I have been thinking a lot about remembering, and how things are distilled down into lasting memories. The Ida Cookies got me thinking about this, as does the closing of the year, which inevitably involves assessing the passing year’s events: What were the joys and losses experienced? How have we cared for one another? What tastes stand out from meals eaten? What will we bring forward into the future with us?
I recently learned that when we recall something we are actually remembering the last time we remembered it; that our original memories eventually become memories of remembering! The story of the Ida Cookies is about remembering the history of my extended family, and how the characters of two very different sisters and their cookies came to embody something that matters a lot in the long run.
Ida and her sister Ray were born in the mid-nineteenth century. Ray, the older of the two, married a wealthy and industrious man, with whom she spent a great deal of time in Ireland, gathering linens for his textile business. While in Ireland she had a household full of servants and a wonderful cook, who made delicious pastries; soft buttery cookies with jam and a raisin cake were the most notable of them all. Upon returning to New York City, Ray brought these recipes with her and renamed them the Ray Cookies and the Ray Cake, in her very own honor. Lore has it that she never once baked these treats. Instead, she would call out to her kind and generous younger sister, “Ida darling, while you’re resting, would you mind making a batch of cookies...I’ve got a lot of people I would like to give them to.” Ida would stand there and bake, and her warmth would make people smile.
Last week, I asked my grandfather Bob about the sisters. He had known them both well, and described that “Ray was the grand-dame of all time. She had a very exciting life, but it was a very selfish life. And, Ida, well she was just the most wonderful person-- everybody who knew her fell in love with her. She was a beautiful person and a plain person. She was the nicest, best person you could ever want to meet…because she was giving. She gave of herself, and she made those cookies. Lots and lots of them.”
Over time, everyone naturally began to refer to the cookies as Ida Cookies, after their actual maker. And batches of the cookies became icons of Ida’s simple kindness. Ida passed along the recipe to my grandmother Joyce (Ray’s grand-daughter). And, when Joyce got older, she wrote out the recipe on a little index card, which ended up in our home. A century after the recipe made it’s way into Ida’s hands from Ireland, these cookies and their story are what remain from these womens’ lives.
I recently started to make the Ida cookies for my family and am struck by how lovely and straight-forward they are. Some might say they are just a basic thumbprint cookie (although adhering to the recipe would require a thimble rather than thumb!) However, the ingredient list is simpler than for most modern thumbprint cookies, requiring only butter, sugar, egg yolks, flour, and jelly. The method is spare too: an obvious succession of creaming together, and then incorporating ingredients into, a sweet buttery base. My main tip is to not overwork the dough after adding the flour; it should just come together, yielding a delightfully supple dough, and then moist, soft cookies. Finally, hard as I looked, I couldn’t find blackcurrant jelly, so went with a redcurrant one, the color of which I find enjoyable during the holiday season.
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