James Beard's Recipe Box: Molasses Cookies
October 26, 2010
To celebrate yesterday's reissue of James Beard’s American Cookery, we have invited cookbook authors, food writers, and chefs to prepare one of its recipes. In the coming weeks we will publish these writers’ reflections on cooking from one of the most important works in the history of our country’s cuisine. We hope their essays inspire you to do the same. First up is freelance writer and cookbook author Lauren Chattman. Stay tuned for dispatches from Mollie Katzen, Dorie Greenspan, Jennifer McLagan, and more. – JBF Editors Just when I was thinking that it was time to fill the cookie jar with something old-fashioned for fall, James Beard’s American Cookery arrived in the mail. Paging through the book, my eye focused on page 721, a recipe for Molasses Cookies: “a standard item for cookie jars or crocks in young America.” I have my own molasses cookie recipe, a favorite that I return to year after year because I love their chewy flavor and spicy texture, and I usually have all of the ingredients on hand. Beard’s recipe mirrored mine in its spices and proportions of flour, salt, and baking soda. But the differences were striking. I was surprised by the leanness of Beard’s recipe. He used one stick of butter for four cups of flour, while my recipe calls for a whopping three sticks for the same amount of flour. I also add four eggs to my dough, while Beard’s recipe is eggless. My recipe is a lot sweeter, containing two cups of sugar and a half cup of molasses. Beard’s recipe has a mere half cup of sugar and one cup of molasses. I felt profligate in my wanton use of rich and costly ingredients, and realized that baking my own cookies instead of buying them at the bakery or supermarket wasn’t as thrifty as I had imagined. Hoping to feel virtuous, I mixed a batch of Beard’s cookie dough. It was stiff and slightly crumbly, but easy to roll into a 1/4-inch-thick sheet. (My soft dough, with its extra fat, must be dropped by tablespoonfuls onto a cookie sheet.) Beard doesn’t specify a size, but says that early bakers tended to bake very large cookies, so I used my three-inch biscuit cutter, giving me 24 rounds. The suggested baking time is 8 to 15 minutes. I baked mine for the conservative 8 minutes; they were crisp, but not hard. I can’t imagine baking the cookies for the full 15 minutes, but I’m guessing that this suggestion is a nod to early Americans, who probably liked their cookies very dry and long-keeping, like bread sticks or biscotti. Since they contained the same spices as my own molasses cookies—ginger, cinnamon, and cloves—Beard’s had a familiar flavor that I really enjoyed. To my surprise, I also appreciated their spare quality. With an afternoon cup of tea, I could enjoy several at a time without feeling any regret (a feeling I’m all too familiar with from over-indulging in buttery drop cookies). Before I called it a day, I wondered if one final economy would make Beard’s old-fashioned molasses cookies even better. Beard suggested lard as an alternative to butter, and it just so happened that I had some high-quality leaf lard in my refrigerator. I had witnessed with interest (and just a little skepticism) as recipes for bacon–chocolate chip or bacon–peanut butter cookies enjoyed their 15 minutes of Internet fame—could good old-fashioned lard update James Beard’s cookies with a contemporary meaty flavor? I made another batch of dough, melting the lard with the molasses before adding it to the other ingredients, as directed. As soon as it was warmed, the lard gave off a distinctly bacon-y aroma. The dough itself had a porky smell to it, even after the addition of the spices, and there was no mistaking the scent of meat emanating from the oven as the cookies baked. My husband thought they tasted “interesting.” My children utterly rejected them. I had a couple of ounces of lard left, and with my newfound sense of thrift, I wasn’t about to throw it away. I decided to try the cookies a third time, creaming the solid fat with the molasses and sugar rather than melting it. With this method, the previous telltale aroma vanished. The porky flavor was also absent. In the end, my final attempt filled my cookie jar with two dozen not-too-sweet cookies that my family could enjoy over the next couple of days (and no surplus lard in the refrigerator). For years I’ve chased recipes for outrageously rich cookies, ultimate versions of classics, and cookies with novel flavor twists. It was refreshing to approach an afternoon of baking from the place of “simplicity and function,” which Beard succinctly identifies as the starting point of early American cookery in his introduction. I learned that sometimes the best cookies are the most humble, the ones that provide modest pleasure by using handy ingredients and practical techniques. Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer, and former pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Cook’s Illustrated, and the New York Times. She is the author of fourteen books, most recently Cake Keeper Cakes (Taunton 2009) and Cookie Swap! (Workman, 2010). She has also co-authored several books with former White House Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier, including Dessert University (Simon & Schuster, 2004). She is the co-author of the IACP award-winning Local Breads (Norton, 2007) and The Gingerbread Architect (Clarkson Potter, 2008). Lauren lives in Sag Harbor, New York, with her husband and two daughters. She blogs about local food and small-town life at www.sagharbordays.blogspot.com.