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January 23, 2023

Oatmeal Cookies

By Sand Pilarski

Some forty years ago, Autumn would bring the first frosts, convincing the black walnut trees in the wood across the road to drop their leaves. My father said that the black walnuts were the first to lose their leaves in the Fall, and the last to sprout them in the Spring.

In the dense woodland, the black walnuts grew tall and spindly, prone to webworms -- truly one of the least handsome trees in the green canopy. Nevertheless, we watched them all summer long, hoping for just the right amount of rain to plump the round green fruit: a baseball shaped green hull that would contain a scratchy black nut, which in turn contained a savory meat.

Even in my youth we were some of the last people who bothered to go into the woods in the Autumn to gather the fallen green walnut hulls. We waited until a frost or two had convinced the copperhead snakes to go to sleep, and then took a bushel basket, or maybe a couple shopping bags and filled them with as many of the round hulls as we could carry.

Sometimes the green hull was as large as a softball; in drought years it had barely enough pith to disguise the nut within, and many of the meats simply dried up.

We called those "blind" nuts when the family sat in the cellar cracking them. Dad would make a little fire in a potbellied stove to make the clean, painted cellar warm, and we would sit, maybe with Mom's portable radio playing, my sister laughing at the funny turns of conversation. Each of us had a thin nutpick, and as each black walnut was cracked, we picked the meats out into a communal bowl, admonishing each other not to eat too many of them -- "Save them for the cookies!"

The cookies. The cookies were the sole reason we gathered black walnuts each year. My mother, always keen to make someone else do the dirty work, had set down a law: "You gather the nuts, and crack them, and I'll make the cookies!" And so we would, because the family recipe for cookies was something we never wanted to endure a winter without.

Once we had enough walnut meats, and could convince Mom that she really did have time to make the cookies, she'd make a double batch, wrapping the freshly baked cookies in a clean cloth, stored in a big roasting pan in the pantry. The pantry would be perfumed with the scent of the cookies, elevating the storage room for canned goods into a sacred place, a place where nature and chance met the work of human hands and proclaimed joyously how delicious, how wonderful the union could be.

Last year, I asked my mother what I could get for my sister for her birthday, and Mom asked for a batch of those cookies. I Fed-Ex'd some within a couple days ... as soon as I could find some black walnuts.

OATMEAL COOKIES: THE FAMILY RECIPE

* Stewed Raisins, 1 cup

It doesn't take long to stew the raisins. You just barely cover them with water and simmer them until they're soft. We used to use Sun-Maid Puffed Seeded Muscats (which we called "cookin' raisins") but Sun-Maid doesn't package them any more. Sometimes they sell something they call "Baking Raisins" but they aren't the same. Still, regular raisins work almost as well. Start the raisins on the stove before messing with the rest of the ingredients.

*1/2 cup Crisco
*1/2 cup Saffola Margarine
*1 cup light brown sugar
*2 - 3 eggs
*2 teaspoons cinnamon
*1/2 teaspoon salt
*1 teaspoon baking soda
*1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream the shortenings; add sugar and beat until sort of fluffy. Add eggs, and the rest of those starred ingredients. All that is the hard part. Now mix in the rest:

2 cups flour
2 cups oatmeal
1 cup chopped black walnuts

After that is when you add the stewed raisins, which makes that gooey, unwieldy mess into a nice, sticky droppable cookie dough. Add the raisins with a slotted spoon first: that way you will know how much of the stewed raisin juice you have to add to make the mix workable.

Bake the cookies at 375 degrees F. for about 12 minutes. Test by pressing quickly on the top of a cookie -- it should spring back when they are done. Makes about two dozen or so cookies.

Some things I've learned over the past 40 years of making these cookies:

Never make a single batch. Family members who like to eat four or five cookies for breakfast get crabby quickly with a single batch.

Use a Cuisinart or other food processor to chop the nuts into a flour-like consistency. The same family members who eat four or five cookies at a swipe also hate the feeling of nuts as they chew. (Mom used a double blade kitchen chopper in a wooden bowl to chop the nuts. I loved that chopper, but the Cuisinart is so much faster and easier.

Use aluminum foil to line your cookie sheets. Then you can pre-place cookies on new sheets while the first batch bakes. First batch done, slide it off onto the counter. Slide the next batch on, into the oven before you even have to remove the first one from the sheet of foil. Also it makes cleanup a breeze.

The last thing about black walnuts and cookies that I'll mention is that the recipe works with other kinds of nuts ... but it isn't the same at all. Without black walnuts (which are seasonally available in supermarkets in the baking section), you might as well just add an extra handful of flour and sugar ... and miss out on a delectable treat.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-10-22
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