Kelly Simmons has fond memories of her elementary school days in Baltimore.
Images of children riding bikes and playing outside in the 1980s are interspersed with a strong food memory: Linden’s butter crunch cookies.
They came in a yellow box, three to a pack. Everyone at her Edmondson Village elementary school, Rognel Heights No. 89, would count their change at lunchtime to make sure they had 35 cents for a pack. It was the only food sold in schools at that time.
“Back then, that was like the ‘in’ thing, too,” she says. “‘Oh you have money to buy cookies? Oh, you’re in,’— so, that was a big deal.”
Years later, Simmons would recreate the recipe and become a source of nostalgia for the next generation.
Kelly Simmons, “Aunt Kelly,” is the owner and baker of Aunt Kelly’s Cookies, a homemade cookie venture in Mount Vernon.
Simmons decided to name her store Aunt Kelly’s Cookies to pay homage to the familial connections of her past and to recognize her own connections to the future—for two generations, she’s always been “Aunt Kelly.”
“When I was starting down this journey of being a baker, bringing those sweet memories that I received from my grandmother to my young nieces and nephews, they called me Aunt Kelly,” she says. “And that was pretty special to me.”
Every day, she comes in two hours before opening to make her butter crunch cookies from scratch.
Simmons says they’re soft, buttery and moist while also still retaining a crunch like a caramel candy.
She’s been making them since 1999 when she and her grandmother, through lots of trial and error, managed to mimic the famous recipe from her school days. And they weren’t the only ones. Another shop had done it back in the 80s, but when the shop changed bakers, so did the taste of the cookies.
“Definitely mixing up cookie dough, you’ve got to be consistent,” Simmons explains. “If it changes, it definitely changes the cookie.”
Consistency was also important to Simmons’ grandmother. She wrote everything down and would say, “You can’t go by a pinch and a touch. No, you’ve got to be specific,” Simmons says.
Because Simmons’ grandmother’s parents were from Alabama, her grandmother also had a strong foundation of Southern scratch cooking.
It’s something Simmons wanted to pass on to her relatives.
She says while her grandmother didn’t take shortcuts in her cooking, Simmons’ own era is more comfortable with processed, fast or ready-made foods.
It’s enticing but, she says, “You’re trying to look for that same taste and you don’t get it.”
When Aunt Kelly’s Cookies delivered homemade quality, it resonated with people.
In addition to the butter crunch cookies, Simmons has flavors including oatmeal raisin, walnut chocolate chip, snickerdoodle and butter pecan. People are constantly asking for seasonal flavors, she says. The butter pecan was a monthly flavor she had to put on the menu permanently because it was in such high demand.
On her busiest day, she can sell up to 1,500 cookies.
Simmons and her small team—including one of her nephews—use a hand scooper for dough so that cookies have that charmingly imperfect homemade shape. Sometimes they will freeze some dough for the next day because they stop baking two hours before closing.
In the morning, you can follow the smell as it wafts down the street. It’s the aroma that has drawn in strangers and regulars alike who have followed her since she was first taking her cookies around to car dealerships and businesses in 2018.
They recognized the label, which she’d kept the same when she first opened the shop, and tracked her down, Simmons says.
Selling her butter crunch cookies was never something she thought of doing, but it became clear when she worked as an educator at Paul Mitchell cosmetology school that they were in high demand.
“It was the students. I’ll give them that credit,” Simmons jokes. “I would make (the cookies) and put them in these little Ziplock bags. They would meet me in the morning at my locker. ‘Miss Kelly, do you have some cookies today?'”
Simmons knew if she was going to sell them, it would need to be in Baltimore.
“We all had the same experience,” she says, noting that through the generations in Baltimore, she had always heard everybody she knew talking about Linden’s butter crunch cookies.
Although she’d heard talk of the cookies in other places she’s lived, “no one has talked about it like Baltimore City,” she says.
She knew memories of them for everyone else would be as strong as they were for her because they were tied to food.
She’d had a similar experience when she came to her grandmother to help her figure out the butter crunch recipe. Immediately, she was taken back to a time when she was young, cooking with her in New Jersey.
Although she didn’t remember many details, she remembered the feeling.
“I just remember it was happy,” she says. Around 5 years old, you don’t remember much, but “you remember the feeling in your heart.”
Now Simmons can share part of that feeling with her great-niece, Yari Smith, and great-nephew, Brayden Nelson, both 5 years old. Although they might not remember much later, they will remember the joy they felt, she says.
They’re at that age where they want to help with everything, she adds. Simmons lets them come into the shop to see how the cookies are made and do small tasks such as pouring flour into the mix and greeting customers. Whenever they do something on their own, they are proud of themselves.
The first thing they always ask when they’re on the phone with her is “when can I come back to work?” she says.
Although Simmons regrets that her grandmother died before she could see Aunt Kelly’s Cookies come into being, she says passing things on is what families do for each other. Her grandmother passed on her knowledge to her, and now she will be able to do the same.
She’s already done it with her nieces and nephews, whom she baked with when they were young. Now, she says, they say they will only eat her cookies—no one else’s.
Aunt Kelly’s Sugar Cookies
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar together. Mix in the egg, vanilla and almond extract. Add the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Cover bowl and refrigerate cookie batter for at least one hour.
Using a 1-inch cookie scooper, create cookie balls and roll them into the granulated sugar topping.
Place cookies onto parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until the edges are golden.
Remove baking sheets from oven and transfer cookies to a cooling rack. Once the cookies have cooled, enjoy them!