Friday, October 28, 2016

Dulce de Leche Thumbprint Cookies

11 days to go in an election season that has left most feeling really frustrated and tired, like how I imagine running a marathon would feel if I ever ran one. (I did participate in a 5K this past week and my arches fell from speed walking, so I don't think I'm a "marathon candidate.") I made a conscious decision early on to figure out what I liked about Hillary and celebrate it. When I'm feeling furious because a man running on behalf of one of the two major parties condones sexual assault, I remember how exciting it is to vote for our first female president. This is a terrible election, but it's also a historical one. I plan on drinking a cocktail when it's over -- yes, because it's over, but mostly because we will be toasting to something extraordinary and overdue and full of hope. This election has pointed out our country's institutionalized sexism, an incredible disease that has made me extra grateful for how I was raised. My mom taught me how to use my voice and to be assertive, my dad told me I was smart and capable and a leader. Gender was almost a non-issue and my parents were equals.

I'm blaming it on my ridiculous sentimentality, but when I look at Hillary -- a woman who fights for children, who has balanced a career and a family, who has to prove at every turn that she deserves to be there -- I remember my grandma Schmidt and the choices she made.

Margaret passed away when I was three after a terrible battle with stomach cancer. She hospiced at our house, and I remember peeking in her bedroom and tiptoeing in to sit on the bed. She always had glass dishes of lemon drops and Andes mints. She spoke quietly. She gave good hugs. This election reminds me of her -- a woman who I've learned more about in the years since she's passed away. One of my biggest wishes is that we could've chatted as adults, that our time overlapped more. Everyone tells me how strong she was, how smart, and how she had other dreams that couldn't coexist with her dream of having a family.

Margaret Luedtke was born in 1913 in rural McLeod County, Minnesota. She had five siblings. She had a lot of sisterly rivalry with Myrtle, who was older and sometimes spunkier and since they were both stubborn and German, this lasted until adulthood. My grandma's stubbornness -- her determination -- is something I hope I've inherited. She loved her family and loved a full house. She met my grandpa Frank when she was in high school -- he was passing through town on the way to work at a farm in Iowa. They met at a "rainbow dance," which my aunt Shirley couldn't really describe, but Margaret was wearing orange. And Frank never made it to Iowa. She thought he looked like Bing Crosby and her parents didn't like him.

My grandma is the one standing on the right.
And here's where I find great kinship with my grandma. Instead of getting married out of high school, she left the farm for "the cities" and attended business college in St. Paul. She rented a room in a Summit Ave. mansion and took the streetcar to school, where she learned typing and shorthand. I always knew she went to college, but only recently have I really thought about what that meant. She left a boyfriend, friends, family, to live alone in a new city and do something that the women around her weren't doing. Pretty badass. 

After college, she moved to Hudson, WI and worked in an oncologist's office. Again, this is fact that takes a minute to sink in. She was a young working woman in a new place in the early 30s. Maybe it's because I'm a storyteller, but I can only imagine the excitement and independence she felt supporting herself with her skills. She eventually moved back to Minnesota and married my grandpa in 1933. He bought a milk route in Litchfield. She had six kids in eight years. And she didn't work outside of the home again.

All of my relatives will say one of Margaret's defining characteristics was how much she loved her family. She was proud of her kids and adored her grandkids. They also talk about how hard she worked. She did everything -- she baled hay with a pitchfork, made lemon bars, "calved" (which I can only imagine involves pulling a calf out of a cow), managed horses and a garden. She hated snakes and would chop off their heads with a hoe while swearing. Her farmhouse was full of kids and laughter and butter. This is the grandma that my older cousins speak of.

All six Schmidt kids (Marilyn, Barb, my dad Larry, Shirley with Ron, Allan with a cat)
I wish I knew this Margaret, but more than anything, I wish I knew the Margaret from before 1933. I asked my aunt Shirley if she thought her mother missed having a career, and she thinks she did. She talked about her beautiful penmanship and interesting letters. She remembered how Margaret would write everything down in expert shorthand when someone was telling a story so she wouldn't miss anything, and people would ask her to decipher the notes later. My aunt laughed when I asked if it would've been possible to work and have a family. Companies simply didn't allow it. No one would hire a competent secretary who was pregnant or had kids. I look at the women in my life who are balancing both a career and family -- something I hope to do one day -- and how my grandma wasn't allowed to even try. She married a man with a 7th grade education and some would say her schooling was in vain. But I look at her robin's egg blue typewriter that sits in my house in LA and I think of a young writer who once wanted something more.

Margaret and Frank, in the 1980s
When I vote for a woman this fall, I'm doing it on behalf of another strong woman. Margaret would've been proud to cast a vote for Hillary -- according to my dad, "She would've hated Trump something terrible. More than you!" Ask the majority of my extended family and they would disagree, because so many are supporting Trump (I think I should earn points for only defriending *some* of them over Facebook memes). I asked my aunt Shirley about it, and said, nearly whispering, "She was very open-minded. She was a feminist. And you can talk to me and and your aunts about Hillary."

Margaret used to tell my older half sister that anyone can get married, but not everyone can get an education. I hope that my grandma looks down on me, unmarried but college-educated and working as a writer, and is proud. Also, I bake! :)

Dulce de Leche Thumbprint Cookies

Can of sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg yolk
1 1/4 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
Sea salt for sprinkling

Blend the softened butter and brown sugar until well-mixed.
Add the egg yolk and vanilla.
Gradually add the flour and salt, careful to not over-mix.
Shape the dough into a ball, cover in plastic wrap, and chill for an hour.
There are few ways to make dulce de leche -- I prefer the oven method.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Empty the can of sweetened condensed milk into an oven-safe saucepan. (Came very close to using a pan with a plastic handle. Don't make this mistake.)
Create a water bath in a larger, oven-safe pan. Fill it with a reasonable amount of water.
Cover the saucepan of sweetened condensed milk with tinfoil and place in the water bath.
Cook in the oven for about 60 minutes, checking occasionally to refill the water.
When the dulce de leche is done, set aside to cool, stirring occasionally. It will thicken as it cools. It should be a lovely caramel color and remind you of delicious glue.
Turn the oven down to 350 degrees and retrieve your dough ball.
Using a tablespoon scoop, space your cookies on a cookie sheet, about two inches apart.
Using your old-school thumb (or the base of your tablespoon scoop), create a small divet in the middle of each cookie. You can smooth out the cracks to create a more perfect cookie, or just say, "fuck it" and keep going.
Using a 1/4 teaspoon, drizzle the dulce de leche in the cookie divets. Mine overflowed, which is actually fine, but stressful in the moment.
Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown.
Cool the cookies on a wire rack before sprinkling with salt.
Eat all of them.

Happy baking -- and happy voting!!!