TASTE BUDS

Crowd-sourced molasses cookies reveal very old techniques

Posted June 07, 2011, at 11:36 a.m.

Twenty-five of you readers sent recipes, sometimes even two or three at a time, for the pillowy, soft molasses cookies I was hankering for. What a wonderful response! Of course, sorting through all of them took a bit of doing; then trying the likely possibilities kept our island 4-H club in meeting refreshments for a couple of weeks. Just talking about them prompted Peggy Tracy to try a recipe she has had “a very long time.”

“Your saying that you were looking for a molasses cookie recipe made me want to bake and eat molasses cookies,” she wrote.

It must be catching.

Several of you had very old family recipes. Sonia Curtis of Milbridge sent a 100-year-old one. Gayle Crowley shared her grandmother’s recipe. JoAnn Brown contributed one from her Eastport great-grandmother Mattie. Greta Choquet in Bangor sent one from an old “Watkins’ Hearthside Cookbook” her mother gave her when she married in the 1950s. Christine Roberts from Belmont sent her grandmother’s recipe; since her gram passed away 20 years ago at age 101, that recipe reached well into the past. From Bangor, JoAnn Wick’s recipe came from her stay-at-home mom who baked desserts for six children. Cynthia Adams in Perry obtained her recipe in 1956 from her mother-in-law who acquired it from her mother. Ruth Thurston of Machias sent her mother-in-law’s recipe, a favorite of her husband’s; the older Mrs. Thurston acquired it from an early Extension Service leader, Jean Dow.

I’m always impressed at how much recipe swapping goes on among friends, neighbors and co-workers. From Exeter, Pam Clark’s recipe came from a brother-in-law who got it in turn from Alice Stubbs of Charlestown. Pam Doiron in Bangor sent along a recipe from a former co-worker, Gail Stubbs in Hermon. Cynthia Rump from Bangor picked up a recipe from her friend Vivian, saying, “They are the best.” A high compliment indeed.

Then, like me, there are the inveterate clippers and copiers who find good-sounding things in cookbooks and newspapers. Jean Arbo cut one recipe out of the Bangor Daily News in 1989, so it was probably one of Brownie Schrumpf’s; she also sent one from a friend’s mother-in-law obtained fifty years ago. Sheila Meyer found hers in the Lewiston Daily Sun in the 1970s. Patricia Woolston in Manchester found her recipe in an Eastern Star cookbook. Jean Fardelman got hers from an old 1950s-era McCall’s cookbook.

Most recipes called for one cup of molasses, one cup of sugar, one cup of shortening, usually melted, four teaspoons of baking soda, an egg and an average of 4-5 cups of flour. Ginger and cinnamon were the constant spice choices, and cloves sneaked into at least half of the recipes. Several recipes suggested ½-cup of hot water for liquid, though sour milk had its adherents, and some called for hot coffee. Sometimes the cookies were dropped, sometimes rolled lightly and cut.

Hazel Varisco from Stonington uses a recipe from the Cross Village cookbook when, she wrote, “I have time for these to chill and roll out.”

Hearkening to the past are the instructions common in the later 1800s that I saw in some recipes saying to dissolve the baking soda in hot water. A recipe from Irma Detour in Bangor specified this method, as did Lillian Mayo’s from Dover-Foxcroft. Patricia Schreiner in Presque Isle dissolves baking soda in hot coffee for hers. Cream of tartar with baking soda also is an old-fashioned way to raise cookies, and Elaine Lowell in Prospect suggested Maine’s own product, Bakewell Cream.

Mary Hawkins from Machias suggested “add-ins” like chopped walnuts, raisins or chopped crystallized ginger. Jane Basely of Ellsworth, who used to bake molasses cookies for her sons when they still lived at home, wrote that she sometimes used dark and light raisins. Some of us have to watch our calories and fats, so Pat Wilking in Eddington recommended substituting a ½-cup of canola oil, plus ½-cup of applesauce for the cup of shortening. Of course, in early Maine, that shortening would have been lard, and more recently a hydrogenated vegetable oil. I used part home-rendered lard from our own pigs and part butter.

Speaking of shortening, Pat Cokinis of Rockport cautioned us to add only enough flour to the other ingredients to make a firm ball and then add the melted shortening after the flour. You can use that technique if you wish with the following recipe. To ensure the cookie’s softness, Trisha in Prospect adds a slice of bread to the cookie container overnight. She said, “I make these every week for our musical jams at the senior center in Bucksport. They seem to like them very much.”

Trish’s recipe, which follows, is very similar, almost identical in fact, to several of those that you all offered.

Molasses Cookies

Makes 5–6 dozen 3-inch cookies

1 cup of molasses

1 cup white sugar

1 cup melted shortening

1 egg

4 teaspoons of baking soda

2/3-cup hot water or coffee

1 teaspoon vanilla

5 cups flour

½-teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon of ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½-1 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease baking sheets. Mix together the molasses, sugar, shortening and egg. Dissolve the baking soda in the hot water and add to the sugar and shortening mixture. Add the vanilla. Sift the dry ingredients together and beat them into the mixture. Drop on a greased baking sheet, allowing some space for them to spread. Bake for 12 minutes or until puffed and firm. Remove to a rack to cool.

 

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