Crunchy Fruit Drops (Spice Cookies)

This has not been the best of weeks.  A week ago on Saturday my aunt died.  My mother called early in the morning to tell me, and such an announcement was not a surprise; my mother's oldest sister had been diagnosed with cancer a while back, and this past summer, I said my goodbyes.  That July, my thin aunt declared that she hoped to make it to August, when her granddaughter got married, and once she made it to that late-summer wedding, we all dared to hope that she would make it through Thanksgiving.  Once early December came and she turned 81, we all pulled for her to make it through Christmas and New Year's.  My aunt had determination.

About a year ago, my aunt discovered that I loved to cook--something that probably startled her, given my mother's own anti-cooking stance.  She asked my mom to give me her recipe box, which my mother mailed to me.   The box is full of cake and cookie recipes (peanut brittle, pumpkin cookies, coffee cake, powdered doughnuts)--at least 2/3 of this little box is a testament to my aunt's (or perhaps her five children's) sweet tooth.  However, let it be noted that the following can also be found: Fruit Cocktail Pudding, Tomato Tuna Treat, and Stuffed Hot Dog Wonders. I don't remember these seventies dishes on my aunt's table, but they were ones she felt the need to tuck away in hopes of remaking.

The recipe cards are typed, stained, and sometimes a little hard to follow.  She knew these recipes well, so she just needed reminders, not instructions.  Others are handwritten (sometimes there is a different, more modern handwriting) or clipped from ladies' magazines.  Some come without names or have "grandma" written in the corner.  Was that her grandmother (my great-grandmother)?  Or her children's grandmother, my own grandmother?  How far do these recipes go back?  I am not sure. 

On the day of her death, I tried to think of every memory I had of her from when I was growing up.  Given that she lived three doors down from us, I had quite a few.  Indeed, my sister was far closer to my aunt (once we found our dog (J.J., short for Jesse James) camped out in my aunt's garage because he didn't realize that my sleeping sister had been carried from aunt's living room to a waiting car and driven back home.  Ever loyal to my sister, J.J. refused to budge until my sister walked back to my aunt's to retrieve him the next morning), and she spent most of the summer under my aunt's and one of my cousin's watchful eyes.  If we couldn't find her or the dog at home, we need only call my aunt; she would be there.  However, my aunt, as well as her rambling ranch home down Susan Drive, was instrumental in my childhood as well, and I am sad to know that she is gone. 

It was in her basement from a pocket-sized collected works of Shakespeare, I read Macbeth for the first time--or at least I started it multiple times.  I never really made it past act three (come on, I was like ten), but I loved the witches and tried to memorize act 1, scene 1.   Indeed:  "When the hurlyburly's done, When the battle's lost and won."  And in her basement, I remember my brother and I fought our own battle:  there I learned of the birth of my sister.  That May night back in 1981, my father dropped my brother and me off at my aunt's house, and my brother and I argued as to what  that alien lump would prove to be--a brother or a sister.  Oh, how I wanted a little sister.  The phone rang, and I remember getting the good news while I sat on my aunt and uncle's free weight bench.  I may have even done some bicep curls with the five-pound weight in celebratory glee. I then may have gloated.

My aunt was an artist, and in the back of her basement, behind the ever-so-alluring pool table, she had a painting studio.  My uncle, an avid woodworker, would make bookshelves and cradles, and my aunt would stain them and then paint flowers and designs along them.  Very eighties--very central Illinois.  But I loved watching her dip her brush into paint to make petals and stems.  She would let us watch Bob Ross and then try our own hand on blank paper.  But beyond painting, she made quilts, one of which I was gifted, and she played the organ.  She could sew and make clothing, and she altered my first fancy dress for senior-year Homecoming (up until then I had gotten through high school by borrowing friends' dresses).  This purple and green floral dress was the first I bought with my own money (oh, how many nights of babysitting that took!), and while it had straps, I wanted to wear it strapless.  She put boning in, tightened up the bodice, and added a new zipper.  Just to be safe, she kept the straps intact (although tightened), and made it so I could tuck them into the bodice.  I still have that dress hanging in the back of my closet.  (For the record, I wore the straps.)

But more than anything, I remember my aunt making cookies.  Whenever she had some extended time when we visited (and out visits were frequent, if her extended time was not), she would whip up a batch of cookies:  thumbprint, chocolate chip, oatmeal, sugar, it didn't matter.  She would bring out her silver kitchen-aid mixer, and we would be allowed to help her.  She had a big butcher block island, and my brother or my sister or I, or sometimes all three of us, would pull up a chair to stand on, and we would mix and make a mess and "help."  She would let us lick the beaters, and she allowed us to use the spatula to lift the still steaming cookies from the sheet.  Thus, when it came time to remember my aunt, I made a batch of her spice cookies, straight from that little yellow recipe box.

The last time I saw my aunt, my mother and three of her other sisters, my own sister, my niece, my nephew, and three of my cousins gathered around her kitchen table.  We all brought our own lunches so as to not tax my aunt with the duties of entertaining.  Because the table was overflowing and there was hardly any elbow room, my sister, her children, and myself were all relegated to the living room table (to be fair, we were the four youngest in the room, thus our perennial banishment to the kids' table).  After lunch, we nosed our way back to the kitchen table, where the talk began in earnest.  Whenever the sisters got together (and for this event there were five of the six daughters), there was a lot of nodding, some sharing of and taking of photos, a lot of family catch-up and gossip, and a few moments of biting one's tongue.  My sister and I had to leave early, so I came around to the head of the table, where my aunt sat hooked to her oxygen tank.  I knelt down to hold my aunt's hand as she remained in her chair.  We hugged.  I said goodbye.

One Year Ago: Cioppino
Two Years Ago: Turkey Meatloaf
Three Years Ago: Brine-cured Pork Chops with Warm Red Cabbage
Four Years Ago: Four-Cheese Pizza

Crunchy Fruit Drops
Adapted from my aunt

Makes 40 cookies

1/2 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar, loosely packed
1 egg, well beaten
1-3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup nuts (chopped)--I used almonds and pecans, but walnuts would be good, too
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup buttermilk

1.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2.  In a medium mixing bowl, using a mixer, whip the butter until it is smooth.  Add sugar slowly and beat until light.  Beat in egg.

3.  In another mixing bowl, sift flour, salt, cinnamon, cloves and baking soda. 

4.  Add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk to the sugar mixture (add 1/3 flour, 1/2 buttermilk, 1/3 flour, 1/2 buttermilk, 1/3 flour) and mix to form a stiff batter.

5.  Add the nuts and raisins to the batter and blend well.

6.  Drop by teaspoons on a greased cookie sheet.  Bake for 10-15 minutes.


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