Baking by Senses and Memories

Emily Echols - Austin, Texas
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, November 24, 2014
Emily Echols

With each pecan pie and batch of molasses cookies, Emily Echols hones the baking skills she learned from her elders. Ms. Echols believes baking is an expression of love for her family.

Age Group: 18 - 30
Themes: family

I have gone through 10 pounds of flour in three months. I know that’s not normal, but I believe baking is an expression of love — not only for the person being baked for, but also for the person who taught me how to bake, for the person who gave me the recipe, for the past and tradition.

Grandma Dottie lives on in her recipes that I continue to bake. Her molasses cookies are so good they need to be shared with the world. The batter is sticky and has to be refrigerated for four hours. It turns the whole thing into more of a production, but it’s impossible to roll the dough into balls when it’s that sticky. I know; I’ve tried.

So I wait — just like my grandmother waited four hours — while the dough chills. Then I roll the dough into balls, roll the dough balls in sugar and smash them with a fork twice, creating a criss-cross pattern, and put them in the oven. I look at the cookies instead of relying on the timer. I’m beginning to bake with my senses and my memory instead of with the recipe.

My Grandma Dottie abbreviated everything in her recipes so it took me a while to figure it out. Is the batter the right color? The right consistency? Does it smell right? My dad’s job is to compare my reproductions to the originals of his childhood. If they turn out the same, they’re more than cookies — and that’s what I’m trying to do. I like to watch my father’s face when he remembers his mother.

Because we’re Texan, my mother needs a pecan pie for it to really be Thanksgiving. Pecan pie is mostly corn syrup, a few eggs and pecans. It doesn’t look appetizing. But amazing things happen in the oven. The filling caramelizes and turns a dark brown. I baked my mom a pecan pie. I made the crust and everything — and even she doesn’t do that. The recipe I used yields a stiffer filling. It’s not the gooey pecan pie I grew up with. So I was worried at first that I’d done something wrong. But my mother said it was the best pecan pie she’d ever had.

And right then and there my pecan pie recipe, the one that I’d found in the cookbook my grandmother gave me, became the new family recipe. So, this Thanksgiving it’s my job to make the pie. For me, it’s a symbol of becoming an adult, and the pecan pie becomes my contribution to our family tradition.

I believe that as long as I keep baking, my grandmother hasn’t really gone. I believe baking is the best way for me to express love for my people in the present and honor the people of my past, all in one batch.

Dorothy Smith’s Molasses Cookies

Grandma Dottie’s molasses cookies require several hours preparation time, mostly to allow the dough the chill.

3/4 cup melted butter
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg
1 cup sugar (plus extra sugar for dipping the cookies)
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine the melted butter, sugar, molasses and egg, and mix thoroughly.

Sift dry ingredients, and then add them to liquid mixture. Beat well. Chill the dough at least 4 hours.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls then dip in sugar. Place on a greased cookie sheet, and flatten with a fork.

Bake at 375 degrees 8-10 minutes until flat and dark brown. The cookies should be slightly crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside.

A native of Austin, Texas, Emily Echols earned degrees from both the University of Texas and Emory University in Atlanta. She currently lives on an Army post in Louisiana with her husband and their son, where she continues to bake and write.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.