Fry Pan Cookies—And a Midwestern Christmas Story

A recipe for Fry-Pan Cookies, a classic mid-century recipe. And a story about these lovely gems.

scanBonjour mes amis. I’ve been a regular cookie-baking machine these past few days! I can’t say my faves are French…but they sure are good (I give links to the recipes I’m making, below).

As I was making cookies, I thought of my mother and my grandmother—both gone now—and a short essay I once wrote about these two great Midwestern cooks from two different generations.

I’d like to share it with you today:

Fry-Pan Cookies and the Quintessential Midcentury Cook

Originally appeared in Better Homes and Gardens “Christmas Cookies” Magazine, 2001.

Like many descendants of Midwestern farm families, I cherish memories of my grandmother’s baking. And while the all-American double-crust fruit pie was her specialty, her Christmas cookies—usually old-fashioned molasses cookies or traditional sugar-cookie cutouts—inspired lasting memories, too.

I can remember sitting around the Christmas tree—freshly cut from the timber out back on Christmas Eve—and dipping her homemade gems into cups of hot tea. It was then we’d remark—as we did every year—that before us was indeed the most beautiful Christmas tree ever, and that Grandmother made better cookies than anyone. It didn’t matter to us that across the snowy fields, throughout the county and an on farmsteads around the Midwest, other families were likewise gathered, saying pretty much the same thing. Even then we knew it might have been cliché—but it was our cliché.

My mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother. Just from the way she dressed—no calico for her!—you could tel she wasn't destined to be a farm wife, as her mother and grandmother had. Still, she loved the farm, and returned often throughout her life.

My mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother. Just from the way she dressed—no calico for her!—you could tell Mom wasn’t destined to be a farm wife, as her mother and grandmother. Still, she loved the farm, and returned often throughout her life.

My mother is as generous and wonderful a cook as her mother was, though her Christmas cookies are an entirely different breed. While Grandmother painstakingly rolled and shaped her delicacies, Mom takes the drop and bar cookies route. While Grandmother’s cookies were based on the holy trinity of baking—butter, sugar, and flour—Mom crafts her goodies from newfangled ingredients: brand-name cereals, Chinese noodles, packaged candy, sweetened condensed milk, and—yikes!—”oleo,” as she still calls margarine. Sometimes, as in the case of her Fry Pan Cookies, she doesn’t even turn the oven on.

To say that my grandmother made her cookies from scratch is an understatement. In my early childhood, I can remember watching her gather eggs from the hen house and churn butter from the day’s fresh cream.

My mother left that part of baking behind when she moved to the city at 17. In fact, she does not speak fondly of the hens pecking at her hands when she helped gather eggs, and she has no nostalgia whatsoever for milking cows. When she speaks of growing up on the hardscrabble farm during the Depression, it’s less about the warming ease of cookies by the Christmas tree and more about squeezing 10 cups of tea out of one tea bag and the daily sweeping of grit blown in from the dust storms.

The farmhouse, built in 1907, Greene County. Iowa. The site of many Christmas gatherings over the years.

The farmhouse, built in 1907, Greene County. Iowa. The site of many Christmas gatherings over the years.

Many home cooks of my generation have come full circle as we hearken back to the made-from-scratch heritage of our forebears. I find it a joy to seek out and share heirloom recipes, brimming with such ingredients as molasses and apple butter. Still, it would be a shame to forget those incredibly clever cookies of the mid-1900s home baker. In their own way, my mom’s Fry-Pan Cookies are no less magical than any of Grandmother’s Christmas cookies. They’re sweet, lovingly made, rooted in their own sense of time and tradition—and they come but once a year, after all.

Cookies I baked yesterday and today:

Santa’s Whisker’s
Classic Christmas Pecan Sandies
Chocolate-Covered Cherry Cookies
Sugar-Cookie Cutouts
Raspberry-Almond Thumbprints

CHECK OUT MY FAVORITE GIFTS FOR COOKS, FOOD-LOVERS, AND FRANCOPHILES

Fry Pan Cookies—And a Midwestern Christmas Story
Prep time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 48
 
Fry-pan cookies combine Rice Crispies, chopped dates, walnuts, and coconut—plus sugar and eggs for a binder—for a sweet treat that's somewhere between a cookie and a candy.
Ingredients
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1½ cups chopped pitted dates
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2½ cups Rice Crispies
  • ½ cup chopped nuts (I prefer walnuts, though pecans are nice, too)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3 cups flaked coconut
Instructions
  1. Stir together the sugar and the eggs; set aside. Get the dates, vanilla, rice crispies, and chopped nuts measured (separately--do not combine at this point) and ready to add to the recipe.
  2. In a large skillet, melt the butter over over low heat. Add the dates, vanilla, and sugar-egg mixture to the skillet. Cook and stir over low heat about 5 minutes or until the mixture is thick. Remove from heat. Stir in the cereal and nuts.
  3. Place the coconut in a shallow bowl. Using a small cookie scoop (about 1¼-inch in diameter), drop the mixture into the coconut; roll to coat in coconut. Refrigerate until firm
  4. Store in airtight containers in the refrigerator in layers separated by waxed paper. Store up to 1 week. If chilled, let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before serving.

 

 

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