Something sweet.

Memphis readers (of a certain age, at least), come with me on memory field trip:

I’m little, maybe three years old, and I’m going to the grocery store with my mother. We park the car, walk hand-in-hand to the door, enter the store. My mother gets a shopping cart, lifts me into it so I can ride, and we head straight to…

Yes, you know it: The Seessel’s bakery case.

And what do I get at that bakery case?

Yes, you know this one, too: A ladyfinger, wrapped in a piece of bakery paper, just for me.

My mother was a Seessel’s shoppers, and Seessel’s bakery shopper in particular. While other friends reminisce about cakes from McLaurine’s, I dream of Seessel’s, because all of my birthday confections came from our neighborhood grocery – the Union Avenue store when I was little, and then the Poplar/Perkins store until I left for college. For my 18th birthday my mother took me to Justine’s but brought along a small Seessel’s cake: lemon cake, lemon filling, and a very light layer of lemon frosting. I’m sure I’ve had finer cakes since then, but that one looms large in my memory.

When the Mr. Seessel sold the stores (to Brunos, then Albertsons, then, sadly, Kroger), the bakery offerings we all loved so dearly were replaced with poor substitutes (and by “poor” I mean inedible commercial kitchen crap). Countless fans have written to the family and to former employees begging for recipes, all to no (at least public) avail.

The ladyfingers, lemon cakes, and macaroon pies … all gone. The cookies, too: cowboy chocolate chip, thumbprint, acorn, lace, and – my favorite of all – iced pinwheels.

The Commercial Appeal shared a recipe that yields cookies “identical” to Seessel’s almond macaroons, but I haven’t tried it yet. I’m told that the pastry chef at Milk Dessert Bar created a cookie that “evokes the nostalgia for” the Seessel’s acorn cookies (almond-flavored butter cookies sandwiched together with raspberry filling, one end of the sandwich dipped in a chocolate coating and covered with sprinkles), but I haven’t sampled them myself. And the “Delish” cookie, the original one, from Sweet Lala’s Bakery is a pretty close cousin to the pinwheel cookie, except for its not being a pinwheel cookie. Other than those three treats, I’ve not found any other reincarnations.

So, last summer, in a fit of pandemic pique, I embarked on quest to re-create an abstract, and by now quite distant), taste sensation: Seessel’s French Pinwheel Cookies.

Having consulted all local cookbooks (Junior League, Women’s Exchange, etc.) for a local look-a-like recipe and having done a quick online search for “Seessel’s iced raspberry pinwheel cookie (because I never give up hope), I decided to start with Maida Heatter, because it seemed the most logical place to start a cookie recipe experiment. The pinwheel cookie recipe in her Book of Great Cookies wasn’t iced or raspberry-filled, but I knew both the base dough recipe and the directions would be flawless.

Next, I went to Dorie Greenspan (who has credited Heatter as a source of inspiration). Greenspan’s date-nut pinwheels were a closer cousin, and I knew her recipe would also be flawless.

Third stop: Joy of Cooking (section on icebox cookies). Fourth (and fifth) stop: Martha Stewart (coconut-chocolate pinwheel cookies, and fig pinwheels).

Back to the internet, where the only recipe that looked worth exploring was at Taste of Home (raspberry-nut pinwheels).

(Side note: Had I tried search string variations, I would have found these raspberry swirl cookies from Wilton, but I didn’t, at least not at the time. In the end, the Wilton recipe is pretty close to the one I landed on in my experimenting. So if you want to skip the rest of this and head straight to baking, that Wilton link will take you to a good place.)

After reading through all of those recipes I decided to do what any nerd would do: Make a written chart.

FlourBaking
Powder
Baking
Soda
SaltSugarButterVanillaEggsOven
Temp
Cook
Time
Maida
Heatter
1 3/4 c1/2 tsp1/4 tsp3/4 c1/2 c135012 min
Dorie
Greenspan
1 3/4 c1/4 tsp1/8 tsp1/4 tsp1 c
(brown)
1/2 c135013 min
Joy of
Cooking
1 1/2 c1 1/2 tsp1/4 tsp1 c1/2 c1 tsp14008 min
Martha
Stewart -1
2 1/2 c1 tsp3/4 c1 c1 tsp135015-20 min
Martha
Stewart -2
2 1/2 c1/2 tsp1 tsp1/2 c ea.
white &
brown
1 c235015 min
Taste of
Home
2 c1 tsp1 c1/2 c1 tsp13759-12 min
1st
Experiment
21/2 tsp1/4 tsp1 c1 tsp1 tsp +
1/2 tsp
almond
extract
135012 min
2nd
Experiment
23/4 tsp1/4 tsp1 c1 tsp1 tsp +
1/2 tsp
almond
extract
135012 min
Dough for pinwheel cookies

