These dairy-free sweet treats have delighted five generations of my family and counting.
Grandma’s Cinnamon-Sugar Cookies
Credit: Rebecca Angel Baer

I am not my mother. I didn't need a batch of cookies to tell me that I fall short of my super-hero level mother, Emily Angel Baer, in many ways. Mom earned two PhDs while raising four children, for starters. But she would be the first to admit that I am generally stronger in the kitchen than she is. She doesn't cook a lot. We always had a well-balanced meal on the dinner table, don't get me wrong. But my mom was never someone who sat up at night, reading cookbooks and planning menus for family meals the way that I do. She doesn't find joy in that. She rolls her eyes when I am home for a visit and my dad and I sit for hours in front of the Food Network. But the few things that my mom does make that are her own, her signature dishes, well they are really great. No one can do them better. These dishes include her famous potato latkes for Hanukah, her spaghetti sauce, and her cookies. Grandma Cookies, to be exact. They're known by this name because that is what Mom calls them. But the recipe actually comes from my great grandmother, Tamara Tiba Malkin who immigrated to America from Russia by way of Canada and finally settling in Memphis in the early 1900s. I never knew her, but I know I resemble her, and I hope I have some of her strength. She raised seven children, six of them girls, practically on her own.

I spent a great deal of time in my childhood hovering at the then eye-level wooden edge of our kitchen island next to my sister Hilary, as our mom stirred her batter with the weathered wooden spoon she always used, plopped the pillows of yellow dough out on her giant wooden cutting board, and dusted it generously with flour. Hilary and I waited, mostly patiently, as Mom took to rolling out the dough, sprinkling generously with cinnamon sugar, and then cutting it into haphazard shapes using only a singular metal biscuit cutter with a wooden handle. It was always the same biscuit cutter. She stamped out shapes quickly and with abandon. These cookies weren't about perfect circles or shapes of any sort of uniform. She used all of the dough. When she could no longer get full shapes, she would twirl the scraps into little volcanoes. Hilary and I waited like puppies waiting for table scraps for Mom to look away or turn her back so we could reach up and swipe a bite or two of cookie dough. She always knew, but she never let on that she did. And when she was done, she would take the beaters out of the electric mixer and hand us each one to lick. We worried a lot less about salmonella in the ‘80s.

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When our executive editor declared that all of the editorial staff would be making cookies for a big Southern Living Cookie Swap, I knew there was only one choice. I had to make Grandma's Cookies. But the strange thing is, as often as my mother made them, and still makes them, I have never tried. I have watched her countless times. But I have never done it myself. I called Mom and she agreed to share the recipe and sent it over via email. I scanned the ingredients and thought, this should be easy. I've eaten them my whole life. Wrong. I don't know if it's one of those mom things where the measurements are slightly different each time she makes them, (this is most certainly the cause with her spaghetti sauce) or if it all comes down to the magic of Mom, but my finished result did not taste like hers. I struggled with the dough. It was stickier than I recalled and harder to roll and cut into shapes. I have my own biscuit cutter, but they seemed to almost wilt out of the circular shape when I transferred them to the cookie sheet. Now, her recipe does say "chill dough overnight." But she had a note that said, "you can also do this for far less time." I chilled my dough for 6 hours. I am thinking it probably needed the overnight rest and maybe it wouldn't have been so sticky. The first time I made the spaghetti sauce and I said "well, I followed your instructions and it was good, but still didn't taste quite like yours." My mom, known for her sharp wit and wicked sense of humor, just replied, "Want to know why? Because you aren't me." All said with a smile and a laugh, of course. But there is something to that. Mom is just going to do it better. All of it. Always. And the good thing for me was, at our staff cookie swap, no one there knew what hers tasted like and mine were a hit!