Cookie Catastrophe

This is the photo that appeared with Margaret Sullavan's alleged recipe. Jake Jacobs estimates that it was published around 1938.

I recently purchased a CD called Hollywood Cooks! from Kathleen O’Quinn Jacobs and her husband Jake. Collectors and vendors of movie memorabilia, the two have scanned recipes and food-related stories from myriad old movie magazines.
Naturally, I felt the need to try one of the recipes—and since it was almost the end of the month and I hadn’t yet posted a “Twelve Cookies of Christmas” recipe I decided to share with you the recipe for Margaret Sullavan’s peanut-butter hermit cookies.
Or not.
Here’s what happened: I made the hermits yesterday. They were absolutely the easiest cookies I’ve ever made, featuring very few ingredients: condensed milk, peanut butter, and graham-cracker crumbs (plus a little salt). They shaped up very nicely on the baking pan.
Unfortunately, they didn’t pass muster in terms of taste.
Even my mother, who at 91 eats cookies at a rate that belies her slenderness, passed by the cookie jar (which I placed out in the open hoping she would eat some of the darn things) without even stopping.
She may not be able to articulate where she is or who I am all the time, but her brain retains information about pets and cookies very well. She never forgets our dog Truffle’s name. And she remembered that she didn’t like this recipe.
The problem has got something to do with the condensed milk, I think. It renders the texture a bit rubbery. And frankly the cookies just don’t offer enough peanut-butter flavor. Or flavor of any kind.

This probably makes sense. Actress Margaret Sullivan (1909-1960) is delightful in such films as The Shop Around the Corner (1940) with Jimmy Stewart. And she’s touching in No Sad Songs for Me (1950), in which her character gets ready for death in a romanticized preview of Sullavan’s own early demise. 

Sullavan with James Stewart

Nevertheless, nowhere in her daughter Brooke Hayward’s family memoir Haywire or in Lawrence Quirk’s biography Margaret Sullavan: Child of Fate did I find any reference to this mercurial actress’s skill in the kitchen. She probably never actually baked a hermit in her life.
In order to salvage my cookie post and not abandon Sullavan entirely, I am sharing a recipe that relies on her three main ingredients (plus a couple of additional ones!). I got the idea from Borden’s Eagle-brand web site, which features a number of recipes that involve condensed milk.
I don’t know whether Margaret Sullavan would have approved—but I’m sure that Brooke Hayward would have enjoyed my non-hermits as a child! A relative of the ever popular Hello Dolly Bars, also known as Magic Bars, they’re VERY sweet and chewy.
My mother LOVES them.
Please keep your fingers crossed for me as I move on to my next movie-star dish…….. 

Before I get to my recipe, here is Miss Sullavan’s version:

Margaret Sullavan’s Peanut Butter Hermits
1 cup sweetened condensed milk (a little less than a 14-ounce can)
6 tablespoons peanut butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
Thoroughly blend together the milk and peanut butter. Add salt and graham cracker crumbs. Mix well. Drop by spoonfuls (I used a 2-tablespoon scoop) onto a buttered baking sheet (I used two). Bake 15 minutes, or until brown, in a moderately hot oven (375 degrees). Makes eighteen hermits.
NOT Margaret Sullavan’s Peanut Butter Hermits
1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter
1-1/2 cups graham-cracker crumbs
2-1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup salted peanuts (optional but good for crunch and peanut flavor)
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1-1/4 cups peanut-butter chips
2/3 cup peanut butter (I used chunky)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-by-9-inch pan with aluminum foil, and butter the foil generously.
In a saucepan melt the butter. Blend in the graham-cracker crumbs, and press the crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan and up the sides an inch or so.
Place the coconut on top of the graham-cracker crust. Throw on the peanuts if you are using them. Pour the condensed milk over all.
Bake this mixture for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it browns lightly.
While you are baking, use a double boiler to melt the chips and peanut butter together. Gently stir this mixture over the baked mixture.
Cool the bars on a wire rack for 15 minutes; then cover them with foil and refrigerate until the chocolate is set. (In my kitchen on a hot day this took more than 2 hours.)

Cut the baked stuff into bars. Makes between 16 and 60 little squares, depending on how big you want to cut them.

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9 Responses to “Cookie Catastrophe”

  1. Flaneur says:

    Among the many perceptive or obscure things that Andy Warhol said, or was reputed to have said, is something along the lines that while restaurants persist in serving liver and onions, they never put cookies and milk on their menus, and “Everyone loves cookies and milk.” My only experience with cookies in a restaurant was in Washington, DC. The chef, the then latest hot new culinary whiz kid, had opened a dining room in a townhouse in one of the less fashionable, more dangerous neighborhoods. On each starched-to-sheet-metal-stiffness white linen tablecloth sat, as decoration, a lone root vegetable of the variety disfavored for centuries. It looked rather like a frostbitten carrot. At some point toward the dessert end of a dismal evening, a small plate was presented with a few tiny spots of what appeared to be burnt pancake batter. They were presented as cookies. I swear each was no larger than a dime, and just as thin. They possessed neither discernable taste nor memorable texture. For some reason their inanity was as infuriating as a friend’s two-cookie rule. Now I ask you, who can grow to responsible adulthood after enduring a childhood of deprivation? If the two-cookie rule had any reason or merit, cookie jars would hold only two cookies and baking companies would package their cookies in two-cookie bags. But this cookie rule has even made its way into the federal regulatory bureaucracy and we read the package to discover, right there on the package, that the suggested serving size is: 2! [Note: Trader Joe’s sells a fantastic triple-ginger cookie and the suggested serving size is six cookies. Hope survives.]

