December 1, 2009

The Church Lady’s triumph: NaCoBakMo, Day 4.

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:55 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

An old family joke: Me: “When is the church bazaar?” My brother: “The church is ALWAYS bizarre!”

That’s what true wit is, isn’t it, capturing an essential truth in a deft turn of phrase. We laughed nearly ’til we cried at that quick comeback 25ish years ago, because, God help us, it was SO TRUE.

I grew up in the Lutheran church, but not just any Lutheran church—the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, which I later discovered to be just a smidge away from fundamentalist Christianity. The happy news is that the indoctrination was a near-total failure for both me and my brother, aided in large part, no doubt, by the fact that both of our parents were perfectly ready to agree that the great majority (if not all) of the truly wacko stuff the Synod stood for was so ridiculous as to be dismissed out of hand. I was Trouble, though, to the point where the minister actually called my mother to ask her to tell me to please stop arguing with him during Confirmation class. I remember discovering a 1950s-era book about Creationism on one of the church bookshelves one Sunday, pointing to it and laughing, “Geez, can you believe we still have a copy of this drivel around here?” The Pastor stood squirming, abashed; he muttered something incomprehensible and wandered off. I only figured out later that this was because we were supposed to ACTUALLY BELIEVE that stuff. By my late teens I would get so angry during the sermons that I would spend the entire time writing my enraged response on the blank side of bulletin inserts. Upon reaching college age I basically gave up church attendance, but sometimes I would go with my mother during summer break; I started including my insulted sermon reports to Mr. Unfocused along with my love letters. I suppose nowadays I’d just have Tweeted him.

I have returned to church participation in recent years (NOT Missouri Synod), as many people do when kids come into their lives. I am well aware that on any given Sunday I am likely to be a good candidate for the Worst Christian in the Room award, and I encourage my kids to think critically about what they are hearing, but, all the same, I’m showing up. The whys and wherefores of this decision are too complicated for this post, but there it is.

One of the great legacies my church upbringing gave me was in the cookie appreciation department. Every November, in preparation for the Christmas Bazaar (see joke, above), the ladies of the congregation would each prepare 4 dozen or so cookies. One night they would line up all the platters of cookies in the church basement and, plate in hand, walk through the line taking one cookie from each platter. They filled up plate after plate, wrap them up, and sell the instant assortments at the Christmas Bazaar. The cookies were pretty consistently delicious. Actually, I remember only one cookie which I scrupulously avoided, the bright green cornflake Christmas wreath cookie decorated with red cinnamon drops. I know that many people thought they were fantastic—a lot like a dressed-up Rice Krispie treat—but something about them was unnerving to me. Maybe I’ll try to overcome that history by including it in NaCoBakMo this year.

At any rate, I did have some favorites. One of the cookies I watched for in my annual Christmas Cookie Vigil was a simple bar cookie spread with chocolate and dusted with nuts. I LOVED that cookie. Happily, sometime in the mid- to late-1970s the church Auxiliary produced a cookbook which included several of the ladies’ cookie specialties. I inherited a copy belonging to one of my grandmothers (I’m not certain which; only one was a member of the church but the other probably owned a copy) and it contains the recipe for Toffee Squares, my special favorite.

As a kid I didn’t know who made that great cookie, but because the ladies signed their submissions, now I do. Her name was Edna, and she and her sister Hattie (or perhaps sister-in-law, I’m really not sure which) used to sit in the pew behind us. In winter, they would wear enormous fur coats that made their petite, elderly frames appear positively formidable. (It is not out of the question that their disapproving looks when my brother or I engaged in restless behavior may have contributed to that impression.) I believe Edna and Hattie were perpetually 85 years old; perhaps they were born aged and wearing fur coats. I suppose that my childhood memories are mistaken in one or all of the particulars I have just described, and I am certain my mother could set me straight on the details. I choose not to inquire, and I ask her not to offer any correction. This is how Edna and her possibly-sister Hattie live in my mind, and thus shall they remain in this blog: wearing heavy fur coats, baking the most marvelous cookies one could hope to eat.

Both kids vote this cookie the best so far in the NaCoBakMo project. I can’t say I blame them.

