This I truly do believe, not with some naïve schoolgirl giddiness, but with experience and my own perceived wisdom. A large part of this is simply believing that everything happens for a reason. A smaller, but no less important part, has to do with trusting the process, which can be very difficult to do, especially when in the midst of some difficult or uncomfortable situations. And you must have hope. Put together, these three elements lead to some of the most beautiful kinds of love imaginable -- that between parent and child, siblings, partners, friends, pets, nature, life -- and in this case, cookies.
This past December I was making lists of what baking I wanted to get done for the holidays. As I looked over the cookies and candies I noticed that the majority of them were from my family’s tradition, rather than from my husband’s. Knowing how much sentiment plays into my enjoyment of the holidays I asked Jon what cookies he remembered from the Christmases of his childhood. He thought a bit and then recalled a cookie that his mom used to make, called liebe schreiben, or "love letters" by his dad. Not surprisingly, this melted my heart and I was determined to make these cookies as a surprise for him. The search for the recipe began.
I was fortunate enough to have inherited all of Jon’s mom’s recipes and pulled everything out for a good look-through. This includes a large recipe file box as well as several smaller journals filled with handwritten family recipes, mostly from Jon’s aunts. I searched, but to no avail. I looked in the cookbooks that had been hers and didn’t find anything that looked remotely correct. I had Jon describe them to me again -- a sugar cookie-type dough folded like a letter and sealed with a bit of jam. Off I went to the computer where I looked through hundreds of cookie images and recipes and came up with precisely nothing.
But I was determined. Somehow these cookies were not only something to recreate for Jon’s holiday enjoyment but had now become somewhat of a reminder of his parent’s love -- I had to find that recipe and so continued to look. Finally, on yet another google search I found a bakery that listed Love Letter Cookies as a specialty. I took a chance and sent an email. Maybe, just maybe, they would respond.
Within 36 hours there it was -- a note from the bakery’s owner letting me know that she would have her baker pass along the recipe as soon as possible. I was thrilled! The Shepherdstown Sweet Shop in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, was proof that folks do listen and are happy to share with others. Even if not exactly the same cookie, at least I was headed in the right direction!
The craziness of the holidays took over. Many kinds of cookies were made and I barely had time to notice that the Love Letters recipe had not arrived. Sure, I hoped that the recipe would come, but face it, we weren’t lacking. The holidays passed, life rolled on and then, out of the blue in the end of January, I received an email from Pam Berry, the owner of the Sweet Shop, apologizing for not getting the recipe to me sooner, but hoping that the timing was right for Valentine’s Day. And she was right -- it was perfect timing. While including just a simple description of how to put the cookies together using my own favorite sugar cookie dough, Pam’s email reminded me that things like losing track of a family recipe happens for a reason -- in this case to develop a cookie-based relationship with a bakery 450 miles away (that also makes nationally renowned stollen for the holidays, something I never would have known otherwise). For that favorite sugar-cookie recipe I am including the one my friend Jill swears by as well as the instructions for making your own Love Letters as sent to me by Pam at the Shepherdstown Sweet Shop. 1 1Ž2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
1Ž2 teaspoon almond extract
2 1Ž2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
Beat sugar, butter, extracts and egg until evenly incorporated. Sift dry ingredients and add to butter/sugar mixture. Combine thoroughly and refrigerate at least two hours.
Once chilled, roll out dough on a floured surface to a thickness of 1Ž4 inch. Cut into three-inch squares or so (larger ones are easier to work with but make a very big cookie). Drop a teaspoon of raspberry jam or whatever preserves you want into the center of the square, then fold the corners into the center just like an envelope, sides first, then bottom, then the top flap down, overlapping the bottom flap just a bit. The seams can be sealed with a light brushing of egg wash, water or milk. Optionally sprinkle with colored sugars -- the Sweet Shop also puts a heart-shaped "quin" as a seal. Bake 10 to 12 minutes in a 350 degree oven or until lightly colored. Cool on wire rack. Eat.
Sure, I probably could’ve figured this dough-folding business out, but the process of looking for the original recipe, searching for a substitute, e-mailing with hope and then receiving this recipe at a time even more perfect than in the midst of December’s cookie crush feels like proof to me that love will find a way. On this Valentine’s Day, enjoy these cookies and feel free to even love them!
Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn’t have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.