Many years ago, my ex-husband and I bought what was then known as a “white elephant,” a huge Victorian house that two decades later would be referred to as a “trophy house.” When we bought it, however, we were impecunious hippies who had earned, through a business opportunity that we were astute enough to gamble on, enough for the down payment. Our friends thought we were crazy taking on this elegant monstrosity with 12-foot ceilings and a front hall that spanned 50 feet in length. “How will you heat it?” they asked, aghast at our foolishness. Indeed, we had no idea, but somehow we did.
Mrs. Hince, a little old lady who lived down the street, must have been in her 90s. She had been born on the street and had lived there all her life. I made her acquaintance on my daily walks past her house with Bess, the German Shepard. Puttering in her flower urns with a trowel in her hand, she was friendly and full of information about the history of the neighborhood. Curious to know more, we invited her for a visit one summer’s afternoon. She was sharp as the proverbial tack. Her detailed memories went back to the days of the horse and buggy.
At some point I got up the courage to ask her, “Mrs. Hince, do you tell your age?”
“Why, of course,” she replied. “I’m over forty.”
As we sipped tea she recalled playing hide-and seek in the servants’ quarters on the top floor of my house. She recounted that the spectacular mansion across the street had been owned by the Reillys who, being without children, had adopted the orphaned daughter of one of their 23 servants.
In a rags-to-riches story, little Miss Reilly eventually grew up and inherited the entire Newton estate including the mansion, acres of sweeping lawns and the enormous carriage house. Mrs. Hince recalled that Miss Reilly cordially served the plumbers cookies in the parlor when they came to fix a pipe, but she made it clear that “they were to take only three.” On days when Miss Reilly attended a matinee at Symphony Hall, her servant girls would parade her hats, each on a silver tray, as she sat in the parlor, whereupon she would make her choice for the afternoon’s outing.
I served Mrs. Hince Almond Crisps that day, thinking them to be the ultimate ladies’ tea cookie. I had gotten the recipe from another elderly lady, Mrs. Cardwell, who was a renowned cook. She served them to me with Earl Grey tea in flower-decked Limoges cups and I thought they were the best almond cookies I had ever tasted. Weeks later I called Mrs. Cardwell and asked if she would be so kind as to share the recipe with me. “Of course, my dear, I’d be happy to send it to you,” she graciously replied. But I think she forgot which cookie she’d served me that day, because the recipe that arrived was for a different almond cookie altogether. I’ve always wondered if it really was just a slip of memory; some people choose not to give out their best recipes.
After many months of experimenting, however, I finally created a facsimile of the one she served that day. I still think it is the ultimate tea cookie or the perfect choice to accompany a frosty pitcher of lemonade. I was wrong, however, about this being uniquely a ladies’ cookie. I made them recently for my friends Hal and Ginny Swinson, both excellent cooks. Hal Swinson was an outstanding football player in his Cornell years, a real guy’s guy. He opined that my little sweets might just be “the best cookies I’ve ever tasted.”
Preheat oven: 325°
2/3 cup blanched almonds, finely ground to a powder
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup flour
1/4 tsp each vanilla and almond extract
1/3 – 1/2 cup sliced almonds (the kind with the thin edge of skin)
Be careful not to turn the ground almonds into a paste. Mix all ingredients in order given, gently stirring in the sliced almonds so as not to break them. Drop by teaspoonful on parchment- or silicone-lined sheet or on aluminum foil sprayed with Pam. Shape into neat, flat disks with your fingers, press a few more sliced almonds into tops, and sprinkle lightly with sugar.
Set cookie sheet in upper third of oven and bake for 9 minutes or until delicately browned. Watch carefully, rotating pan if necessary. Cool slightly before removing to a rack.