Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Search of Lost Cookies

And suddenly the memory appeared.  That taste was the taste of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray . . . my aunt Léonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea . . .

'Tis the season of the cookie.  With visions of Mom and Grandma baking Christmas cookies dancing in my head, I put out a call for family reminiscences and got this reply:  “No doubt you will make mention of Mrs. Schweer's cookies.”

Mrs. Schweer?  Who the devil is Mrs. Schweer?  I turned in desperation to the internet.  Lo, there she was!  She’d been written up in Life Magazine, and she’d died at age 105 in the very hospital where I was born.  I wrote Mom to confirm.

“Not our Mrs. Schweer.”

With a prompt from my sister (our family historian), I dimly recalled a plate of white-iced ginger cookies, but no Proustian epiphany occurred.  The only cookie-based memory I could conjure was of my own baking attempt:  peanut butter cookies with burnt bottoms and weird fork marks on the top, flour-covered counter tops, and an oily smell of peanut butter that lasted for days.

So who, I asked, was our Mrs. Schweer?

Our family historian reported:  “I don't have much information but I remembered we loved the cookies and looked forward to them every year.  I did find an entry in my baby book that verifies the spelling as Schweer, but that's about it (entry made 1956).”

Mom filled in the blanks:  “Mrs. Schweer, a.k.a., Grandma Schweer (first name may have been Laura) lived next door to us in Chicago Heights.  She was a true renaissance woman of homemaking.  Quite elderly when I first met her circa 1948, I marveled at her vigor.

“Mrs. Schweer maintained an immaculate house and garden, pushing the vacuum indoors and the lawnmower outdoors with no help to get in her way.  She hung her laundry to dry outdoors on a line in the sun.  In the winter she single-handedly shoveled the snow off her walks.

“She did all of her own cooking and at Christmas baked batch upon batch of cookies, plates of which she wrapped and distributed to her neighbors’ children.  Mrs. Schweer sent cookies to you two even after we moved away.  As to why she brought you cookies, I don’t know.  Probably because it was a renaissance woman’s thing to do!”

We still had a historical gap to fill.  Mom had certainly baked cookies each Christmas, and Grandma must have done so, too. 

But no.

“We did not bake cookies at our house,” reported Mom.  “Great Grandma L. baked mincemeat pies and Grandma G. baked applesauce cake, coffee cake with a crumbly, sugary topping, and pumpkin pies . . .

“Somehow I did not inherit the baking gene.  In spite of that, I always baked birthday cakes to order for you two; the occasional cherry pie while our tree was bearing; and Christmas cookies only because it was de rigueur in our happy homemaker Village of Homewood.  If it weren’t for Mrs. Schweer and Nabisco you would have been seriously cookie deprived.”

Thanks be to Mrs. Schweer!  (I’ll leave Nabisco aside.)  Mystery solved, I’m off to the bakery to get myself supplied.

For those who like to bake, click here for a great recipe for Pepparkakor cookies and links to other cookie recipe delights.  It’s not too late:  they’re good for New Year’s, too.


The beautiful (and delicious) cookies in the photograph at the top of the post were made by Duane Park Patisserie.

The cake shown in the birthday party photograph was, as requested by its recipient, purple with green icing.

The cookies on a plate (the closest replica of Mrs. Schweer’s recipe found so far, though without the decorative bits) were test-baked this week by our family historian.  She pronounced the recipe not good enough and continues her search.


  1. Aloha Susan, your family historian sent me the link to your outstanding blog. This post has set the tone for me for today - warm and filled with the aromas of baked goods coming from the oven. And filled with memories. Thank you for sharing yours. And Happy, Happy Holidays. Bonnie

  2. Great story! -- I love the unresolved quality. Strikes me as more genuine than those tidy reminiscences where every person is in the right place and every cookie on the plate is still being made according to the ancestral recipe by the 3rd or 4th generation.

    That said, I make my mother's Vanilla Crescents using a recipe she typed out for me, coming as close to the same cookies she made as I can humanly manage and so does my sister, although we both call them Moth cookies in memory of her.

  3. Now, this is quite something: Two really, really good cooks and bakers, one in Hawaii, another in New York/Maine, have been nice enough to comment on this post! Readers who are in search of cookie recipes should DEFINITELY click on both commenter's names to take a look at their sites!

    Thank you both for writing, and happy holidays to you and yours!

  4. In the quest to recreate the Mrs. Schweer cookie I have found that my adult palate and physiology does not tolerate the extreme sugar that I loved as a child. Nonetheless, I regret that I never thought to ask Mrs. Schweer for the recipe or about her life. I thank her for the wonderful memories and would want her to know that in addition to Mom, Dad, Susan, Snoopy and Marshall Field’s, her cookies were at the top of my Christmas wish list each year!

    Note: Although there is no substitute for the Mrs. Schweer cookie, I did find a Scandinavian recipe without the royal icing that might be adult friendly. An interesting ingredient is cardamom.

  5. I sit writing this comment in a sugar-stupor, after indulging in too many of my own Christmas cookies. My grandmother was not a baker, her culinary gifts all contained garlic and tomatoes, so I do not have similar childhood memories of particular Christmas cookies or baked goods. Fortunately my family thinks cinnamon krinkles and good old Tollhouse cookies are gourmet holiday desserts.

    My mother always tries to impose her stollen and pfefferknusse on us each December, but they just don't take.

    Thanks for sharing your reminiscences and photos (do any little girls dress up like that for birthday parties anymore?)

    I am off to check out the other commenters' websites!

  6. So enjoyed your comment, and I believe my family would endorse the view that Tollhouse cookies will always be among the top ten to beat. (Mom still recalls her Aunt Lucille's.) As for dressing up for birthday parties, I don't know the answer to your question, though I'd guess not. We did love ours, however, and, by the by, though Mom may not have had the baking gene, she made many, many party dresses, including the one you see.

  7. I love the description of Mrs Schweer - I grew up with a version of her as a neighbor, too, though she didn't bake cookies.
    Like your Great Grandma L, my mother baked Christmas mince pies. All of our mothers and grandmothers baked a Christmas cake every year about 3 months before the day. Only the adults seemed to enjoy those baked goods! Nowadays Christmas cake is the one thing that I bake - my husband loves the rich fruit cake (liberally fed with brandy). It's the only gift he requests every Christmas. Talk about a stupor, after eating a slice of that!!

  8. Ah, Christmas cake! Indeed, better loved by adults, if properly laced with brandy . . .


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