If you ask my mom or aunts, they’re quick to tell you what a phenomenal cook my great-grandmother was. Next to sewing (she was a professional seamstress), cooking and baking were her greatest passions. After years and years, though, her favorite recipes—the ones she kept in her own handwritten cookbook like so many grandmothers—got lost. My family figured that these recipes for cakes, cookies, pies and pickles were gone forever. I thought so too—until I found her cookbook in the back of my coat closet.
I was organizing a shelf, reached back to grab what I assumed was another half-completed crossword book and instead pulled out an old composition notebook with her name—Clara Brannan—scrawled across the front. As I paged through the pages carefully, I found so many amazing vintage recipes. I just had to try one. I decided to start with one that would really make my home feel like fall: spice bars.
The only issue—and the issue with almost every recipe in this handwritten cookbook—was that the recipe lacked all the directions. I felt like I was looking at a pared-down version destined for a Great British Baking Show technical challenge. I’m sure my master baker great-grandmother knew exactly what to do with each of these recipes—which size pan to bake in, what tools to use, what consistency the mixtures should be blended to—but I didn’t. All I could do was try my best and hope I inherited her baking skills and intuition.
The spice bar recipe
- 1½ cups flour
- ¾ cups buttermilk
- ¾ cup brown sugar, divided
- 1 egg, separated
- ¼ cup shortening
- ¼ cup pecans, chopped
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon cloves
The first part of the recipe seemed pretty simple. I just had to sift the dry ingredients together. I typically don’t sift anything when I bake, but Great-grandma knows best! So I started by sifting the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and spices together.
Then, in another bowl, I creamed together the shortening—something I don’t use often—with a half cup of brown sugar and the egg yolk. Once that was well-blended, I poured in the buttermilk and gave it a spin. My great-grandma’s recipe called for “sour milk,” but I wasn’t so sure about that one. I opted for buttermilk instead—it’s truly a baking secret weapon.
Once the mixture was all smooth, I added my dry ingredients and blended them together with my hand mixer. The batter smelled amazing! After taking a quick taste (a cook has to taste as she goes, right?), I hit my first snag.
The first hurdle: Picking a pan
Looking at my bowl of bar batter, I wasn’t quite sure what to do next. It didn’t look like much in my dish—certainly not enough for a 13×9 pan (don’t worry—it gets plenty of use with these dinners). After deliberating for a minute, I grabbed my 8×8 pan and gave it a quick coat of cooking spray. As I tipped my mix into the pan, I realized I made the right call. It was the perfect amount for my favorite pan (it’s my go-to for these smaller desserts).
The second hurdle: What to do with the rest?
The batter for these spice bars came together pretty easily, but I found myself left with an egg white, a quarter cup of brown sugar and some pecans. Part of me thought that all those ingredients could have just gone inside the batter, but the recipe said, “for top.” I sat in my kitchen—what used to be my great-grandma’s kitchen—and puzzled. And then it dawned on me: It’s a meringue!
With that cooking conundrum solved, I got whipping up that egg white right away. As a big fan of meringues, I knew the basics of making one (though you can brush up on your technique here). My big question, though, was to whip the egg whites into soft or stiff peaks. In the end, I went with a bit of a softer peak. I figured as I blended in the brown sugar (something totally new to me—who adds brown sugar to meringue?) they’d stiffen up a bit more. Once the meringue was where I wanted it, I gently folded in the chopped pecans.
I’m not the world’s biggest pecan fan, but I made a point of adding them anyways. Ask anyone in my family, and they’ll tell you, “Everything is better with nuts,” a sentiment that surely originated with my great-grandmother (so many pecan and walnut recipes in her cookbook!). I thought of all my loved ones as I dutifully followed the recipe and added in that quarter cup.
The idea of topping a batter with a meringue was pretty foreign to me. In fact, I’d never seen that before and wasn’t so sure it was right, but I wanted to follow the recipe the best I could. Using an offset spatula, I carefully spread the meringue mix over the batter. There wasn’t much with just one egg white—my 8×8 pan decision reaffirmed. Then I popped it into a 350ºF oven for 30 minutes. I was thankful my great-grandma included a time and temperature for this recipe!
The end result
I’ll admit it: I was nervous to pull this bake out of the oven. A meringue on top of a bar? A cake made with just a single egg yolk? But as I cracked that oven door open, I breathed a sigh of relief: The bars looked perfect! The meringue was a beautiful golden brown and when I pricked the bars with a pick, it came out clean. Seemed like a technically successful bake, but how would these very vintage spice bars taste?
Let me tell you right now: They tasted like fall. The cake itself was very old fashioned tasting (I mean that in the best way!); I think that the buttermilk has a lot to do with that. When it came to the spices—just right. But what about that meringue topping? I was definitely worried about that one, but in the end, it formed a nice thin layer on top of the bars. It provided a little extra sweetness and a marshmallow-y consistency plus the crunch of the pecans. I started asking myself why don’t more bars have meringue on top?
Now that I’ve got a taste of what baking was like for my great-grandma, I’m excited to try even more! Maybe an applesauce cake? “Twin Mountain” muffins? Or maybe one of her many pickle recipes?