Back to School and Buttermilk Cookies

Bake sale, Navy-style.
Bake sale, Navy-style.

Last Friday, I went on a baking marathon to contribute baked goods for a fundraiser. The Officer Spouses Club for my wife’s squadron decided to do a bake sale, and since I never pass up a chance to bake, I chipped in some Cranberry Crumb Bars from the smitten kitchen cookbook, and one of my favorite baked treats:  buttermilk cookies. As you know, I’ve been cooking without the Internet for the month of August, but I cracked for these buttermilk cookies, which says something about how delicious they are.

There’s something about bake sales that takes me back to fall festivals in elementary school. The hallways of the school were decorated for the fall, with golden leaves and corn stalks and pumpkin art that students had made out of paper plates and construction paper. At my school, the fall festival always involved a cake walk, and the cakes sat on display on a long table, tempting passersby to get involved, to line up and take a walk for cake.

August is always a magical time for me. In the past 23 years, I have spent only 8 months or so away from school, either as a student or a teacher – one period of four months when I worked at a law firm right after grad school, and the period of four months this past spring, when we were getting ready for our wedding and our cross-country move. August means back to school for me.

You know how, around January 1, everyone makes resolutions and plans and starts the year with renewed gusto and enthusiasm? They will lose weight or run a marathon or learn how to play guitar or stop playing Candy Crush.

For me, that New Years feeling comes twice a year:  on January 1, at the start of the calendar year, and at the end of August, at the start of the academic year. I’ve internalized that calendar, so that even if I’m not returning to campus (and I’m not), at the end of August, I feel renewed, motivated, and ready for a “new year.”

Making those buttermilk cookies last week, I was reminded that school was starting for the college where I attended grad school and where I used to teach. Fall was coming, and I could trace in my mind the paths lined with broken seashells, the small shaded patch of trees outside my building (what used to be my building) where you could sit on a bench and listen to a fountain. I remembered the way the keyboards in each of the classrooms felt under my fingers on the first day of class, when all eyes were on me and I was painfully aware that it was my job to sell my course, to get those students to care about writing and literature.

Lemony Buttermilk Cookies
Lemony Buttermilk Cookies

I revisited memories of graduate school, of walks across campus to Chick-fil-A, of the quiet fourth floor of the library, of my favorite coffee shop, and of the writing workshops we held in the fifth floor conference room.

I grew nostalgic and homesick. Usually, when those feelings hit, I want to make cookies that remind me of home, and luckily for me, I was already in the midst of making those cookies:  Edna Lewis’s Buttermilk Cookies.

Well, sort of Edna Lewis’s cookies. Edna Lewis wrote an essay called “What is Southern?,” an essay that was found after her death, and which was published in Gourmet. In the essay, which always feels to me like a Walt Whitman-esque tribute to my homeland, she mentions that Southern is eating buttermilk cookies with lemonade. But in all of her papers, there was no recipe for those buttermilk cookies.

So Gourmet developed a recipe, and when they published it, bloggers everywhere took notice, including Molly Wizenberg of Orangette. She halved the recipe, and hers is the recipe I adapted and will share below.

The cookies smell an awful lot like pancakes while they’re baking, and they resemble pancakes too:  the crisp edges and soft center, the light and fluffy texture. When I shared this recipe with my friend Sheena, she noted that the cookies are only lightly lemony. The lemon is a flavor you have to reach for.

Sometimes I don’t feel like reaching, so I have amped up the lemon in these cookies and in the icing. And a word of advice:  don’t skip the icing. Commit to it. Enjoy the whole experience.

And so in honor of going back to school, whether you’re literally going back to the classroom or if, like me, school still feels like home and August like New Years, I present Buttermilk Cookies.

Buttermilk Cookies

Minimally adapted from Molly Wizenberg, who adapted hers from Gourmet, who was inspired by Edna Lewis.

For the cookies:
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
The zest of one lemon
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup well-shaken buttermilk

For the icing:
3/4 cup confectioners sugar
1 1/2 tablespoon well-shaken buttermilk
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice

Line two cookies sheets with parchment paper or silicone pads. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, lemon zest, baking soda, and salt.

In a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugar, and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and mix well. Add the vanilla and lemon juice, and beat briefly to combine.

With the mixer on low speed, mix in the flour mixture and buttermilk, alternating, beginning and ending with the flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Drop the dough by level tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheets with about 1 1/2 inches of space in between each cookie. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, until the cookies have puffed and the edges are golden, 11-15 minutes per batch. Cook the cookies on the sheet for one minute, and then transfer them to a wire rack.

To prepare the icing, whisk together the confectioners sugar, buttermilk, vanilla, and lemon juice. The mixture is ready when it is smooth with no lumps of sugar remaining. Spoon the glaze onto the warm cookies and spread lightly with the back of the spoon to cover the top of the cookie. Allow the cookies to cool completely and let the icing set.

4 thoughts on “Back to School and Buttermilk Cookies

  1. You sure know how to make a recipe tell a story. Thanks. I am with you and feeling that Sept. is a time for new starts and resolutions. And all those school supply sales just get me going!

  2. ha! i do the exact same: the january resolutions, then what i call “the mid-year check-in,” when i see how i’ve done (okay, but not great) with the first set of resolutions, then formulate new ones for the rest of the year. something about the school supply aisle and the entire dorm section at Target makes me feel like starting over like kids get to do. 🙂
    i love, LOVE buttermilk cookies: or honestly, any baked goods or ice cream using buttermilk. what a flavor it adds! it’s quite wonderful; you wouldn’t think it would make such a huge difference in things, but it really does.

    1. I remember reading Joy the Baker’s intro to her cookbook in which she extols the virtues of buttermilk, and it’s so true: I’m sure movita could shed light on the actual chemical thing that happens, but I call it buttermilk magic, and I lurve it.

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