‘If I knew you were comin, I’d have baked a cake!’

My grandma always used to sing that song when she was working in the kitchen, along with “Can you bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?” She’d sashay around from stove to sink to countertop, spilling sugar and flour in her path and doing her little signature dance we lovingly called “snake hips.”

Christmas 2001 with Grandma

I loved being with my Grandma Evey, especially in her culinary workspace. It was a sunny, happy, delicious-smelling place to be at any given moment. Her drawers were full of antique gadgets and tools, her freezer stocked with ice cream and candy canes, her percolater hot with fresh coffee, and the white cookie jar on the cabinet was always ready for eager hands to dip in and pull out a pink wafer or Chessman or Mallowmar. She loved collecting dishes and had at least 6 full sets: her prized Lennox, her Desert Rose, her Royal Doulton, her everyday Pyrex, her Christmas Lennox, her vintage barbecue set, and her Christmas dessert set. And that’s not even getting into all of her cut glass or her collection of cow cream pitchers!!! She could throw a helluva dinner party! And she loved doing just that.

Evelyn and Great-Grandma Evelyn''s Quilt

Grandma did absolutely everything by hand. She was a purist – every cake, every spaghetti sauce, every scarf, every quilt she created was done all by hand. No mixes, no machines. She was very creative, and patient, as she painstakingly tried to show my sisters and me how to sew, crochet and knit. Looking back, sometimes I wish I’d paid more attention.  I definitely look back and realize what an inspiration my grandma has been to me, more and more with time.

Today I’m in my own horrendously messy kitchen and I’m baking Black and Whites. They’re for the Cookie Table at Caroline’s wedding, and I chose them because my brother-in-law-to-be lived in New York for several years. But I also decided to make them because they will always remind me of my grandma and how she brought us batches from her trips “home” to Long Island.

Black and Whites

Grandma was a New Yorker at heart – although she moved to Montana to be near us after my grandfather died, she made at least one trip back a year for as long as her legs would carry her there. She adored the City –  the theatres, the bakeries, the delis, the dress shops, the clubs, the cathedrals. She had a million stories to tell of her life on Long Island in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, from her days as Evelyn Reggie, casually voted “Best Figure in the New York Life” (where she used to work), to her days as Evelyn Koopman, wife and happy mother to three rambunctious boys, Ron, Richard and Roger (my dad).

I don’t mean this to sound like a eulogy, although in truth, that’s probably what it is. Dear Grandma Evelyn, just weeks shy of her 96th birthday, is not in good health at all. She’s tired. It’s been a long time since she could walk down Broadway or sit to play Bridge or even munch a slice of crumbcake.

I hope I get to see my grandma this week when I fly in, but if she’s gone before I get there, I know I’ll see her in Heaven. This time I won’t roll my eyes when she tells me AGAIN of how she met my grandfather, Ralph, at a Valentine’s Day dance when “he was there with another gal, and I was there with another guy – but we only danced with each other the whole night. And I put my arm close around his neck so he’d know I liked him.”  Cheeky. 🙂

I love you Grandma.

Mini Black and Whites
(adapted from the original recipe from Gourmet Magazine, December 2005)

For Cookies:
1 1/4 Cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 Cup well-shaken buttermilk
1/2 tsp vanilla
7 Tbls unsalted butter, softened
1/2 Cup sugar
1 large egg

For Icings:
2 3/4 Cups icing sugar
2 Tbls golden syrup or light corn syrup*
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
4 – 6 Tbls water
1/4 Cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (170 degrees C) and cover large baking sheet with baking paper.

Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Stir together buttermilk and vanilla in a cup.

Beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes, then add the egg, beating until well combined. On a low speed, add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately, beginning and ending with the flour. Mix just until smooth.

Drop rounded teaspoons of batter 1 inch apart onto baking sheet. Bake until tops are puffed, edges are pale golden, and cookies spring back when touched, 6 – 8 minutes total. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

For icing:
Stir together icing sugar, golden or corn syrup, lemon juice, vanilla and 2 Tbls water in a small bowl until smooth. If icing is still too stiff to spread, add more water a tiny bit at a time. Transfer half the icing to another bowl and stir in cocoa, adding more water as needed. Cover surface with a damp towel until you need it.

With an offset spatula, spread white icing over half of flat side of each cookie. Starting with cookies you iced first, spread chocolate icing over other half.

Yield: 3 dozen cookies.

* The difference between corn syrup and golden syrup is evident in this recipe – corn syrup will be more bland and starchy, and will give the icing a lovely dull gloss when it dries. The golden syrup has more flavour and is sweeter, but still does the trick. Good thing, it’s our only option here in Ireland!

A final note about Black and Whites – if you’ve never had one, you need to try one when you’re in New York, preferably at a deli counter while sipping a hot coffee or maybe an Egg Cream. Those ones, the decadent saucer-sized kind, are the real deal – soft and crumbly, with a firm crust of icing on top. When I was a kid, I’d slowly eat the chocolate side first, leaving the creamy, lemony vanilla side for last, and I’d pick the hard icing off, bit by glorious bit until it was all gone.

The ones I’ve made here are still fine, but they’re a far cry from the NYC originals. These are a lovely cookie, but have a different sort of flavour and texture I can’t quite put my finger on. They’re more for nostalgia’s sake – a lesser but still pleasantly edible immitation.  So keep that in mind, should you choose to try this recipe out. 🙂


4 thoughts on “‘If I knew you were comin, I’d have baked a cake!’

  1. Awwww, I love grandparent stories. I tried once to get my grandpa to tell me how he met grandma (she passed away when I was 8). He mumbled something about a picnic and then started talking about something else. I wish I knew more of their history together. Your stories are so sweet 🙂

  2. Enjoyed this!!!! Thanks for sharing. I have been slacking on writing my blog so it’s nice to read one that is interesting and very well written. :^D XO

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