On a humid morning in July, I stood in line with 60 other tourists outside of the National Museum of American History, fanning myself with a brochure while we waited for the museum to open. My forehead already was moist, and I wondered whether I had, once again, become over-involved in a project. What had brought me to the District of Columbia during its muggiest season?
Peanut Blossoms are my favorite cookies and have been since I snitched one from a tray my great-aunt had prepared for a wedding when I was 5. The outside sugar crystals crunched beneath my teeth as I chewed and the chocolate Kiss melted into the peanut butter cookie, a sweet and salty flavor I had never tasted. Now, when I attend a Pittsburgh wedding or any celebration where a cookie table is present, the first cookies I go for are the Blossoms. It's not a celebration without peanut butter and chocolate.
I'm a Pittsburgh native and next June my fiance and I will marry in his city -- Athens, Greece. Although Greece has its own culinary treasures (such as feta cheese, olive oil and tissue-thin filo pastries), cookie tables are absent from Greek nuptial tradition. But Pittsburgh is my home, and my fiance has studied here for six years. We've come of age in this city and want our big day to include some of its traditions -- namely, the cookie table. This summer I practiced baking traditional and not-so-traditional cookie recipes -- in preparation for our table in Athens.
Along the way, I've blogged about each cookie, its background, my memories, mishaps and successes. With each post I learned more about baking and myself.
Research for my first post on, what else -- Peanut Blossoms -- revealed a known creator.
Mrs. Freda F. Smith of Gibsonburg, Ohio, developed Peanut Blossoms for the ninth Grand National Pillsbury Bake-Off competition, a contest founded by the Pillsbury Co. in 1949 as a marketing strategy for its flagship product, Pillsbury Best Family Flour. Mrs. Smith's recipe had been chosen as one of the 100 finalists to compete in the Bake-Off in 1957, but her Peanut Blossoms failed to clinch the grand prize. Peanut Blossoms have since appeared on nearly every kitchen table in America. Quite a feat for a mere runner-up.
Peanut Blossoms received their overdue recognition in 1999 when, in honor of the contest's 50th anniversary, Pillsbury established the Bake-Off Hall of Fame honoring the contest's most popular recipes. Peanut Blossoms ranked seventh on the list, which included classics such as Dilly Bread, Tunnel of Fudge Cake and French Silk Chocolate Pie. The company also donated cookbooks, recipes and other contest memorabilia to the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History. Eager for more information on Mrs. Smith, I made an appointment to view the materials.
At the Archives Center with nine file boxes before me, the first artifact I browsed was the 1957 Bake-Off recipe booklet, a pamphlet printed with the finalists' recipes. As I lifted the pages, a metallic scent rose from the black-and-white images. I lingered on the recipe for Accordion Treats submitted by Mrs. Gerda Roderer, winner of the $25,000 Grand Prize that year. A photo depicted biscotti-like crescents dusted with chocolate sprinkles, flaked coconut and sesame seeds. Pretty but rather unexciting compared to Peanut Blossoms. Mrs. Smith's recipe for those appeared 13 pages later as a Senior Grand National Winner with no monetary prize.
But the Hershey company sensed a promotional opportunity and printed Mrs. Smith's recipe on bags of Hershey's Kisses, introducing Peanut Blossoms to millions. The cookie's all-American flavors, chocolate and peanut butter, endeared the recipe to generations. As early as 1924, bakers realized that chocolate was peanut butter's natural complement, and Mrs. Smith continued the tradition, uniting the two in an appealing shape which appealed to a public already fanatic about the combination.
I couldn't help feeling disappointed for Mrs. Smith. Peanut Blossoms had brightened cookie exchanges and displays across the country, yet her contribution went unrewarded. I wondered who she had been and if she had felt dissatisfied with the results.
In box nine, I discovered a copy of the 1957 contestant biography. A small paragraph described her as the wife of Chester Smith, owner of a trucking company in Gibsonburg. She had been active in her community as a member of her local American Legion and president of her church's Altar Society. At the time of the contest, she and her husband had three grown children and 11 grandchildren. An avid baker since the age of 8, she had entered the Bake-Off Contest every year since it began and had devised Peanut Blossoms as a special treat for her grandchildren. Mrs. Smith hoped to use the prize money to remodel her home.
I sighed and folded my notes in preparation for my last item, a video promotional of the 1955 Pillsbury Bake-Off contest, two years prior to the one in which Freda competed. A black-and-white Art Linkletter appeared on the TV screen in the Grand Ballroom of New York City's Waldorf Astoria and interviewed Bake-Off contestants for "The Arthur Guthrie Show." His first interviewee, a woman from Texas, chirped, "I'm not nervous, I just forgot to put sugar in my cake." Her eyes looked tired, but she chuckled and smiled. Other interviewees were a high school math teacher, a grandmother and a teenage girl. They appeared anxious but in good spirits. Perhaps Mrs. Smith had been likewise composed. I hoped so.
[Editor's note: According to a 1999 story in the Post-Gazette's sister newspaper, The Toledo Blade, Freda Smith died in 1963. So her Bake-off Hall of Fame award was accepted by her daughter, Jo Anne Smith Lytle of Toledo, who told the newspaper that her mom had originally named the cookie Black-eyed Susans, but Pillsbury had renamed them. The company did give Mrs. Smith, in addition to the trip to the Bake-off (at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.), a General Electric stove, a mixer and $100 to spend. GE was the 1957 event's sponsor; its spokesman was an actor named Ronald Reagan.]
I gathered my notes, made copies of the original Peanut Blossom recipe and left the Archives Center feeling content. Peanut Blossoms and their creator have a story, one that is worth sharing. Tracking down their history in Washington, D.C., I've also created my own Peanut Blossom tale, one I will remember when I bake them next June in Greece.
Lauren's Grown-Up Peanut Butter Blossoms
- 1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup natural-style peanut butter
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Additional sugar for rolling
- 48 dark chocolate kisses
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, granulated sugar, brown sugar, peanut butter and butter with an electric mixer. The mixture will be crumbly at first, but keep stirring. It should turn into a thick paste.
Next add the milk, egg, vanilla, baking soda and salt and mix until well-incorporated.
Shape the dough into 3/4 inch balls. Smaller is better with these cookies as they spread a bit in the oven. Roll the balls in a small bowl filled with sugar. Space the balls about 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets and bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Meanwhile unwrap the Hershey's Kisses.
When the cookies are slightly golden, remove from the oven and immediately press a chocolate Kiss into the center of each. Remove cookies to wire cooling racks. The Kisses will become soft, almost runny. You can place them in the refrigerator for an hour to solidify.
Makes about 4 dozen.
-- Adapted from Pillsbury Co.'s Peanut Blossoms recipe