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Gluten-Free Living

Gluten-free Living: Award-winning thumbprint cookies

  • Gluten-free cookies; Thursday, January 31, 2013. <br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    Gluten-free cookies; Thursday, January 31, 2013.
    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • Gluten-free cookies; Thursday, January 31, 2013. <br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    Gluten-free cookies; Thursday, January 31, 2013.
    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • Gluten-free cookies; Thursday, January 31, 2013. <br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
  • Gluten-free cookies; Thursday, January 31, 2013. <br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

My Grandma Mary was tall and elegant. She could talk politics, football
and fashion, and she
worshipped my grandfather, but that didn’t stop her from defying him when she decided to become a beauty queen.

It was 1957, and the Mrs. Detroit pageant was recruiting contestants with the promise of a year’s free groceries – a prize that was especially appealing to a woman with seven kids to feed. She announced her plan to enter. Grandpa protested. She did it anyway – and won. It wasn’t long before she was wearing the Mrs. Michigan crown and conducting interviews with national magazines.

Grandma’s time on the pageant circuit was short – the 1950s equivalent of a brush with reality TV – but the story of how Mary Weitzel became Mrs. Michigan is a favorite piece of family lore. When she died last month at the age of 93, I was grateful to discover that she left behind souvenirs from her reign, including a sash, a story about parenting techniques and a dinner menu.

Looks mattered in the Mrs. America pageant, but the judges were equally interested in how well the contestants could clean, iron and cook. One news reel referred to my grandmother as “Queen of the Homemakers.” To demonstrate her prowess in the kitchen, each woman was asked to prepare a multi-course dinner for eight. My grandmother’s menu is pretty typical for that era, heavy on gelatin and canned produce and finished off with a pot of percolated coffee. The main dish is broiled ham steaks, surrounded by molded fruit salad, spiced peaches on lettuce and “rice surprise,” a concoction that sounds similar to risotto – if you like risotto made with dried soup mix and shortening.

For dessert, Grandma offered two options: A chocolate chiffon pie and thumbprint cookies. The pie would have been simpler for me to adapt to my gluten-free life – just use gluten-free graham crackers in the crust – but the cookies were more familiar. I remember them from Christmas time, usually filled with green mint jelly or strawberry jam.

They tasted great, but the dough was hard to handle and the cookies tended to be a bit crumbly, which is why I never considered making them gluten free. As it turns out, it’s a pretty easy recipe to alter.

Instead of fussing with my own flour mix, I used King Arthur’s gluten-free all purpose flour. I usually prefer a blend of nut and grain flours, but this fine, all-grain blend gives these cookies a delicate texture. King Arthur is relatively new on the gluten-free scene, but its products are available in most local grocery stores.

The original recipe seemed rather small, so I doubled it. Grandma probably did, too. With that many kids, she was basically running a commercial kitchen.

When the cookies were done, I filled them with some mixed-berry jam I put up last summer. The result was an almost pastry-like treat that would have worked well on a brunch buffet. Jam isn’t your only filling option, though. My grandmother suggested “chopped candied fruit, sparkling jelly or tinted confectioner’s sugar icing.”

Come Easter, she wrote, pack the center of each cookie with green shredded coconut and a couple of jelly beans.

Grandma Mary was never crowned Mrs. America, but she did get that year of groceries – and left us all with some great stories to tell.


½ cup shortening

½ cup butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

pinch salt

½ cup packed brown sugar

2 eggs, separated

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon King Arthur Flour gluten-free all-purpose flour

1 cup finely chopped nuts (optional)

Jam, candied fruit or jelly beans for filling

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Cream together the shortening, butter, vanilla and salt. Slowly add the sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the flour and egg yolks. Mix at medium speed for 2 minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix again for another 30 seconds.

With clean, wet hands form the dough into 1-inch balls. Dip each ball in the egg whites and, if desired, roll in the chopped nuts. Place the balls 1 inch apart on the parchment paper.

Bake for 5 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and gently press your thumb in the center of each cookie to make a small indentation. Return the pan to the oven and cook for another 9 minutes.

Allow the cookies to cool on the paper for 5 minutes before moving to a cooling rack.

While the cookies cool, fill the indentations with jam, fruit or candy.

Makes about 18 cookies.

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