Gram’s Sugar Cookies and the Secret Ingredient

My wife’s grandmother, “Gram,” made excellent sugar cookies. My mother and grandmothers also made sugar cookies that were good, but theirs just weren’t at the same level of excellence as Gram’s.

When I ran a recent web search I got 2.7 million matches for “sugar cookie recipe.” There are entire cookbooks devoted to sugar cookies. You wouldn’t think the world would miss another sugar cookie recipe, but I would. That’s because none of the rest of them are Gram’s recipe.

How do I know that? Because Gram’s sugar cookies have a “secret ingredient.” I have looked up sugar cookies online and found some recipes with that secret ingredient, but none with the amount she prescribed.

Gram had the recipe in her head, which was a good thing, as she had lost most of her eyesight by the time I met her. Wanting her recipe, my wife, Diane, worked with Gram on a few occasions to bake the magical treats. Gram would put the ingredients into a bowl and Diane would remove them and measure how much there was of each ingredient. They did this a few times to get a good average; thus, the recipe was reverse engineered. Once in the oven, the cookies were “done” when Gram smelled they were done, so oven temperature and baking time also had to be documented.

You wouldn’t think the world would miss another sugar cookie recipe, but I would. That’s because none of the rest of them are Gram’s recipe.


So what does all this have to do with actuarial matters?

The point of this column is not about cookies; it is about passing along to others some of our own secrets — not just cookie and other recipes, but recipes for how to design a spreadsheet or to make links more efficient or even how to present the analysis results in such a way that the recipient will be able to understand and accept. You have secrets to share about how to get things done within your organization or how to best deal with some difficult people. These secrets are not just about the technical aspects of our profession, but the human relations side as well. Think about it — if Gram had not spent the time with Diane to make some cookies, and Diane had not documented the process, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Gram’s sugar cookies today and neither would our sons or grandchildren.

What tricks of the trade will disappear when you retire unless you share them?

What have you learned that you can pass on, teaching others rather than leaving it to them to discover themselves?

In my opinion, such thoughts are best pondered while eating a sugar cookie.

The Secret and the Recipe

Gram’s secret ingredient was a pinch of ground nutmeg — not the half teaspoon called for in other recipes, but just a pinch. And it was her small fingers that pinched the spice, not those of someone with large hands, so the amount was rather small — just enough to provide that difference I like so much. She would also put half an apple in the cookie jar to keep the cookies from getting hard and crumbly. We tried it, and it works.

Here’s Gram’s recipe:

Elsie Herron’s (“Gram’s”) Sugar Cookies

2/3 cup softened butter
2/3 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
2/3 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs
Pinch of nutmeg
3 tablespoons sour cream
Scant teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 ½ to 4 cups sifted flour, depending on humidity

In a large bowl, cream together sugar and shortening. Add one egg at a time to the creamed mixture, beating well after each egg. Add vanilla and sour cream; stir to combine. In a separate bowl, sift dry ingredients together. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, mixing thoroughly.

Separate the dough into two halves.

In warm weather, you may need to refrigerate the dough for up to an hour.

Roll one half of the dough onto a floured surface. Keep some extra flour nearby; you will need more as you work with the dough.

Roll dough thinly, about ¼ inch thickness.  Before cutting, sprinkle dough with sugar and lightly roll over with rolling pin, pressing the sugar into the dough.

Cut with a cookie cutter.

Bake at 350 degrees for eight minutes on an ungreased cookie sheet.