As I pulled the baking dish from the oven, a rich, heady shockwave of aroma hit my face. Ahh, I thought, so this is the Smell of the Holidays. Nothing says "December at The Manse" quite like the intoxicating aroma of coconut and evaporated milk-- two humble ingredients that come together for an experience that is more than the sum of its parts (like the fabled nitro and glycerin, says my snarky inner voice). Its been years since my mother made them. She probably stopped because they have such little nutritional redemption, and because they are expensive to make (depending on where you shop, plan to spend about $20 on them).
Growing up, my mother only made Nana's Cookies once a year. According to her, Nana, my mother's maternal grandmother, invented them, but you will find this recipe on the back of any can of sweetened condensed milk, bag of butterscotch chips, or do an internet search of "7 layer cookies," even Max's Opera Cafe has a version (Bob Lane's Ex-wife's Cookies). They are not even really cookies, fat bombs or artery-stopping pellets would be a more apt description. They are really bars, a conglomeration of fat and sugar that coagulates at high temperature in the oven, that is cooked in the old Pyrex lasagna pan, and when cooled (always a maddeningly long wait) can be carefully cut apart. Wise people cut them very small, knowing that only fakirs with superhuman restraint can stop at one, but deep regrets, and painful internal foment await the person stupid enough to overindulge. Better have a few small ones and live rather than a few large ones and wish you were dead.
Nana was a legendary sweets cook. Our family's women pass around an ancient mimeographed copy of her culinary school sweets textbook, filled with intimidating recipes calling for "invert" sugar and a glassware setup that would rival a chem lab. I only remember her as a fragil, delicate old woman with billowy white hair piled on her head. She was never fat, though. Which surpises me, because me, my mother and her mother all have legendary sweet teeth and the corresponding generous girth. She was a stylish, beautiful woman, looking out confidently from her photographs. I wonder what went wrong. How did Nana maintain her trim figure and her culinary prowess through world wars, Depressions, 2 daughters, losing a farm and a husband (ironically, only a few miles from where Dutch was born), Alzheimers, being married to an artist and having my grandad as a son-in-law (story goes that every time she saw him, she yelled at him, smart woman)? All I can say is they don't grow women like that anymore.
It took me a while to warm up to Nana's cookies as a child. The first flavor the sticks a loaded gun in the face of your tastebuds and throws them violently against the roof of your mouth is butterscotch. I really don't even know what butterscotch is made of. I was reading the ingredients of the butterscotch chips and all I could discern was vanilla and natural and artificial flavors. Which means it is a product of some clever chemists. Be that as it may, their cloying, dayglo flavor is a part of their appeal. After the butterscotch goes whimpering down your gullet its followed by a crowd of wonder- butter-toasted graham crackers, enveloped in little crunchies of caramelized milk sugar, followed by glorious coconut, smacking of warm tropical afternoons and swaying palm trees. Finally, like guests who don't know the party is over, the semi sweet chocolate morsels leave a pleasantly bitter theobromo gift on the back your tongue. As you exhale, a few little stragglers reignite the glory of the memory of that little cube of heaven.
Nana's Choco-Sooth Cookies
1 cube melted butter
1 c Graham cracker crumbs or 8 crushed G crackers
1 pckg choc chips
1 pckg butterscotch chips
1 c crushed walnuts
1 c ground coconut
1 can sweetened condensed milk
Put ingred in 9x13 baking dish in same order listed above. Bake @ 350 for 30 min.