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September 2014

Cook with the Best in the Northwest

The 1st American Cookie Lady, by Barbara Swell
Reviewed by Mary Rose

Cook with the Best in the Northwest archive


I wish every cookbook had as much personality as The 1st American Cookie Lady, published by Native Ground Books & Music (and be sure to check out the Log Cabin Cooking blog). It is a charming cookbook overflowing with cookie recipes to both bake and read about. Illustrations, stories, and witticisms from the early twentieth century add to the book's appeal.

Although Barbara Swell is listed as the author, in fact she served as a very active hands-on editor and unflagging tester of the 208 recipes. Barbara purchased the original 76-page manuscript in what she calls "fierce competition" during an online auction in 2004, and I can almost hear her whooping with joy as she opened the precious package.


The 1st American Cookie Lady, by Barbara Swell


Anna "Cookie" Covington is the titled Cookie Lady. Her middle name says it all. She no doubt loved cookies and shared them extravagantly with neighbors and friends. All Barbara knows about Anna, however, is that her cookie manuscript was originally purchased in the Pacific Northwest.

The recipes were collected by Anna between 1917 and 1920 from a variety of sources, including farm journals and ladies' magazines, as well as Anna's own creativity, with some recipes originating in an earlier period. Barbara speculates that this is a fairly complete collection of the time, possibly the first American cookie book.

A facsimile of a page of the original manuscript is found at the back of the book, so you can see for yourself how neatly Anna wrote out each treasured recipe.

Barbara does a wonderful job of commenting on recipes, providing a social context with period photos and household tips. The book gives the reader a fascinating peek at what life must have been like in the kitchens of the early 1900s, with sections on stoves, refrigeration, and packaged foods. Some of the recipes show how economical housewives scratched together treats even during food shortages throughout World War I. Mashed Potato Cookies, anyone?

Jumbles, sugar cookies, fruit cookies, novelty cookies . . . you name it, and Anna probably has it covered.

All recipes are recorded as Anna wrote them, but Barbara also translates many of them for the modern cook, adding notes about taste appeal, ingredients, and variations.

Let's make some cookies!

To be honest, I have mostly leafed through this book, amused by an advertisement depicting self-rising flour dancing in an 1890s kitchen, examining a photo of an early farm kitchen benefiting from "rural electrification of the U.S., 1940," and reading about traveling salesmen who sold Extract of White Rose and Jamaica Ginger to farmwives living far from the nearest town.

But of course, inevitably, I had to pick a recipe to make for this review, and so I chose Maple Molasses Ice Box Cookies. I was curious how maple molasses tastes!

I was able to boil down the maple syrup to a molasses consistency, but alas, the mixture cooled to become a very soft sugar. This was delicious—now I know how to make maple sugar candy—but I puzzled for a moment over how to add it to the dough. Finally, I mushed it into a spreadable, almost creamy sugar and made sure it was blended with the butter and brown sugar in the first step of the process.

I asked author Barbara Swell about this, wondering if my altitude of 4100 feet might affect the result, and she replied with the following:

I'm always happy to know about things that go wrong in recipes, because it's so much fun to fix and adjust. My guess is that it's not altitude but rather a bit of crystals already in your syrup that ran amok! But no problem: just scrape the crystals into the dough, maybe add a teaspoon or two of water to rinse out the pan, and add a tiny bit of moisture to the dough if it's too dry to hold together well. But if the crystals are like a soft brown sugar, I'd just use them as is. Also, when I boil down a sugar syrup, I keep the lid on the pan for the first few minutes of boiling to wash down any crystals that may be hanging out on the sides of the pan. Once there is one crystal, the whole batch can follow suit. In the case of these cookies, no problem. But if you're making caramel or, say, taffy, it would be a problem.

So next time I will watch out for crystals run amok!

Nonetheless the result was perfectly satisfactory, and I would urge you to spend some time in your own kitchen baking up a batch of these to share with family and friends.


Maple Molasses Ice Box Cookies

According to my experience, you will get about 32 cookies if you roll the dough log to 12 inches and cut the slices about 1/4 inch thick. You shouldn't have trouble slicing the frozen dough thinly if you use a very sharp knife. If the dough is frozen solid, let it thaw a minute or two.

A pleasant maple scent wafts through the kitchen as the cookies bake, but the maple flavor is not strong in the finished cookie—although perhaps it would be stronger if you have maple molasses to use instead the crystallized version.

These cookies remind me of something old-fashioned, something you will not find in any modern bakery. A taste, perhaps, of days when cookies were a genuine treat, to be savored with a nice cup of tea or with a glass of cold milk, with a friend.


Maple Molasses Ice Box Cookies
Used by permission of the author.

1/3 cup maple molasses
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon soda
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup halved walnuts [no need to chop nuts; they cut nicely as you slice the dough]

Start with 1/2 cup real maple syrup and boil it down to 1/3 cup, then chill. Cream butter and sugar, add maple, egg, and vanilla. Sift dry ingredients and blend into creamed mixture. Stir in walnuts. Drop dough into a log shape on some waxed paper. Roll up and freeze until solid. Slice thin as you can, and bake on a greased cookie sheet in a 375 degree oven until light brown [about 10 minutes; watch them carefully].

Note: You can substitute white sugar for the maple molasses and you'll get a nice, delicate, crispy, traditional cookie.

Reviewer's note: I suggest using a larger pan than you think you'll need to boil the maple syrup, because it bubbles up quite high. In any case, keep a close eye on the process so the syrup does not flow over the sides of the pan. The process took me about 10 minutes, but your time may vary.


Watch the pot so the bubbling maple syrup does not overflow.


The syrup reduces to become the consistency of molasses.


Mary Rose lives high in the mountains of Montana. She enjoys traveling to farmers markets in summer and making snowballs during the long winter. She is happy to find many locally produced foods, including lentils, cheese, and stroopwafels.


Cook with the Best in the Northwest copyright 2014.
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