Stained Glass Cookies Credit: Bonnie Tawse

I wonder if one day we’ll be able to correlate a second surge in Chicago COVID-19 cases to the fact that five months into the pandemic, Lincoln Park got sick of its own cooking. If it turns out June’s reopening of bars and restaurants is even partly to blame for another wave of tragedy, I’m gonna blame the sourdough bros who traded their boules for Corona buckets this summer.

Of course cooking isn’t the problem. Cooking has been one of the few reliable sources of comfort in this malignant mess. Cooking is an easily solitary activity, but it’s inevitable second act, eating, is inherently communal. There’s nothing more lonely than eating alone (except drinking alone).

That’s why the recent release of two books from Belt Publishing about the inextricable bonds of cooking and community seem like bittersweet timing. But I’m biased.

The Belt Cookie Table Cookbook by local food writer Bonnie Tawse studies a unique wedding tradition native to Pittsburgh (my hometown), nearby Youngstown, Ohio, and all the hills and hollows in between. For new immigrants in the early 20th century, wedding cakes were “dear” (as my Gram would say), and so friends and family would mobilize to produce a kind of pastry potluck: a dessert table laden with a bonanza of cookies and sweets, the surplus usually collected by each guest at the end of the party as a wedding favor.

This tradition hasn’t died. Recipes, some more than a century old, have been handed down over generations, even today perpetuating in Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members. Tawse tapped into this culture—just in the nick of real time—on a road trip to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s Cookie Table and Cocktail Gala at the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Youngstown in February, just before everything went off the rails.

Therein she was confronted with a massive spread of some 8,000 donated cookies, guarded by the Youngstown State University football team’s defensive line (to ensure an equal distribution of the wealth). From this single event, Tawse made connections and collected 41 recipes and their family backstories, tested them at home under lockdown, and produced this extraordinary collection of cookies. Buckeyes, Clothespin Cookies, Pecan Tassies, Pizelles, Snowballs—you may know them by different names, depending on where you’re from—but even without photos you can visualize their collective majesty and the labor that makes it possible; e pluribus unum.

Cookie table security provided by Youngstown State University football team’s defensive line
Cookie table security provided by Youngstown State University football team’s defensive lineCredit: Bonnie Tawse

The same principle underlies the Soup & Bread Cookbook by former Reader editor Martha Bayne, in a second edition published under Belt’s Parafine Press side hustle. OK, really it’s a third incarnation, born out of the Hideout’s 12-year-old Soup & Bread event series, founded by Bayne in 2009 and interrupted in March—when everything went off the rails. That first year, Bayne collected recipes from professional and amateur cooks alike (Tawse and myself included), who’d dish their home-cooked soups out of crockpots in front of the stage each Wednesday night, over the years collecting nearly $100,000 in donations toward Chicago hunger relief efforts. That first spiral-bound collection, designed by former Reader art director Sheila Sachs, was released by Surrey/Agate in 2011 in expanded form, filled out with similar stories of the power of soup to build community. Celebrity soups like Doug Sohn’s Sausage Chili and Stephanie Izard’s Pear, Parsnip, and Pistachio Soup shared equal billing with equally extraordinary potages like artist Derek Erdman’s Pizza Soup and radio producer Robin Linn’s 40-Watt Garlic Soup. Besides all that, Soup and Bread was—is—always a reliably, mellow good time.

Born in a recession, and now reborn in a pandemic, the pages are likely to inspire pangs of longing in anyone who showed up at the Hideout on a cold Wednesday night with a couple of bucks or a crockpot of liquid gold. I have to believe Soup & Bread will come back (just as I have to believe I haven’t plundered my last cookie table), but for now the rerelease of the cookbook can do some good: half the royalties from its sale go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The other half will go to grassroots hunger-relief and mutual aid organizations.

Right now, I don’t need better reasons to stay inside and make soup and cookies.

Stained Glass Cookies
Sage Benchwick

The Benchwick family could possibly be the eastern Ohio version of the Von Trapp Family Singers, except the Benchwick talents are apparently in the kitchen, whipping up baked goods. Their skills are best demonstrated each year with their participation and success in the annual Cookie Table and Cocktails baking contest. In 2020, three generations of Benchwicks had platters of cookies displayed on the enormous cookie table: Rachelle Benchwick, her son Ryan, daughters Carissa and Stephanie, and Ryan Benchwick’s daughter, Sage, who baked these cookies and was awarded the title of 2020 Youngest Baker.

2 cups flour

3/4 cup butter (one and a half sticks), softened

1/2 cup Life Savers or Jolly Ranchers

1⁄4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

pinch of salt

Optional: food coloring for the dough

Unwrap and separate the candies (Life Savers or Jolly Ranchers) by color then place in separate small resealable bags. Crush into bits using a meat mallet; set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy; add vanilla. If you would like to create a colored dough, add food coloring now and stir until completely blended. Add flour and salt, then mix by hand until a dough is formed. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough 1/2-inch thick. Use any shaped cookie cutters desired, but you will need the cutters in two sizes: one for the cookie and one smaller to cut out the center “window” where the crushed hard candy will go to make the “glass.” (Sage used heart-shaped cookie cutters, and the cookies were dyed in a variety of colors.)

Cut as many of the cookies as you can from the rolled-out dough; place these on an ungreased cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. Using the smaller cookie cutter, cut out the inside shape, carefully peel away the cut piece of dough. You can bake these as mini cookies, without the candy, or set aside and reuse this dough.

Bake the cookies at 350 F for five minutes. Remove from the oven and using a demitasse spoon, carefully fill the hole in the middle of each cookie with the crushed candy, about 2/3 of the way full. (If you overfill, the candy will bleed out on top of the dough.) Return to the oven and bake for about seven to ten more minutes, until cookies are golden brown. Do not transfer cookies yet! Allow the cookies to rest on the cookie sheet so that the liquified candy in the center of each cookie can cool and harden. Once candy has hardened, transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.   v