I like to bake cookies and squares. I'm not terribly adventurous or elegant, favouring the old standards like oatmeal cookies, peanut butter cookies, shortbread, and rolled cookies for Christmas. I have a small collection of cookie cookbooks, and occasionally add something from them to the repertoire.
Many years ago (thirty?) while in search of a recipe for butter tarts...
Pause to provide butter tart recipe:
-Melt 1/3 cup butter, remove from heat
-stir in 1/2 cup brown sugar,
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 cup or more raisins
-fill tart shells about half full, bake at 400 until brown and bubbling.
I found a little book called Chocolate Cake and Onions (Horizon House 1976). Also in this book was a recipe for
Economy Oatmeal Squares:
-Melt 1/2 cup margarine
-stir in 1 cup brown sugar,
2 cups oatmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- press into ungreased pan to about 1/4 inch thickness, bake until brown. It will harden as it cools.
Despite the vague baking directions, which I eventually worked out to 350 for 20 to 25 minutes, this became a favourite. (I'll point out that when something consists largely of brown sugar, 'until brown' is not a useful marker.)
The thing that puzzled me, over time, was the purpose of the 1/2 tsp baking powder. There's no flour, so what is it leavening? Also, while I'm no kitchen chemist, didn't baking powder require moisture to work? Most cookie recipes used baking soda, except for oatmeal cookies, which had a tablespoon of milk in the recipe as well as baking powder. I wondered whether Marilynne Foster had left out part of the recipe, or copied it incorrectly.
My mum's cookbooks were among the things (like Christmas decorations) that weren't kept in the move, and which I regretted mightily. When I was able to buy a copy of The Canadian Cook Book (Ryerson 1953) I was quite excited, even though it naturally wouldn't have all the pasted-in soup-tin recipes and so on that my mum's copy had.
I got all nostalgic over the photographs, and 'oh, there's the cake recipe that always turned out kind of chewy because I dawdled over the mixing' 'there's the crepes recipe, mmm'. Then I found
Oatmeal Butter Squares:
-Mix 3 cups rolled oats,
1 cup brown sugar,
1 teaspoon baking powder,
dash of salt.
-pour over 7/8 cup melted butter, mix thoroughly
-pat into ungreased 8x12-inch cake pan
-bake at 275-300 until golden brown, cut into squares while hot.
There it is, recognisably the same in kind, in a for-real published by a major company cookbook, and still with the baking powder and no flour and no milk. Oh, and again the vague baking instructions, though this time with a temperature.
Well, maybe it was a Canadian regional treat, like butter tarts and Nanaimo bars. Maybe Marilynne (or her mother) got her recipe from The Canadian Cook Book and altered the quantities.
But there's the undeniably American Better Homes and Gardens Homemade Cookies Cook Book (Meredith 1976), and its recipe for
-Melt together 1 cup packed brown sugar,
1/2 cup butter or margarine
-stir in 2 cups quick-cooking rolled oats,
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/1 teaspoon salt
-turn into 8x8x2 inch greased baking pan
-bake at 350 for 20 to 25 minutes, cookies will harden upon cooling. Cut into bars.
I will mention that my dad's family was Scots, and I'd never heard of 'Scotch Teas' (insert joke about drinking tea with Scotch here). Anyway, here it was again, in another for-real, major-publishing book, with baking powder and no flour.
Another Scotch Teas recipe, slightly different proportions but same ingredients, was reportedly a prize winning recipe at the 1976 Texas State Fair. Googling brings up another from the C&H Sugar Kitchen, requiring you to use C&H Brown Sugar, and of course, baking powder (brand left to your discretion). Doubtless there are more, perhaps under different names. But all that I've found have no flour and no moisture (unless melted fat counts as moisture?) but do have the baking powder of no apparent function.
Is it totemic? Apotropaic? The remnants of a long-forgotten ritual to hold back chaos?
If I leave it out, the next time I bake ... what will become of us all?