Thanksgiving traditions old and new

Baking mini pumpkin pies to deliver to those we are thankful for

Like so many others this will be the first Thanksgiving I’ve ever celebrated without my family. For most of my childhood I traveled with my parents and siblings from Chicago to Tucson, Arizona to be with my dad’s extended family for the holiday. My Great Aunt Liz, our family’s matriarch, held court from her kitchen for several days while up to fifty members of our family streamed in and out of the ranch style house. In the days leading up to the holiday, we noshed on a very non-kosher honey baked ham, prepped the turkey, put finishing touches on desserts and most importantly gossiped about whichever family member hadn’t made it that year, or at least wasn’t in the room in that moment. 

We exclusively used the back door of the house which led to Aunt Liz’s artist studio because that’s where the pies would sit cooling, the smell irresistible. My Aunt would start baking weeks in advance of the holiday and the extra freezers in the studio were stuffed full of family favorite desserts like lemon bars and her famous chocolate turtle cookies, a shortbread layered with caramel, nuts and chocolate (also known as Grandma Syl Cookies). Walking through the studio also meant sneaking the cookies which are even better frozen, hopping no one would notice. 

Aunt Liz lived to be over 100 years old and passed peacefully several years ago. With her passing we lost our anchor to that side of the family and demands from more immediate family members kept us home in Chicago for most Thanksgivings after that. My parents started hosting at our house in the suburbs and while it was a smaller affair, we never missed a holiday together. The year I studied abroad, my family met me in Geneva, Switzerland and hosted my closest friends to a fondue dinner at our favorite local restaurant. 

While the holiday itself was filled with standard Thanksgiving fare, Grandma Syl Cookies were always served. What I remember the most more than the food is the warmth and comfort of coming home to my family. Having moved away for college on the east coast where I eventually settled and started my own family, the annual trip back to Chicago was a non-negotiable. My brother settled on the west coast and Thanksgiving became the one holiday we knew we’d always be together along with my sister who planted her family in Chicago. 

The closeness of my family knows no geographical limits, despite being spread across the country we manage to communicate on a daily basis (multiple times a day) over phone, text and Facetime. My siblings and my own kids are as close to each other as if we were all living in the same town. For my children, this will also be their first Thanksgiving without their own extended family. 

Over the years we have all learned to accept that life itself can be completely unpredictable and as much as we find comfort in family traditions sometimes we are forced to embrace new ones as well. Our family unit was shattered when my mom passed away 9 years ago at the age of 60 from cancer not long after the Thanksgiving holiday. I never could have imagined that five years ago on Thanksgiving we’d be celebrating my dad’s marriage to a wonderful new woman and that our family unit would grow exponentially with the addition of three step siblings. My dad and stepmom started hosting Thanksgiving for our blended family at their house together and suddenly a new tradition was born. 

Once again, this Thanksgiving we will all be forced to embrace new traditions. For my own children, I am trying to use the holiday as an opportunity to teach them about community and even though our immediate world has been shrunken by COVID, we still have so much to be thankful for. This week I gathered my daughter’s home school pod at our house for a cooking lesson. We baked mini pumpkin pies and brownies to share with our immediate community as a way to give thanks. We’re also collecting items to donate to Gowanus Mutual Aid, an incredible grassroots organization helping families in need in our own neighborhood in Brooklyn. 

I also baked three batches of Grandma Syl Cookies with my daughters and sent them off to my dad, sister and brother so they’d have them by Thanksgiving. It’s a comfort knowing sometimes just the taste of a familiar recipe can make you feel close to family. As sad as it makes me that my newborn son only knows my family through Facetime, the value of family my own parents instilled in us growing up has taught us that despite being forced to stay physically apart the closeness we feel is stronger than any global pandemic. 

Passing on the tradition of baking Grandma Syl Cookies for Thanksgiving with my daughter

Grandma Syl Cookies

  • Servings: 25 small bars
  • Print

These recipes are best enjoyed frozen. My Grandma Syl and Great Aunt Liz always had a batch waiting in their freezer for our visits.


    For Cookie Layer:
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
  • For the Caramel and Chocolate Layers

  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup (or more) semi-sweet chocolate chips


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with butter.
  2. Make the cookie layer: Place the flour, butter, and brown sugar into a mixing bowl. Mix with your hands until it forms a sandy dough. Place this mixture onto the bottom of the baking dish and spread into an even layer. Sprinkle the walnut pieces over the dough evenly and set aside.
  3. Make the caramel: Heat 1 cup of butter and ⅔ cup brown sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook the mixture until it bubbles, about 6 to 8 minutes. Continue to cook for another 3 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture thickens and is a caramel color. Pour the caramel evenly over the walnuts in the baking dish. Transfer the baking dish into the oven and bake for about 18 minutes, until the cookie layer is cooked through.
  4. Remove the baking dish from the oven. Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top. The chocolate will melt.Using an off-set spatula or butter knife, spread it into an even layer. Let cool. Cut into 1 ½ to 2 inch squares and serve or wrap well and keep in the freezer. Consider hiding these cookies, they won’t last!

Grandma Syl Cookies are best eaten frozen, but hide them deep in the freezer otherwise they might disappear!

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