The hunt for the humble hermit

The tattered recipe card contained a treasured cookie recipe.

FAMILY FAVORITE: Hermits, also known as rocks or drops in some cookbooks, contain cinnamon, nutmeg, raisins, and walnuts – flavors typically found in oatmeal cookies.

I confess to a loose screw in my cookie-baking heritage. As a teenager I was given free range in my mother's kitchen to bake up crazy cookie concoctions, tossing together favorite ingredients willy-nilly.

As a young married woman, I settled in the tradition of a long line of women whose housekeeping was thought incomplete without a constant supply of homemade cookies. The cookie jar was always full. One had to be ready for the unexpected visitor who might stop in for a cup of coffee and a little treat.

It took me years of experimentation to settle on recipes and tips for favorite cookies.

Among my discoveries: Chocolate chip cookies baked up soft and chewy if a bit more flour was added and the cookies were not allowed to overbake. The substitution of a little finely ground oatmeal for a bit of the flour greatly improved the flavor. Oatmeal raisin cookies were tastier when the raisins were chopped and a bit of orange peel was grated into the batter. Most sugar cookies needed to bake long enough to be crispy around the edges. A sprinkle of water on the tops of molasses cookies before they went into the oven caused them to crinkle.

And most importantly, I learned that it was indeed possible to make cookie batter without nibbling away at it.

All these varieties, along with snickerdoodles and fork-pressed peanut butter cookies, became family favorites and were routinely added to the children's lunch bags and available for after-school snacks.

But when I'd ask my husband what kind of cookie he was hungry for he'd say, "Grandma Ada's oatmeal cookies." And that recipe wasn't in my repertoire. Grandma Ada was Chuck's step-grandmother, who, along with her good cooking, brought two sons to the family, who were like younger brothers to my father-in-law and older brothers to my husband.

My mother-in-law, another excellent cook, could not recall such a recipe, but searched her recipe box and gave me several of Ada's handwritten recipe cards. Not one of those cookie recipes contained oatmeal. I found some delicious recipes for oatmeal cookies in my recipe books, but none came close to Grandma Ada's chunky, chewy cookie that my husband so fondly remembered.

The mystery was solved when I found a tattered, grease-spotted recipe card in Ada's handwriting simply labeled "Hermits," which did not call for oatmeal, but contained the cinnamon, nutmeg, raisins, and walnuts normally found in oatmeal cookies. That was the cookie my husband remembered. It was definitely not a glamour cookie – just a spicy, humble little mound listed as rocks or drops in many recipe books.

As our children moved out and our waistlines increased, the cookie production wisely diminished. My own mom had let me have her old KitchenAid mixer, perfect for baking double batches for visits with my grandchildren. I'd haul out the mixer for baking holiday treats, for potlucks or special entertaining, or for bringing my share of refreshments to club meetings.

Over the years, we've stayed in touch with Grandma Ada's sons. When one recently came to visit with his family, I baked up a batch of his mother's special cookies as a departure present for them to enjoy on their road trip home.

The next day, while putting the heavy, old mixer away, I discovered to my horror that one of the screws on the mixer's head was missing. It must have gone into the cookie batter! There was no way I could alert the relatives that their cookies may have a mystery ingredient that could be hard on the teeth.

Two of those cookies remained in the bottom of my cookie jar. I packed them in with our picnic lunch to take along on a hike we had planned. Carefully biting into the last cookie I was thrilled and relieved to find the missing ingredient – a large screw.

I still use the old mixer, but now I always make certain the screws are tight!

1/2 cup shortening

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

1/2 cup sour cream

2 eggs

4-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 cup chopped raisins

1 cup chopped nuts

In a large mixing bowl using an electric mixer, cream shortening, butter, and sugars. Add sour cream and eggs and beat 2 minutes.

In another bowl, stir dry ingredients (flour through cream of tartar) together until thoroughly mixed. Stir dry ingredients into creamed mixture in three additions, mixing well after each. (If you use a portable mixer, you may have to do the last addition by hand.) Add raisins and nuts.

Chill dough for several hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Using your hands, roll dough into 1-1/2- to 2-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Don't flatten. Bake until they begin to brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from baking sheet and let the cookies cool to room temperature on cooling racks. Yield: About 48 cookies.

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