To mix and roll the dough, I followed Heatter’s instructions from the Book of Great Cookies (p. 152): Sift flour, baking powder, and salt; cream butter and sugar, then add egg and vanilla and almond extracts; gradually add dry ingredients to the butter, mixing until just combined. Flatten the dough between two sheets of waxed paper and then roll into a square of dough that is uniformly of desired thickness (more than 1/4 inch but less than 1/2 inch, as judged by my imprecise visual estimate).

I spread a very thin layer of seedless raspberry jam on top of the dough, leaving a little bit of dough open (for sealing the edge after rolling), and then used the wax paper to roll the dough into a log which I then wrapped in parchment paper (twisting the ends) and put in the freezer overnight.

I sliced the frozen dough into cookies (again in that 1/4-1/2 inch range), and baked them on a Silpat-mat-covered baking sheet. How far apart did I space those cookies as I placed them on the Silpat? Hell if I know. Far enough that they wouldn’t run into one another if they spread a little. (That’s the best I can do; I’m certainly no Maida Heatter.) Did I rotate the baking sheets, halfway through cooking? Probably, but I didn’t write that detail in my notes.

While the cookies were cooling I whipped up a batch of Perfect Vanilla Icing from Sally’s Baking Addiction (I added almond extract – also heated the icing so it would set more quickly, as indicated in her directions). I drizzled the icing to coat each cookie and let them set at room temperature for a couple of hours. Did I wait to try one? Of course not. Were they identical to the cookies of my childhood? No; but they were very good and close enough to satisfy the urgency of the experiment.

In an unscientific side-by-side taste test, I preferred the texture of the cookie that had slightly less baking powder, but the difference was almost imperceptible. I stored the cookies in airtight containers. They were better the second day and stale by the fourth.

I intended to run another round of experiments, one using lard instead of butter in the cookie dough (something I might still try, one day) because I don’t remember such a strong butter flavor in the Seessel’s iced pinwheels. Then again, my childhood palate was different – and my childhood was a long time ago.

I also intended to write about this little experiment when it was still fresh in my mind, in September/October 2020. But it was too much to fit into a monthly digest, and I didn’t have it in me at the time to write a longer, dedicated post.

I’ve had some time to think, then, about this entire experience, my quest to replicate a celebrated, much-loved, much-missed cookie from a store that’s been closed for decades now. And I wonder: If we who grew up enjoying these bakery treasures had the full Seessel’s bakery case at our disposal, right now, would any of our beloved treasures taste the same as in our memory? If we could erase our memories and taste each confection for the first time, would we be drawn the same way to the same things? Would we like them at all, now that we’ve had so many other wild and wonderful things?

Was it event the cookies and cakes we loved or the experience of the store? Perhaps it is all, for me, just deep nostalgia, rooted in memories of walking hand-in-hand with my mother to get that delicate delight, the free ladyfinger.

Today is Sunday, so I’ve spent the day doing a little of this, little of that – write for a while; putter in the kitchen; walk the dogs; and so on. In one of my kitchen putterings, when the bulk of this post was written in rough form, I had both pinwheel cookies and rosemary cashews (the object of today’s kitchen work) fresh on my mind.

I started thinking: What a sweet/savory pinwheel taste like, with salted rosemary cashews (finely chopped) and a companion jam as the filling?

And that is the sign that I’ve gotten what I needed from this lesson, and I’m now ready to move on.


This post is 6/56 in a self-directed challenge to write something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.

2 thoughts on “Something sweet.

  1. This post made me a little teary-eyed. My mother is a Memphis native, so I grew up going to Memphis to visit my grandparents. And no trip to Memphis was complete without a trip to the Poplar/Perkins store and to the bakery. Every Thanksgiving, we ate buttercrust rolls from Seessel’s, and I’ve never been able to find a replacement that came anywhere close to them. When I grew up and went to college at Rhodes College (and then stayed to work after college), I frequented the Union Avenue store, just across from my Presbyterian church. As always, the bakery was a must-visit. When they sold out, it was never the same. I will never stop missing those buttercrust rolls, either.

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