I love old things: old clothes, inherited jewelry, old books, pictures, letters, and of course recipes. Recipes are a special kind of inheritance. They pass among family members, across generations, and through history. Special recipes become legendary, especially when the written record is lost. The dish may acquire amazing qualities in memory that outlive it’s physical presence on the family table.
These cookies are part of my culinary family tree. If I have my stories, grandmothers, and cookie legends right, these were my grandfather’s favorite cookies. My father and grandfather always raved about a certain ginger cookie that my great-grandmother used to make. She was quite a baker. I also hear she made seriously over-the-top amazing cinnamon rolls and the kitchen table was covered with her marble slab for candy making long after she was gone. I remember standing in that kitchen listening to my parents and grandparents try to remember what the cookies were like and figure out where the recipe was. My grandmother always swore she had it somewhere but could never find it.
This is what they said about the cookies: They were like ginger snaps…but not snappy. They were soft. They were also like molasses cookies…but not the dense, sugary molasses cookies you would expect. The cookies had white frosting. I think I also remember my parents and grandparents saying the recipe was not my great-grandmother’s. It actually came from my grandfather’s family but his mother in law made the cookies because he liked them so much (I might be making this part up, memory’s a bit fuzzy!).
Anyway, a cousin of my dad’s contacted me a few weeks ago and said she had some old family recipes I might want to try. Of course I wanted to try them! She copied the recipes and shipped them off the old-fashioned way. When it arrived, I opened the envelope with excited anticipation, hoping it would contain the legendary ginger cookies. They were in there, along with several gems from my great aunt and a version of my grandmother’s cornbread dressing. The recipe in question was titled “Ginger cookies from RA”. What’s RA? It also indicates that they came from the kitchen of Mrs. McKay in Duluth. Who was Mrs. McKay?
At first, I was amazed at the simplicity of these cookies. No eggs, no milk, not much in the say of spices? Then I realized this was probably a depression-era recipe crafted to be delicious without certain luxury ingredients. I set out to make a half-batch of my cookie inheritance. Finally I would get to taste them for myself!
The verdict: I must say, they are good. They’re definitely different. Lee’s dad took a bite of one with a quizzical look. He wasn’t sure what kind of cookie they were but he guessed molasses. I’d say that sums my family ginger cookies up pretty well: We call them ginger cookies but they’re not very gingery. If you had to guess, you’d say molasses. They’re soft and cake-like. There’s butter in there, and spices.
Two details I have questions about:
First: the icing – the recipe was very vague about how to make the icing. It definitely calls for powdered sugar and it’s cooked on the stove. The card said to add vanilla and cream and that the frosting was always creamy and good. So how am I supposed to re-create this frosting? I used a simple powdered sugar and water cookie icing but it’s pretty boring.
Second: According to the recipe I have, “grandmother” cut the cookies with an oblong cookie cutter. Oblong? I envision an oval but i’ve never seen a cookie or a cookie cutter shaped like that. Where does one find an oblong cookie cutter?
At least I have some things to work on!
If you like ginger cookies or molasses cookies you will love these cookies. They may not be able to decide what they are but they’re certainly delicious!
Ginger Cookies (The full recipe. I made half)
1 cup lard (I used butter)
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup molasses
1 cup hot water
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
7 cups flour (give or take)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
The recipe I received doesn’t actually include directions so I guessed on how things go together.
Cream together the butter, sugar, and molasses in a large bowl. (I had issues with this since I don’t have a mixer…woe is me!)
In a separate bowl, sift the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt together.
Add the hot water to the sugar mixture.
Add the flour mixture to the sugar and water, stirring as you do.
Mix the whole thing up into a nice ball of dough.
The recipe said to roll the dough out and cut it with a cookie cutter but I opted for something simpler since I didn’t have a proper cookie cutter.
Pinch off hunks of dough, roll them between your palms to form balls (bigger than a Whopper but smaller than a ping-pong ball).
Place balls on an oiled cookie sheet or silicone mat/parchment paper covered cookie sheet.
Flatten balls with your fingers till they’re about the size you want the cookies to be. They don’t spread out much at all but the poof up.
Bake at 325 for 15 minutes.
Allow to cool slightly, then ice with your favorite cookie icing (something that hardens when it dries). I just mixed about 2 cups of powdered sugar with 3 tablespoons of water and it made way more icing than I needed. I also left a few cookies un-iced to see what they were like plain. They’re great, of course, so feel free to skip the icing!