Nurse Helen and Her Recipes

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Less than two weeks ago I received an email from a woman named Rachel in Michigan.  Rachel had read the story by my friend and food editor of the Toledo Blade, Mary Bilyeu, who lovingly wrote about our flood and the loss of all my cookbooks.  Rachel was moved by Mary’s words and wrote to ask me if I would like to have some of her deceased mother-in-law’s recipes and clippings.  Rachel said she “was not a cooking guru and never will be,” and no one else in the family had a desire to keep the recipes.  I told Rachel I would be honored, and soon two huge boxes arrived.

In the first box were three massive albums, each filled to capacity with recipes.  Some on cards, some cut from magazines, each carefully placed on each page.  The recipes went back as far as the 1950’s.

They took my breath away.  I was looking into someone’s life. That person was Helen, who died one week shy of her 99th birthday.  Handwritten and yellowed recipes that Helen loved and arranged with such care.  Names of many people at the top of each card.  Rachel told me that Helen would find recipes everywhere and from many different people, some she knew, some she didn’t.  She would jot recipes down on any kind of paper or from whatever place of business she happened to be in at the moment.  But no matter where she was, they all had something in common- a love of cooking.  Helen was a nurse, and Rachel mentioned that I might even find some cards that would have a person’s name and a room number at the top.  I imagined Nurse Helen, comforting her patients and talking with them to ease their minds and try take away some pain by talking about a subject they loved, maybe cooking.  I like to think that is how Helen came away from Mrs. Baker in Room 354 with a pie crust recipe in hand.

As I continued turning each page, I realized that I was now the keeper of this treasure.  I was going to honor and love each and every page for this person who had passed away.  All of Helen’s careful gathering of recipes would live on.  I learned about Helen even though I had never met her.  I discovered that she loved fudge, rhubarb, and pies.  Or if she didn’t, then someone she loved did as there were many recipes for those items. Let’s not forget the pie crusts.  Mrs. Baker’s recipe was one of many.  Helen must have been on a mission to find the perfect pie crust recipe because there were countless.  Another recipe I kept finding over and over was soft sugar cookies.  That immediately got my attention because I have been on a search for a soft sugar cookie recipe for years that would taste like my Great-Aunt Margery’s.  My Aunt Margie never wrote down her recipe but my childhood memory of eating those soft warm cookies dusted with sugar and nutmeg while she held me in her big rocking chair has never left me.  I started gathering all the soft sugar cookie recipes of Helen’s and spread them out on the kitchen table.  I knew Aunt Margie’s were made with lard or shortening, sour cream, were soft with tiny crispy edges, and dusted with nutmeg and sugar.  And suddenly there it was, right in front in me.  It was the closest recipe I had ever seen that sounded like Aunt Margie’s.  I stopped everything I was doing and started baking.

My search is over.  One bite and I knew I had found Aunt Margie’s cookie.  I used solid Crisco although I’m pretty sure Aunt Margie used lard, which is not something I normally keep on hand.  Country bakers back in her tiny Iowa town used lard for soft cookies and for pie crust.  Mrs. Baker used it in her pie crust too.

P.S.  I plated the cookies on Aunt Margie’s Willow Ware because it miraculously survived the flood!

I forgot to mention what was in the other box!  In addition to all the recipes in the scrapbooks, Rachel also sent me bags of loose recipes.  She labeled each bag desserts, breads, main dishes, odds & ends, etc.

Bags and bags, and hours of fun.  I found one recipe that I have to show you that made me laugh in spite of the heartache of the flood:


How could I not laugh at “Maumee River Mud Cake with Flood Tide Frosting.”

Okay, I also like to think Helen has a sense of humor…


5.0 from 1 reviews
Soft Sugar Cookies like Aunt Margery's
  • ½ cup solid Crisco (or lard if you want to be really authentic!)
  • 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup sour cream (not light or fat free)
  • 2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • For sprinkling on top- 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  1. In large bowl of electric mixer, cream together shortening (or lard) and granulated sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in vanilla.
  2. Add sour cream, alternately with flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt that have been stirred together. Mix until well blended.
  3. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour or as long as overnight, if desired.
  4. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line large baking sheets with parchment paper.
  5. Drop dough by heaping tablespoonfuls onto prepared baking sheets, about 2-inches apart. Generously sprinkle some of the sugar-nutmeg mixture on each mound of dough.
  6. Bake for about 9 minutes or until cookies are just set and the edges are just starting to look golden brown. Remove from oven and let cookies stand for 1 minute on baking sheet before removing to wire rack to cool completely.
  7. Store cookies in an airtight container. They will stay soft. Great with a cold glass of milk!


Thank you, Rachel, for trusting me with Helen’s recipes.  I will treasure them forever.

Did I mention that my mother-in-law was also named Helen and was also a nurse?









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32 Responses to Nurse Helen and Her Recipes

  1. August 13, 2017 at 11:58 pm #

    So sweet!

    • August 14, 2017 at 6:26 am #

      Thank you, Dana. I wish we all could have met Helen.

  2. August 14, 2017 at 2:29 am #

    Such a wonderful story and treasure trove

    • August 14, 2017 at 6:26 am #

      Thank you, Ann. A treasure indeed – Both Helen and her books!

  3. August 14, 2017 at 4:58 am #

    What a beautiful story. In this crazy, sick world we live in, it is so wonderful that there are still caring people out there. This story melted my heart.

    • August 14, 2017 at 6:25 am #

      Thank you, Lisa. There are so many caring people in this world. Sometimes it’s easy to forget when it seems so out-of-control.

