatula. Add the vanilla and beat again.
8. Add the cream of tartar, baking soda and salt into the butter mixture and beat well.
9. Add the flour and beat until smooth.
10. Roll the dough into 1” balls into the sugar/cinnamon mixture. Place on the baking sheets about 2” apart.
11. Bake for 10-12 minutes of until the tops of the cookies start to crack a little. Try not to over bake them, but don’t underbake them either. You want them them to crack on top, but not to look to dark brown. Cool on a rack and feel the nostalgia as you eat them.
Note 1. I have intentionally have you take and cut the butter out of the refrigerator first. I want the butter to warm up ever so slightly from the fridge but not get completely to room temperature. You can use your own judgement as to the order that you want to do things. But keep in mind the warmer the butter, the more the cookies will spread.
Note 2. The original Snickerdoodle recipe that I was taught is sadly lost to history. After a couple of moves, my parents no longer had the photocopied, stapled together “cookbook” that my summer school class gave out to everyone that participated. This recipe is my attempt at replicating that recipe from yesteryear. It’s fairly close to what I remember.