Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sandy Spring Sand Tarts

Sandy Spring Sand Tarts with Almond

Last year I was hired by Sandy Spring Museum and Maryland Traditions, the folklife organization for the state, to conduct an initial folklife survey in Sandy Spring, Maryland, 20 miles north of Washington, D.C. A historic Quaker and African-American community, Sandy Spring was a known stop on the Underground Railroad-- it was said to be on Harriet Tubman's route-- and the town also hosted lectures by Frederic Douglass and housed Dred Scott when he was awaiting trial. Today it is an increasingly diverse community with newer immigrant populations and families who've been there for decades.

My task in Sandy Spring was to identify traditional artists and tradition bearers and interview them, to assist the Museum in better understanding the cultural activity in the community, as well as explore ideas for future programming. Two such tradition bearers I interviewed were Beth Garretson and Louise Kriger Meganson -- both Quakers and members of the Women's Mutual Improvement Association, a local social club founded in 1857.

Sandy Spring Sand Tarts and Tea

At The Association's monthly luncheons, members are invited to share something that interested them that month-- a poem, an article,  bird calls, horticultural advice. Like any good club, though, this one seems to really revolve around food, namely cookies, and specifically, Sandy Spring Sand Tarts. The cookies that bear the town's name spurred quite a discussion in our interview, the gist of which is perhaps best relayed in the dialogue itself:
Emily: So you said you're into cookies-- are there any recipes that get passed down or continue to pop up among the group?
Louise: Absolutely! We have Sandy Spring Tarts-- they're about 20 versions. They're the best. But there are all kinds of different sorts. You know, people will make them a certain thickness or use a certain amount of flour, or you use eggs or you don't use eggs or you put an almond on top or you don't put an almond on top.
Beth: We had everyone bring their recipe for sand tarts one month and it was amazing. The difference in them.
Louise: They were tasty!
Beth: But of course I know that I have the right recipe!
Beth went on to explain that the sand tarts are not especially unusual, but have been made by Sandy Springers for Christmas cookies for generations. That's true in a broader context too. According to Food Timeline, sand tarts are likely descendants of simple sugar cookies, with "sand tarts" appearing in cookbooks in the 1880s, though absent of attribution or narrative. They're common Christmas cookies in Denmark and Sweden, and have similar ingredients to German sand tortes. Sand tarts are also popular in domestic scientist cookbooks-- there's a version in Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cookbook, from 1886.

Personally, I like them for their buttery simplicity, and,with their diamond shapes, potential for tessellation patterns (resembling quilt squares) in their presentation. They're also an ideal tea or snack cookie-- I took a tin of them cross-country skiing last weekend and they were the perfect warm-up treat with a nip of whiskey or hot chocolate.

Diamond Cookies with Almond

Sandy Spring Sand Tarts
Adapted from Beth Garrettson via the Sandy Spring Women's Association Cookbook

Makes 3-4 dozen, depending on size

1/4 lb. raw unsalted almonds
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, reserving one egg white for finishing
4 cups all-purpose flour
Cinnamon sugar for dusting (1 cup granulated sugar + 2 Tablespoons cinnamon)

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Blanch and split the almonds by pouring boiling water over almonds to cover. Let sit until the skins can be slipped off easily. Drain, then cut almonds in half and set aside.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream butter and slowly add the sugar. Add the eggs, minus one white. Mix in the flour. Dough should be firm and not at all sticky, if it is too wet, gradually add more flour.

3. Divide the dough into 4 large balls. On a clean, floured surface, roll out each part about 1/4-inch thick and cut into diamonds. Beat the egg white with a whisk until frothy and brush cookies with egg white and generously sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

4. Place cookies on cookie sheet, fairly close together as they spread just a little. Press half almond on each one and bake for 12-15 minutes until lightly browned and puffed. Store in metal box-- they keep for nearly a month.

Sandy Spring Sand Tart Cookies on Plate

Related recipes:
Almond and Grapefruit-Ginger Marmalade Crostata
Lemon-Lavender Meringue Pie Cookies 
Pea & Corn Cookies

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