When she was a teenager and couldn’t possibly have cared less, I used to pester Cecilia, to observe closely and learn to cook at least a handful of dishes native to Louisiana, lest she end up like some of the young people I know whose families turned them out upon the world without so much as the ability to throw together a decent pot of red beans or an edible gumbo.
Come on, everyone should have at least a handful of go-to recipes upon which to fall back when an impromptu dinner party emergency strikes. I will admit I fear being judged as I am judging the parents of those young people who cannot cook a single thing, judged as my late mother would have been judged had my father not stepped in to take over my kitchen training.
Two stories best reflect my mother’s limited culinary skills: In the first I was seven or so, and milk-fed baby veal was all the rage. Knowing what I know today, I thoroughly disavow the inhumane procurement of this product, but back then I was clueless and curious. I will never forget the day my equally clueless mother plopped some unadorned tender pink veal cutlets from the Piggy Wiggly grocery on Old Metairie Road into a pan, poured in a jar of Heinz Chicken Gravy, and proceeded to smother the delicate meat for hours. I have no words.
In another act of culinary heroism, one Sunday my mother pulled from the cupboard a pressure cooker someone was foolish enough to give her. Into it she plunked a beef roast, carrots, potatoes, onions, and celery. She poured in some water, tightened up the lid on the cooker, and cranked up the heat, no doubt intending to leave the contents to cook for hours on end, until nothing in the pot was recognizable, as was her custom. At some point, so much pressure built up in the forgotten pot that the contents of the vessel started shooting forth from the little pressure-relief nozzle at the top of the lid. We watched in disbelief as a volcano of roast beef streamed steadily from the vessel for 10 minutes or so, coating the ivory-hued kitchen ceiling with brown muck. When the blast subsided, my daring father approached the pot and untwisted the lid to reveal a single pinkie-sized scrap of carrot remaining within. That day was the last time I remember her cooking—except for two things: Meatballs and Spaghetti, a fail-proof recipe she lifted from a college roommate; and Pecan Ice Box Cookies, the recipe for which came from who knows where.
I remember her making the pecan cookies for holiday gatherings, and she was justifiably famous for them. Their perfection may have, in fact, obliterated her other culinary misdeeds in the minds of everyone but me. Thin, crisp, perfect, and loaded with sweet Louisiana pecans gathered from my grandparents’ yard, they were then and will always be a welcome holiday calling card. To those of you out there harboring insecurities about your cooking and baking skills, I say, if my mother could pull this recipe off ANYONE can. These babies are the perfect thing to cart along to all of those cookie swaps that seem to be popping up on our calendars.
Mary Beth Steinlage Benson’s Pecan Ice Box Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen
- 3 cups self-rising flour, plus more for dusting your hands
- 2 sticks salted butter
- 1 cup Louisiana pecan halves
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons whole milk
Mix all ingredient s together thoroughly and divide into six equal parts. Flour your hands then form each lump of dough into a roll about 8 inches long. Wrap each roll in wax paper and place in freezer. Freeze for at least 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 300°F.
Remove 1 roll from freezer, remove wax paper and slice each roll as thinly as possible. Return roll to freezer if it becomes too warm and soft, then proceed. Place the slices on an ungreased cookie shoot and bake until just slightly golden around the edges, about 6 minutes. Repeat with remaining rolls of dough. Cool thoroughly and store in a tightly sealed container. They will keep for 2 or 3 days – if they last long.