  4. August 14, 2017 at 5:00 am #

    I love this amazing story, Debbie!!!!! You were given such a wonderful treasure in these boxes and I can just imagine how you felt opening all of this up. It gave me chills reading your words and I love seeing how you sincerely appreciate every tiny detail of it all. The sugar cookie recipe alone is so special! And I love that after the sorrow and sadness that you experienced, now you are only having pure joy and excitement! I can’t wait to see what you’ll be writing about in you next blog post! xoxo

    • August 14, 2017 at 6:23 am #

      Thank you, Ronna. And I can’t wait to see what I’ll be writing about either! I take it day by day. When I sit down with the cookbooks that each person has sent, I will place them next to me and just let them “talk.” They always do. I let the spirit of that person come through the books.

  5. August 14, 2017 at 5:24 am #

    And, by the way, I just copied both recipes! I think this mud cake recipe is one that I’ve been looking for!!!! 😀

    • August 14, 2017 at 6:19 am #

      Ronna, please tell me how it turned out if you make it. I would love to hear!

  6. August 14, 2017 at 5:32 am #

    What a heartwarming post! What an honor to be the keeper of Helen’s treasured recipes. I can’t believe you found your Aunt’s cookie recipe – it was meant to be!!

    • August 14, 2017 at 6:19 am #

      Thank you, Lynne. I am so honored to be the keeper of Helen’s recipes, and will forever be grateful for finally finding that elusive childhood cookie recipe! I only wish I still had the rocking chair of my Aunt Margie’s to sit in while I ate them. It too, was lost in the flood.

  7. August 14, 2017 at 5:48 am #

    Celebrating Helen in a most loving way must make her family’s heart swell…. she lives on through all your readers. Your loss is your gain in ways unimaginable

    • August 14, 2017 at 6:15 am #

      I wish I could have met Helen. Her recipes and all the years of loving work putting them together will live on. Yes, incredible how the loss of the Culinary Cellar has already led to so much more than I could have imagined. The new Cellar will have all new stories to tell.

  8. August 14, 2017 at 7:28 am #

    Now I know Alan and I need a road trip to Illinois. I would love to look through these albums and bagged clippings. What a treasure. I think of the story of Job. how he lost everything. But God restored everything even better than before. Seems like what is happening for you sweet sister. What a blessing.

    • August 14, 2017 at 8:26 am #

      I would love to sit down at the table with you and go through the albums. What fun! Road trip anytime- you just might have to maneuver around a lot of boxes!

  9. August 14, 2017 at 8:37 am #

    What an incredible collection to inherit. Helen’s family must be happy to have her life’s collection of recipes go to such a great new home. I know it doesn’t make up for your loss, but I hope you are embracing all the love, support, and treasures coming your way in the wake.

    • August 14, 2017 at 8:50 am #

      So incredible. I keep pinching myself! The love, support, and treasures keep coming and has been beyond my wildest dreams! People are amazing.

  10. August 14, 2017 at 8:43 am #

    What a wonderful treasure! I hope it brings you hours of enjoyment and in it you find many recipes that fill the soul.

    • August 14, 2017 at 8:48 am #

      I can’t stop looking through the scrapbooks! Hours of enjoyment for sure.

  11. August 14, 2017 at 9:46 am #

    Beautiful! What a treasure!

  12. August 14, 2017 at 1:24 pm #

    Delightful story in every way; from a treasury of recipes and finding your Soft Sugar Cookies like your Aunt Margery’s, to the fun connection of a mud cake recipe, along with your mother-in-law Helen also being a nurse! I smiled while reading every word. Can’t wait for you to try that Maumee River Mud Cake with Flood Tide Frosting. You will share the recipe!?! Enjoy!

    • August 14, 2017 at 7:25 pm #

      Yes, I will go back and find the recipe for you. When I snapped the photo, I should have opened up the rest of it!

  13. August 14, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

    What a wonderful story !

  14. August 14, 2017 at 6:14 pm #

    You have found the best therapy ever. So much enjoyment in the kindness and love of strangers and friends alike. My cousin who recently passed away was the keeper of our family Lemon snap cookies from the 40’s. I inherited her cookbook with a really messy page that opens to that cookie recipe. I love it.

    Hugs and Blessings

    • August 14, 2017 at 7:27 pm #

      You are so right, Elaine. Best therapy ever! Lemon snap cookies sound delicious. Whenever I find old cookbooks, it’s the messy pages I look for first!

  15. August 15, 2017 at 3:45 am #

    This is an amazing story, Debbie. I love handwritten recipes; they seem to be a thing of the past, but there is nothing like viewing someone’s words on paper.

    • August 15, 2017 at 9:00 am #

      Nothing like it, Kim!

  16. August 15, 2017 at 12:28 pm #

    This proves that even in destruction, lightness always follows the dark. What a priceless treasure you received … and wrote about so beautifully!

    • August 15, 2017 at 12:45 pm #

      Thank you, Patrice. It’s easy to write when someone is so lovely.

  17. January 5, 2024 at 12:00 am #

    I would like to have the recipe for the Maumee River Mud Cake and Flood ..Frosting. I used to live a rocks throw to the river in Perrysburg, Ohio. I have heard of this Cake before. Wish I could tell you the story about the person who developed it. The Way Library would know about the story. Could you send it to me in my email?

    • January 6, 2024 at 10:51 pm #

      Sarah, I will be happy to send you the full recipe. I will go find it sometime this week and email it to you. I would love to know the story about it!

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