Teri’s Grandma’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Grandpa and Grandma Rang’s farm was two miles from their church at Phipps, Wisconsin.  Trinity Lutheran Church was a modest white clapboard church built in 1905 on land donated by a parishioner.  Another family donated five acres across from the church for a cemetery.  The church was demolished many years ago, and trees grow where I once recited Bible verses, but the cemetery is still maintained, and we visit it regularly to put flowers on the graves of my parents.

My first memories of church services and other activities all involve that little church.  My mother and father were active members, which meant that we kids were also part of that church family.  It was there that I learned that one should fill the front pews out of respect for the minister, that you didn’t need fancy clothes but you should wash and wear clean pants and shirts and that you kept quiet and paid attention during the service.  Mom made sure that I was dressed in a clean white shirt and wore a clip-on tie every Sunday.

I remember potlucks with lots of food and time to play with the other kids while our fathers met on church business with the minister and our mothers visited with each other.  By the time I was five or six I was one of the kids who had walk-on roles in the Christmas play.  While the older kids were dressed as angels, Mary or Joseph or the three Wise Men and recited scripture, we little kids pretended to be shepherds or, worse, sheep. 

It must have been a Christmas service that persuaded Grandpa and Grandma Rang to take their family to church on a snowy December night in 1922.  My father told me the story many years ago.  In the summer, the family rode to church in their Overland touring car, but in winter they traveled by horse and sleigh.  On that occasion, however, the snow was so deep that the horse could not pull the sleigh.

“It just acted like a plow,” said my father.  “Pa told us we would have to walk.  So that’s what we did.  And we weren’t the only ones.”

“Pa broke trail, and George and Margaret who were bigger helped tramp down the snow.  I helped Stub get through it and Ma made sure no one got lost.    It took us a while, but we made it in time for the service.  The minister’s wife had hot cider for everyone afterwards in the parsonage next door to the church.

“It was easier walking home, because we had made a pretty good trail.  Harold (my father’s younger brother) was born about two months later.  Ma and Harold did just fine.”

Today I think often of this story when church is canceled because of a winter snow or ice storm warning.  “People don’t want to have an accident driving in bad weather,” says Jerri.  I don’t reply, but the temptation is there:  “Couldn’t they just walk?”

Though Dad did not mention them, I would be nearly certain that the minister’s wife would have put out a plate of cookies to fortify the parishioners for their walks home.  One Sunday when Connie Schultz and her daughter Teri were hosting the coffee and treats after the service, they had made an old-fashioned raisin oatmeal cookie that I’m sure would have been familiar to the minister’s wife and my father.  

Teri told me that they are one of the first cookies she remembers making with her grandma Rachael Schultz.  They aren’t overly sweet but are delightfully moist.  Connie explained that boiling the raisins was probably the reason why the cookies stayed so moist.  Whatever the explanation, the recipe for these cookies deserves a place in your recipe box.

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup butter

1 cup raisins

2 large eggs

Pinch of salt

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. cinnamon 

1 tsp. vanilla

2 cups old fashioned oatmeal

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1 cup chopped walnuts

PROCEDURE:

Start by bringing the eggs and a cup of butter to room temperature by setting them out an hour or so before starting the cookies.

Put a cup of raisins into a small saucepan and cover them with water.  Bring the pan to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the raisins for ten minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat and let the raisins cool a bit.

While the raisins are cooling, cream together the sugar and butter in a large mixing bowl.  Add the eggs, spices, and five tablespoons of the raisin liquid to the creamed sugar.  Sift half of the flour and soda into the liquid ingredients, then stir in the oatmeal followed by the rest of the flour.  Drain the raisins and blend them and the walnuts into the batter.  You will have a moist batter.

Drop batter by rounded teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets and bake at 350º for ten to twelve minutes until the cookies begin to brown on the edges.  Cool them on wax paper and store the cookies in an airtight container.

NOTES:  In case you are wondering, a pinch of salt is about a sixteenth of a teaspoon, roughly the amount you can pick up with your thumb and first two fingers.  If you are using unsalted butter, use a quarter of a teaspoon of salt.

If the batter looks a little too moist, you can stir in a tablespoon or two of flour at this point.

Fruited Irish Soda Bread

Traditional Irish soda bread was probably first baked around 1840, a few years after baking soda was introduced to the island.  It was made with whole wheat flour, little or no sugar, a teaspoon of baking soda, some salt and sour milk.  It was a bread to dip into your tea or soup, something that also went well with boiled potatoes or cabbage and, if you were lucky, a slab of cheese or a piece of bacon or fish.

Today, many recipes for Irish soda bread include raisins or other dried fruits.  In the nineteenth century dried fruits would have been an expensive addition to the bread.  They were probably reserved for holidays or other occasions when housewives wanted to make a special treat for their families.  Besides adding flavor, the fruit also helps keep the bread moist for a longer period.

However, this bread tastes so good that it seldom lasts more than a day or two.  I think it tastes better slightly warm, so we like to pop it into the toaster or microwave for a few seconds before slathering on the butter. 

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup raisins

1/3 cup dried cherries or cranberries

1/2 tsp. brandy

1/2 tsp. port wine

1/2 tsp. water

4 cups all-purpose flour plus a little more to sprinkle on the loaf

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 cup butter 

2 large eggs

1 cup buttermilk

PROCEDURE:

Start by washing your hands and plumping the fruit.  Put the raisins and dried cherries or cranberries into a microwavable bowl or measuring cup.  Add about a half teaspoon each of brandy, port wine and water.  Cover and microwave on high for twenty seconds, then stir the fruit and microwave another twenty seconds.  Repeat one more time and let the fruit cool.  If you see liquid on the bottom of the container, stir the fruit until the liquid has been absorbed.

Melt the butter and set it aside to cool to a warm room temperature.  Preheat the oven to 350º and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, baking powder, soda, sugar and salt into a large mixing bowl.  Stir the fruit into the dry ingredients, making sure that they are evenly distributed.

Beat the eggs in a small bowl until they are lemon colored.  Set aside a tablespoon of the beaten egg in a small bowl.  Beat a cup of buttermilk into the eggs, then beat in the butter.

Stir the liquid ingredients into the dry mixture.  This will take a minute or two until all the flour mixture has been moistened.  Using your hands, gently work the dough for a few seconds and shape it into a ball. 

Put the ball on the parchment paper and paint the surface with the beaten egg reserved in the cup.   Sprinkle a little flour over the surface and use a sharp knife to cut a half-inch-deep cross on top of the loaf.

Bake on the center shelf of the oven for forty-five to fifty-five minutes until the loaf is a golden brown.  The bread will be done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf registers 190º.

NOTES:  Do not knead the dough.  Just form it into a ball as if you were making a big meatball.  Some people like this soda bread with jam or jelly, but I really prefer only good butter.