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Flour girl: Cheesy old favorites

Mary Curtis Simonds's recipe book. (Courtesy of Donald M. Simonds)

Recipes have changed over time -- and not just what ingredients or dishes are in style, but the format of recipes themselves.

A few years ago, I got a call from Donald M. Simonds, a reader who wondered whether I could make use of his mother's handwritten collection from the 1920s and '30s. I was curious to see them, even though at the time I didn't have a plan in mind. When I looked back at a personal collection from 80 years ago, I was struck by how much information used to be assumed and was therefore not transcribed.

Recipe Included

Many of the recipes listed only ingredients and left it up to the cook to figure out pan size, technique, oven temperatures and baking times. These are things we've come to expect for any directions beyond a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But back in the day, when people learned how to cook in real time from their relatives, this was knowledge communicated through experience rather than the written word. Directions might read "bake in a hot oven" or a knob of "butter the size of a walnut." Ovens didn't come with digital settings that differentiated between five-degree jumps and everyone knew what size a walnut was, so it seemed as reliable a measure as anything.

Cheese Wafers. (Leigh Lambert/The Washington Post)

Of course, there is something empowering about just a listing of ingredients. I felt as though I was given the freedom to interpret without a strict eye watching my every move. Sure, I might mess things up, but without a stated right you can do no wrong.

The recipes in Mary Curtis Simonds's collection are in beautiful script. Her penmanship is just as pleasing as the simplicity of the recipes. She lived in Pennsylvania where gingerbread and cheese wafers echoed the tastes of the time.

I found the Cheese Straws to be more successful as Cheese Wafers. I forgot the baking powder. I decided the tops could benefit from being brushed with an egg wash. I figured a hot oven was 400 degrees. I took the wafers out when I could smell them (10 minutes). And the whole time I felt as if Mary would be pleased rather than horrified by my minor tweaks (Okay, I admit forgetting the teaspoon of baking powder is more than minor, but as it turned out, the cheese and butter layer make a puffed, crisp wafer.)

Food is one of the surest ways to time-travel and remember another era. It was a thrill to find memories could be resurrected with just a little time in the kitchen.

-- Leigh Lambert

Cheese Wafers
Makes about sixty 1-inch wafers

This is based on a very old recipe sent by a reader of the Post's Food section. The original wasn't much more than a list of ingredients.

The wafers are flaky and light; a perfect accompaniment to pre-dinner cocktails.

MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour before baking. Store in a paper towel-lined, airtight tin for up to 4 days, or wrap well and freeze for up to 1 month. Adapted from Mary Curtis Simonds recipe collection, circa 1930.

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups flour, plus more for the work surface
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 large egg
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Kosher or sea salt

Combine the butter and flour in a medium bowl. Use your fingers to quickly work the mixture into the into a coarse meal, with some different-size pieces of butter throughout.

Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add the grated cheese and knead/mix on medium-low speed for about 2 minutes, until the dough comes together to form a ball.

Wrap the dough in wax paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with a silicone liner or parchment paper.

Lightly flour a work surface. Divide the dough in half and refrigerate the half you will not be rolling out right away. Lightly flour the top of the dough and roll out to a thickness of 1/8 inch.

Whisk together the egg and Worcestershire sauce in a small bowl; use some of the mixture to brush the surface of the dough, then sprinkle lightly and evenly with the salt. Use a 1-inch-round cookie cutter to cut out the wafers, flouring the cookie cutter between cuts to keep it from sticking. Arrange 24 on each baking sheet; the wafers will not spread.

Bake 1 sheet at a time for 10 to 12 minutes, until the wafers have puffed and are slightly brown. Let the wafers cool for a couple of minutes on the sheet before transferring to wire rack to cool completely before serving or storing. Repeat as needed to use all the dough.

Per wafer: 62 calories, 2 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 16 mg cholesterol, 97 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By Leigh Lambert  |  November 19, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Flour Girl , Recipes  | Tags: Flour Girl, Leigh Lambert, cheese straws, recipes  
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Love this! Old recipes are delicious, if mysterious. I'm in the process of wrestling my grandmother's dessert recipes into a more understandable shape. There were some highly unsuccessful attempts at pumpkin custard before I got the right combo of oven temperature and pan size. The final is pretty darn good, though --

Posted by: ergarside | November 19, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

That custard looks wonderful. I can almost smell it.

Posted by: Leigh Lambert | November 20, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

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