Barbara Erkkila’s Oatmeal Macaroons
Living in Folly Cove, driving Route 127 through Lanesville and Bayview over and over, not a day passes that I don’t think of the spry, intelligent journalist Barbara Erkkila. I think of her clenching her fists, and punching the air with a frail arm, declaring, “I love a story!”
She died in 2013 at 95. The last time I saw her, in 2012, note cards were spread out on a small table in her condominium. She was working on her next book.
I first heard Erkkila’s name at the Bayview Methodist Church’s annual Nisu sale. When I asked for a recipe, one of the many women in the church basement said solemnly, “You should talk to Barbara Erkkila.”
“Barbara Erkkila? Can you tell me how to get in touch with her?” A reverential silence fell over the room, shiny loaves of the cinnamon-sugar coated traditional Finnish Nisu braids rising in pans all around. The braids are meant to resemble a Finnish girl’s braided hair. The fluffy bread’s signature black cardamom seed flecks give this bread a heady Proustian fragrance from the rising phase to the toasting.
When Finns first immigrated to Lanesville, it’s said that the natives wondered what was the early morning hammering they heard from these recent arrivals’ homes: Finnish mothers were hammering open the cardamom pods.
“Barbara’s recipe is the best,” someone from the Bayview Methodist Church repeated, still not letting on who Barbara was or why she had such Nisu prowess, and still not giving up the recipe that had produced this room full of Finnish bread. Eventually Connie Mason gave me a Nisu recipe, but even she vaguely suggested Erkkila’s was better.
When I finally met Barbara Erkkila a couple of years later, our conversation skipped Nisu, and spanned her long career as journalist for the Gloucester Daily Times and The Boston Globe, including an award-winning story on the first Maine shrimp landing. We covered her definitive histories of the Cape Ann quarry industry and Lanesville, Hammers on Stone, a history of Cape Ann granite, and Village at Lane’s Cove, respectively. She told me about the New York engineers reconstructing the opening to the Holland Tunnel calling her, and asking how to match the stone originally quarried in Lanesville.
“That stone comes from Blood Ledge quarry,” Erkkila said without pause. I was in awe — silent on the other end of the line — that someone could know exactly the quarry from which a piece of granite was taken.
Erkkila told me the story of how she measured the Lane’s Cove breakwater opening and reported those numbers to the Coast Guard, because she had been horrified to learn that, although they brought ships back and forth through that breakwater regularly, the Coast Guard didn’t know its width. (It’s 52 feet. Erkkila told me).
She was neighbors with all the Lanesville artists — Walker Hancock, the Manships, Leon Kroll. When Robert Frost came to sit for Walker Hancock who was carving the poet’s bust for the National Portrait Library, Erkkila baked his birthday cake — a white cake with white frosting.
When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, igniting fear of invasion, Erkkila’s response was to learn their language. She studied Russian at Boston University, and in 1960 traveled to Yalta on a steamer, where she swam in the Black Sea. When she presented a slide show of the trip at the Lanesville Congregational Church, so many people turned out — news from Russia was a rarity in those days — the minister wished he had sold tickets.
Perhaps the Erkkila’s most defining detail is her favorite vehicle: “My family only drove Fords and Harleys. There is no other motorcycle.”
When I finally asked Erkkila about that prized loaf of Finnish bread, she said, “Nisu? Oh, I don’t know ... .” It seems Erkkila had opened so many doors since her Nisu-making years that she had almost forgotten the woman the ladies in the Methodist Church remembered so fondly.
When I went to see her in her last year, she looked beautiful in a long tailored skirt and a bright pink sweater, a Christmas brooch pinned to it. She knew I would ask, and this time she had a recipe for me, a “macaroon” recipe clipped years ago from a 1927 Royal Baking Powder Company cookbook entitled Anyone Can Bake. When I finally made them, and tasted them warm from the oven, I just laughed. After all these years of “not cooking,” Erkkila still knew not just a good recipe, but a GREAT recipe. The cookies are amazing! Not really a macaroon at all, but a thin, crisp lace cookie studded with earthy oatmeal. They have a “snap!” that could crack air. They are ridiculously easy to throw together, and gluten free.
I didn’t know Barbara Erkkila for long, and cannot even say I knew her well, but her curiosity and passion — for the fish houses, for the derricks, for memories of jumping on the rocks with her sister when they were kids — has ever since enriched my vision of Cape Ann.
I will always imagine her petite frame in something tailored and a little bit stylish, strolling down into Lane’s Cove, cheerfully greeting the men in the fish houses there, looking for that next story.
I served these recently with homemade ice cream, but good, old store-bought vanilla would be great. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We dare not trust our wit for making our house pleasant to our friend, and so we buy ice cream.”
Watch this space for Erkkila’s Nisu recipe.
[Makes 3 dozen]
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon melted shortening
3/4 teaspoon salt
21/2 cups rolled oats
2 teaspoons Royal Baking Powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Mix sugar with shortening.
Add salt, eggs, rolled oats, baking powder and vanilla. Mix thoroughly.
Drop about half teaspoon to each macaroon on greased tins, allowing space for spreading.
Bake about 10 minutes in moderate oven at 350 degrees.