Toffee Squares

Toffee Squares

1 c butter
1 c brown sugar, packed
1 egg yolk*
1 t vanilla
2 c flour
12 oz. package milk chocolate chips (I prefer Hershey, which has no peanut warning)
chopped nuts (optional; I don’t use them due to my son’s allergy, but they are tasty on this cookie)

*If you’re cooking egg-free, I think it would be a reasonable experiment to try this recipe without the egg yolk. It’s basically a brown sugar shortbread on the bottom, so I think it might just work.

Preheat oven to 350º. Prepare (see observation below) one 11″ x 17″ baking sheet by cutting a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom nicely. Spray the bottom and sides of the sheet with cooking spray, then lay the parchment paper on top of the cooking spray. The spray will help the parchment lie flat on the bottom of the sheet.

Beat butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in egg yolk and vanilla. Mix in flour gradually, then beat a few minutes longer. Spread dough thinly over the entire cookie sheet, using the heel of your hand to flatten it to the point where it can cover the whole sheet.

Bake for 15 minutes.

Upon removing from oven, sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot cookies. The cookies, which will have puffed up some, will start to collapse. That’s OK; you want a dense cookie. After a minute or two, the heat from the cookies will have melted the chips enough to allow you to spread them with the back of a silicone spoon or a spatula. Spread the chocolate evenly over the whole sheet of cookies. Sprinkle nuts (if using) over the chocolate.

Allow the chocolate to set for about five minutes. Using a paring knife, cut the warm cookies into squares. The knife should glide nicely through the cookies and chocolate. Leave the cookies to cool in the sheets until the chocolate has fully set, a few hours or overnight. Before removing the cooled cookie squares from the sheet, you might need to run a knife through the scored cookies one more time. Depending on the size of your squares, one sheet will yield between 60 and 80 cookies.

An observation: if you lightly coat the parchment with cooking spray, then wipe off some of the excess with a paper towel, this will make it not completely impossible to get the dough flat in the pan while still helping you get the cookies out once they have cooled. But really you probably don’t actually need to use the parchment paper at all, or even spray the bottom of the pan. I do it because I’m paranoid about whether or not my cookie sheets are pristinely clean. It seems like a cookie sheet that’s been around the block a few times tends to be discolored and shopworn, no matter how much scrubbing you do. If your cookie sheets are as sparkling as they were the day they came into your life, or if you do not suffer from some peculiar cookie-sheet focused form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, by all means take a chance and skip the parchment paper/cooking spray. I’m sure Edna didn’t worry about it, and her cookies were superior.

TOMORROW: Taking the Wayback machine to 1937.



  1. Jeanne said,

    These are my family’s all-time favorite cookies! I even make them sometimes because (until now) how else can you get them? For the uninitiated, you MUST try these!

    I love your intro about Missouri-synod Lutheranism and taking kids to church. I did that during my kids’ childhoods too, but felt much as you describe.

  2. harri3tspy said,

    We make those wreath cookies every year. They are AJ’s favorite.

  3. Unfocused Me said,

    I love these cookies, although the Chocolate Peppermint Drops are my personal cookie kryptonite. I also love the titles of the “Possibly related posts” generated by WordPress.

  4. LSM said,

    One of the possibly related posts is titled “Probably Some Kind of Cult,” so maybe it’s appropriate for me to comment that my family also espouses the annual making of “holly clusters.” It was a tradition in our family when I was growing up—one continued by my mother due to the anticipation of her adult children, nieces, and nephews. My kids also always insist on making a few batches of our own before Christmas.

  5. bb said,

    Mount Calvary also served tasty bug juice at Vacation Bible School. Maybe next you should do a month-long Kool-Aid project?

  6. Jeanne, I’m glad to know you share my feelings about these cookies. I think it was a popular recipe.

    Harriet & LSM, it looks like I am going to have no choice but to attempt the wreath/holly clusters this year with such powerful endorsements to recommend them.

    BB, you know I’m still scarred from our Girl Scout bug juice experience.

  7. Pop and Ice said,

    I remember the cookie bazaar at our Protestant non-denominational church when I was a child. It was like being in cookie fairy land. But I best loved the Mother-Daughter banquets. Did you even attend one of those? Peanuts and pastel mints in little cups, punch and all those homemade tuna pasta and jello desserts? Am I giving my age away? Yes I am. Longing for a jello mold right this minute!

  8. […] toffee square recipe. Not wishing to come too close to repeating Edna’s Toffee Squares (Day 4) I went in search of something with a distinctive flavor and […]

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