Around 1930, a pair of Vaudeville performers named Gene Carroll and Glenn Rowell launched a radio show on WTAM in Cleveland, Ohio. Carroll and Rowell became famous for their characters, Jake and Lena. For five years, Jake and Lena entertained northeast Ohioans for fifteen minutes a day, six days a week. One of those Ohioans was my great-Nana and my namesake, Antoinette Lynch.
In one particular episode, listeners of the Gene and Glenn Show were invited to write in their go-to cookie recipes. The country was in the throes of the Great Depression at the time, so most recipes had to forgo more expensive baking staples like milk or nuts. Thus came the invention of “Jake and Lena Cookies,” a cookie that uses raisins, flour, shortening, and one egg. Because of the cheap ingredients used, they were nicknamed “Poor Man’s Cookies.” Because my Great-Nana Antoinette loved to make these so much, my family renamed them “Nana Cookies.”
There’s no doubt that recipes passed down through generations taste better – it must be the added sentimentality that adds that extra ‘something.’ What I love about this recipe, in particular, is its origins in radio. Grandparents and elderly loved ones from all over the country listened in to Carroll and Rowell’s comedy show, creating countless variations of their “Jake and Lena Cookies.” No matter the name, these chewy, raisin-filled treats are easy to make and even easier to eat.
Straight from Grandma’s Recipe Book: Poor Man’s Cookies
- 1 cup white raisins
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup shortening
- 1 egg
- 2 cups flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1-2 tbsp milk
- 1 cup powdered sugar (optional)
- Measuring cup
- Small caucepan
- Stand or hand mixer (optional)
- 2 Mixing bowls
- Large cookie sheet
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Add raisins and water to a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until soft (approx. 20 minutes).
Drain water from the saucepan into a measuring cup. Add water to make ½ C (if the drained water equals or is greater than ½ C, disregard this step).
Combine shortening, egg, and sugar. Beat until smooth.
Combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and salt.
Add raisin water and flour mixture to wet ingredients.
Add raisins and mix until just combined.
Spread on a large, lightly greased cookie sheet. The dough should be evenly spread across the whole sheet, approx. ¼-½” thick. A spatula can help, but I use my hands for this part. Holes might appear in the sheet of dough during spreading – pack with surrounding dough until the cookie sheet is entirely covered, then pat flat.
Bake for 15-20 minutes at 375 degrees.
Optional: ice cookie while warm with confectioner’s sugar icing.
**To make confectioner’s sugar icing:
Mix sugar, vanilla, and milk 1 tablespoon at a time until spreadable (mixture will thicken slightly as it sets)
Allow the cookie to cool for 20-25 minutes. Slice into bars and serve.
When this cookie first became popular during the Great Depression, it was because it was cheap and easy to make. No bells, whistles, or frills. However, if you’re feeling adventurous, a simple cookie like this is a great place to experiment with new flavors. Substitute raisins for dried cranberries, blueberries, dates, or apples – or mix and match! For a chai latte twist, add cardamom, a pinch of black pepper, and double up on the cloves. Chopped pecans, almonds, or walnuts offer a crunchy addition to the soft cookie.
Mashed banana adds a light fruity flavor with a richer, more moist dough. And of course, there’s always the tried and true: chocolate chips.
Remember if you’re adding wet ingredients, the cookie might need longer to bake all the way through. Bake for 20 minutes. If the cookie seems soft or still looks wet, leave in the oven and check every 1-2 minutes until the cookie appears firm and set.
For a thicker, bread-like raisin bar, double the recipe and use the same size sheet (spreading the dough to be ½-1” thick). Bake for the same amount of time for a light, fluffy dessert that resembles coffee cake in flavor and texture. (Yes, we’ve tried it with hot coffee – we approve. We insist you try it, honestly.)
Get creative with the final touches!
This recipe includes a simple confectioner’s sugar icing using sugar, vanilla, and milk. You can opt for confectioner’s sugar alone powdered over the cookies a la funnel cake style. For a richer, more decadent flavor, try topping your cookies with caramel or chocolate syrup. Or, you can skip the refined sugar altogether and opt for an organically sweet honey drizzle.