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Gramma's Black Walnut Cookies: Great Depression–Era Recipe

Lightly browned at the edges, these black walnut cookies have just come from the oven.

Lightly browned at the edges, these black walnut cookies have just come from the oven.

My Gramma Morgan's Christmas Cookies

Families create rituals and warm memories for their children that last beyond lifetimes. Such is the case with my formidable Gramma Anna Morgan. Born at the beginning of the 20th century, she raised five children during the Great Depression.

She kept house in a solid brick home on Fourth Avenue, Altoona, Pennsylvania, which had no electricity, instead relying on gaslights and kerosene lanterns. Wash day (laundry day) was as back-breaking, complicated, and long as all the nursery rhymes ("This is the way we wash our clothes . . .") describe. Yet, through all this, she "loved up" my father and his siblings.

One of the ways she showed her love was with her Christmas cookies.

The original recipe was handed down to me by my mother. (Quantities are doubled; the Morgans are a big family.)

The original recipe was handed down to me by my mother. (Quantities are doubled; the Morgans are a big family.)

Kitchen Fragrances Can Take Us Back in Time

In a very good way, the sense of smell triggers memories of the far past. The fragrance of food associated with happy periods acts as a time machine. Understandably, my father requests one of his mother’s special Christmastime cookies as we gather each year for the holiday. It is a fabulous cookie. Although Gramma called them “Clifford Tea Cookies,” I have renamed them to honor her. You can almost see her bustling around in her kitchen as you smell and nibble them.

Black walnuts and black walnut extract are essential ingredients for these cookies.

Black walnuts and black walnut extract are essential ingredients for these cookies.

Black Walnuts Are Very Distinctive

Please, if you consider trying this recipe and use “regular walnuts” it will not be the same cookie. It will not necessarily be a bad cookie, but it won’t be this wonderful black walnut one. I recommend that you take the time to purchase black walnuts and black walnut extract.

One year, I discovered my extract was used up. A few days before Christmas, I started a mildly frantic search for more. Apparently, black walnut extract is not as available as it once was. Many Internet searches and phone calls were required before I located a kindly professional baker who sold me a bottle of her extra-strength professional black walnut extract. That was her Christmas gift to my family!

Ingredients

Yield: about 3-1/2 to 4 dozen cookies

  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 1/8 cups firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon black walnut extract
  • 1 1/2 cups white flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup chopped black walnuts

Step 1: Soften the Butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Put the butter in a large mixing bowl and soften it by letting it stand at room temperature (or do it the modern way: by microwaving on VERY LOW for 10 seconds).

The butter, softened.

The butter, softened.

Brown sugar is added.

Brown sugar is added.

Step 2: Combine the Wet Ingredients

  1. Add the brown sugar to the softened butter and cream them together.
  2. Add the egg and black walnut extract to the bowl and beat together.

My Gramma would have beaten all the ingredients by hand and they always were thoroughly blended. That humbles me.

One egg

One egg

Baking soda

Baking soda

Step 3: Combine With Dry Ingredients

  1. On top of the wet mixture in the bowl, pour ONLY 1 cup of the flour.
  2. Then sprinkle the 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda all over it. Mix the two dry ingredients together a little with a spatula or spoon. Then add the remaining 1/2 cup of flour on top.
  3. Stir everything together gently with a spoon to get it wet. If you use an electric mixer first, you will probably have flour flying all over your kitchen.
  4. Beat together until thoroughly mixed.
  5. Then drop by teaspoon onto a cookie sheet with about 1 and 1/4 inches between the cookies.
Size and spacing of the cookies before they go into the oven.

Size and spacing of the cookies before they go into the oven.

Step 4: Bake

  1. Set a timer for 8 minutes and stay in or near the kitchen! No multi-tasking is permitted if it takes you too far from the oven. (Been there, burned those.)
  2. Check the cookies at 8 minutes. With my oven, they needed 10 minutes of backing time and they also might need 12 minutes in your oven. When they are lightly brown at the edges remove the cookies.
The edges should be lightly browned.  Obviously, my Gramma did not use parchment paper under the cookies, but you can add that feature if you wish.

The edges should be lightly browned. Obviously, my Gramma did not use parchment paper under the cookies, but you can add that feature if you wish.

Step 5: Cool and Enjoy!

After the cookies have cooled for 2 to 5 minutes, use a metal turner to remove them from the cookie sheet. Enjoy these strong sweet walnut cookies!

Where It Started: Altoona, Pennsylvania

© 2011 Maren Elizabeth Morgan