    But I digress. Peanut butter cookies, in an age when every other child suffers from nut allergies, should be extinct, but despite the competition of chocolate chip, molasses and oatmeal-raisin cookies (and vigilant anti-anaphylactic parents) they (the peanut butter cookies) persist. And thank goodness. The other day a neighbor’s son needed to be driven to Stamford to bring his laptop computer to the Apple store for a repair. As a thank you gesture, he brought a small bag (but more than two) of cookies. He’d baked peanut butter cookies the night before and his were light, crumbly (crispy really), but still perfectly moist and chewy without being remotely gummy, and filled with glorious peanut butter flavor – with not a trace of the unctuous adhesive quality that is a hallmark of nut butters. The young fellow is a second-year film student at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He used to affect his own spin on the Goth or Emo look, and now presents himself as a highly pierced, inappropriately overdressed street person. But he makes an absolutely fantastic peanut butter cookie; possibly the world’s best. In fact his cookies are so good that following the Margaret Sullavan formula, he should be entitled to a spectacularly brilliant career in film, assuming that the quality of the cookie is in direct proportion to the stellar aspect of one’s stadom and Hollywood success.

    So poor Margaret’s cookies flopped at the box office. Good for her I say, and good for every woman (and the occasional man) who’s worth has been measured by the quality of her or his cookies. In an age when Elena Kagan can withstand a barrage of insulting and inappropriate, not to mention irrelevant, questions about her qualifications, at least no one has inquired about her baking skills… yet. Hillary Clinton possibly rues the day she dismissed candidates’ wives who bake cookies, and reluctantly joined the roster of campaigning spouses to dutifully submit to reporters their “personal favorite” recipe for cookies. And clearly from this posting, Hollywood required the same fraudulent submissiveness. How humiliating. Should my partner ever run for the presidency, I’m going to decline, and assert instead that I have a far better, far greater, and far more democratic appetite for cookies that our Republican opponent’s spouse. And I’m going to confide to Katie Couric that my partner will appoint to the Supreme Court a woman of extraordinary capacity who will work hard to declare unconstitutional the tyrannical two-cookie rule!

    Dear Margaret: if your cookies fall short, get out of the kitchen and back on the set. Mr. DeMille is waiting.

  2. Donna says:

    Well, I can say from my experience in seeing the recipes in the 1927 movie star cookbook I own, yuck. I realize and recognize cooking was way different then, but so many recipes look so unappetizing. Who really would eat this stuff?

    I will try your delicious bars, they look grand!

    Margaret Sullivan in The Good Fairy under the direction of William Wyler, magical.

  3. Your cookies look fantastic and I think I’ll try them this weekend. I don’t eat many sweets but absolutely love cookies of all description. Of course I can’t send them to school with Audrey – no nuts allowed on campus. Sigh.

    I have a fun and slightly horrifying cookbook I bought this summer with recipes from famous people. Maybe I’ll break it out this weekend. Maybe Chicken a la Rose Marie with Clare Booth Luce’s Almond Float for dessert. And Art Linkletter’s Tangy Dip as a memorial nibble.

  4. Ok, so her cookies were rubbish, but she is so beautiful I’ll forgive her!!

  5. Great comparison cooking! While we doubt many of the actors actually cooked the recipes (some posing next to 1930s stoves), it is humorous to think of Joan Crawford recommending toast or Greta Garbo, Swedish meatballs. We have recently noticed that Constance Bennett’s recipe for Spanish Chicken did appear, word for word, in two sources. Now that’s saying something. We’re updating our “Hollywood Cooks” CD which is always up on eBay. Thanks, Tinky, for the valiant attempt and quick recovery. I shall knight you Princess Valiant.

  6. tinkyweisblat says:

    Flaneur, I love your digressions! Abigail and Donna, I am jealous of your cookbook libraries; I can’t wait to see some of THOSE recipes online, Kathleen, I love my new name. And Frayed, you have an EXCELLENT point…….

  7. I learn so much every time I read one of your posts! And I think your cookies look incredible, I just might be jotting down the recipe at the end of this sentence…

  8. Hi Tinky – LOVE your post and your readers’ comments. What a shame your cookies fell flat! I think you are right – as it is so difficult for us to get Graham Crackers here in the UK, I used digestive biscuits and they gave the cookies more OOMPH! Yes, these film star recipes are occasionally crazy and sometimes inedible but great fun to cook! I’ve been trying them out for four years and blogging about them over at the Silver Screen Suppers website. If any of your readers fancy dropping by it would be lovely! Best wishes from Jenny in London x

  9. tinkyweisblat says:

    Hmm … maybe I should try digestive biscuits like you, Jenny. Meanwhile, thanks to you and EveryDay for stopping by! I love comments……

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