Family recipes are a hidden treasure begging to be found

Anna Thomas Bates
Special to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

If you do an internet search for Aunt Agnes’ School Cookies, guess what comes up? Absolutely nothing.

Dried fruit is ground up with oats in this not-too-sweet after-school cookie.

While there are millions of online recipes at our fingertips (and many are well-tested, well-written and may suit your palate perfectly,  there are another million hidden in the recipe boxes, hearts and kitchen drawers of grandmothers, aunts, cousins, parents and neighbors everywhere.

The holidays will be here soon, and it’s a great time to sit down with those you love and chat about food. They might surprise you with some touching stories and perhaps even a few actual recipes that you didn’t know were part of your family’s heritage.

If you’re lucky, you may get access to a few original copies. Be sure to scan them instead of copying them over, as there’s something magical about deciphering the original handwriting.

Most of the old family recipes I have are written in deeply slanted cursive and have scanty instructions on how to actually put the ingredients together — because back then, people cooked enough that they just knew what to do next.

This charming after-school cookie recipe did not come from my own family, but from a regular at my farmers market stand. Her name is Liz. I don’t know her last name, but I do know a lot about her family, her fascinating global travels and what type of food she enjoys.

Almost every Saturday from late April to early November, she comes by and we chat about where she traveled that week or an interesting article that one of us read.

During one of our rambling discussions we began discussing recipes. She also told me her aunt and mom had a few holiday cookie recipes that called for cutting out the tiniest of cookies — and they kept shotgun casings on hand to serve as cookie cutters!  

Liz also reminisced about a damp and sticky Christmas date cake she loves to make each year. While I couldn’t convince her to share that recipe with me (yet), she did offer up this one from her Aunt Agnes. It’s a simple oatmeal raisin cookie that has a few twists (like grinding up the raisins and rolling out the dough.)

I did update the recipe, swapping butter for shortening and adding more salt and cinnamon.

I also tweaked the method. While Aunt Agnes preferred to cut the cookies out, I wanted a cookie I could make right when my children were hopping off the bus, so I elected to freeze the dough in logs and slice and bake as needed.

Anna Thomas Bates is a mother, writer and cheesemaker who lives in southern Wisconsin. Email her at

Enjoy these chewy, sweet cookies with your kids after school or with a cup of afternoon tea. And think about chatting with the lady who lives across the hall, or your own aunt, soon about some of her favorite recipes.

While food blogs may be plentiful and on the internet for eternity, those faded paper recipes need a guardian and an aspiring young cook to bring them to life.

Aunt Agnes’ School Cookies

1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter

1 cup granulated sugar

2 cups packed brown sugar

3 large eggs

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

2 cups dried fruit (raisins, cranberries or dates)

3 cups flour

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

In a bowl, beat together butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar until light and creamy. Mix in eggs one at a time.

In a food processor or blender, pulse oats and dried fruit until ground. In a large bowl, whisk together ground oats/fruit, flour, cinnamon, salt and baking soda.

Add dry ingredients to wet and mix until just combined.

Chill dough 30 minutes, then roll into 2-inch-diameter cylinders.

This recipe makes a lot of cookies and the dough freezes well. If you prefer to cook 12 cookies at a time, roll into 6-inch-long logs. If you would like to cook 24 cookies at a time, roll cylinders 12 inches long.

Store cylinders in fridge 3 days wrapped in parchment and plastic wrap. Store in freezer up to 3 months. (Thaw frozen dough in fridge 2 hours before baking.)

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice cookies ½ inch thick and place on a lined baking sheet. Cookies will spread slightly. Bake in preheated oven 9 to 11 minutes until just golden brown on the edges. Move to a rack after 5 minutes to cool completely. Makes 7 dozen