And a history of public-school lunch ladies who made it great.

If you grew up in Chicago from the 1960s to the 1980s and went to public school, your memories of the cafeteria food are mostly not good ones. From the sad, soggy pizza squares with weird pellets of "sausage" to fried Spam on mashed potatoes, it was something of a culinary wasteland. But there was one thing that every Chicago Public Schools cafeteria made that was actually fantastic, and that was the famous butter cookie. Kids waited all week for butter cookie day, and there was some serious horse-trading happening all over the lunchroom when they made their appearance; those butter cookies were serious collateral.

The CPS Butter Cookie

The CPS butter cookie was a simple cookie, flavored only with vanilla. It had a nice crispy edge and a tender crumbly texture in the middle and was instantly identified by the three-finger press each cook (I'm not sure the CPS had designated bakers, if you get my drift) made on the top of the dough. Every maker had his or her own flair for the finger marks: Some just made gentle divots for a wavy appearance, some bore down and created three mini valleys with two crispy ridges. Some used a closed fist to punch down the cookies, some a flat slap, but every cookie proclaimed its CPS identity with the three-finger stamp.

With a butter and sugar content outside today's nutritional guidelines, the CPS butter cookie has left the cafeteria, but remains a cult classic and a nostalgic anchor. Now, though, with a little tinkering, I've recreated the magic for not only my fellow Chicagoans of a certain age, but for every household that loves a good butter cookie (and let's face it, who doesn't?).  

I've tweaked the cookie's basic shortbread style to bring it up to date (and, in my opinion, make it even tastier). I replaced vanilla extract with vanilla paste, which I think gives a more intense vanilla flavor and I love how the little seeds look in the cookie. I have added sea salt, which balances the sweetness a bit. And since I always preferred the cookies with more defined finger marks, I chill the cookies before baking so that they don't spread too much and lose that definition. They freeze well, both as dough and baked cookies, so this batch makes two dozen, but you can halve the recipe or double it without a problem. 

Butter Cookies
Credit: Courtesy Crockett Cookies

CPS Butter Cookies

Makes about 2 dozen

1 pound unsalted butter, softened

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons vanilla paste (you can sub extract if you like)

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

4 cups all-purpose flour

1. Heat oven to 375° and prepare 2 large sheet pans with parchment paper.

2. In the bowl of your stand mixer beat the butter and sugar with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and blend in. Mix the salt into the flour, then add to the mixer and beat on medium until combined.

3. Using a large ice cream scoop or a large spoon, make balls of dough about the size of a small tangerine and place two inches apart on your cookie sheets. Using three fingers, press down on top of the dough to flatten, leaving the finger marks on the cookie. Place the cookies on their sheet into the fridge and chill for at least an hour. Bake 15-18 minutes until lightly golden brown on the edges. Cool completely on a rack on the pan then transfer to an airtight container for up to a week or freeze for up to three months.

Want to store for fresh-baked at another time? Freeze the prepped cookies in a single layer on a sheet pan, and then transfer to a zip top bag. Bake from frozen, adding a few minutes to the baking time.

Not in the mood to bake? Chicagoan Cheryl Crockett is here to help

All hail Chicagoan Cheryl Crockett (above), who brought back the CPS "lunchroom-style" cookie in all its splendor and helms Crockett Cookies, which not only services happy locals in stores like Whole Foods and Walgreens, but will ship to you! For more information and to order Crockett Cookies, go here