Maida Heatter’s English Gingersnaps

Hi there.  It seems I’ve been missing.  The holiday season flew right by me, Thanksgiving was a bust (well, not totally, but there wasn’t any turkey), and I’m not really sure how all of a sudden it’s Christmas next week.  How on earth did that happen?

pile o' cookies

I guess I’ve been preoccupied with client dinners and wedding planning.  And these scallops had clouded all thoughts of other food.  Wednesday, however, I made a batch of Maida Heatter’s English Gingersnaps, so I hope that counts for something.  I’m betting most of you have your cookie-making planned—or executed—by now, but if you’re like me and haven’t gotten that far yet, these are for you.

Spices

They’re gloriously easy, and delicious to boot.  The spices—lots of them—are sifted with flour and added to butter creamed with dark brown sugar and molasses, and then the dough is rolled into balls and tossed in sugar. That crackly sugar crunch is essential to holiday cookies; I couldn’t imagine a Christmas without it (the thought of one is probably what knocked me into the holiday mode at last). The combination of spices, too—of cinnamon and clove and ginger and allspice and black pepper—-is Christmas to a tee. Don’t let the black pepper scare you: all you’ll notice it some gentle heat that, with the right amount of salt, makes this the perfectly seasoned cookie.

dough

It looks like we’re in for a snowstorm this weekend, so I’ll be baking some more cookies. It’s the perfect time, actually, to fall into the holiday spirit. I’m just not sure which cookies to bake. Any suggestions? Preferably the kind that can be pulled off after a few glasses of eggnog, of course.

ginger cookies

English Gingersnaps

These cookies are from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies, my all-time favorite cookie book, worthy of a spot on any cook’s bookshelf.  Besides having a wide range of recipes, each one I’ve tried has been delicious, with that perfectly seasoned quality I’m so smitten with.

This is a classic recipe for large, dark, semisoft gingersnaps.

2 ¼ cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
6 ounces (1½ sticks) butter
1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1 egg
¼ cup molasses
Granulated sugar (to roll the cookies in)

Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice and black pepper and set aside.  In the large bowl of an electric mixer cream the butter.  Add the brown sugar and beat well.  Add the egg and the molasses and beat for a few minutes until the mixture is light in color.  On low speed gradually add the sifted dry ingredients, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula and beating only until incorporated.

Refrigerate the dough briefly (in the mixing bowl if you wish) until it can be handled; 10 to 15 minutes might be enough.

Adjust two racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat to 375 degrees F.

Spread some granulated sugar on a large piece of wax paper.  Use a rounded tablespoonful of dough for each cookie.  Roll it into a ball between your hands (rubbing your hands with a bit of canola oil helps keep the cookies from sticking ), then roll it around in the granulated sugar, and place the balls 2½ to 3 inches apart on cookie sheets.

Bake the cookies for about 13 minutes, reversing the cookie sheets top to bottom and front to back once during the baking to insure even browning.  The cookies are done when they feel semifirm to the touch. (I found that my cookies, in my electric oven, took about 11 minutes.)

With a wide metal spatula transfer the cookies to racks to cool.

Austrian raspberry shortbread.

I’ve been posting cookies lately but can I (please) post one more?  You won’t mind?  I promise, after this one I’ll be posting savory eats for at least a week or two.  Plus, this is not just a cookie—it’s a bar cookie and it’s outstanding.  The most impressive cookie I had to offer this Christmas.  When someone asked what it was, my father chimed in: Who cares what it is! It’s delicious! And my father is the pickiest eater I know.

It takes a little elbow grease—you need to grate the frozen dough—but it’s the perfect cookie to make for your family, or your boss, or anyone you want to please.  It harkens the good old days when mixes weren’t in any pantries and Betty Crocker wasn’t simply a name on a box.  Don’t forgo the grating and don’t press down on the grated dough when sprinkling it into the pan—it’s all part of the perfect crumbly, almost coffee-cake texture that makes this cookie shine.

The recipe is from Smitten Kitchen, who got it here.  SK suggests adding some vanilla or lemon (or both) to the dough.  I planned to do just that, but forgot, and I consequentially was glad I did.  I thought the pleasingly simple shortbread dough highlighted the raspberry jam that’s spread between the layers; but of course you should choose for yourself.

I know that Christmas has past but this cookie is too good to wait a whole year for.  Perhaps New Year’s brunch?  Or maybe you have some house guests to feed?  Even if it’s just you and your dog (or cat or fish), you simply must make this cookie.  It keeps well and freezes equally so.  There’s no excuse—It’s delicious!

Austrian Raspberry Shortbread

from Epicurious, a recipe by Gale Gand, Rick Tramonto, Julia Moskin via the Smitten Kitchen

makes about 36 small squares

  • 1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup raspberry jam, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

Cream the butter in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or using a hand mixer) until soft and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and mix well.

Mix the granulated sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt together. Add to the butter and egg yolk mixture and mix just until incorporated and the dough starts to come together. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and form into two balls. Wrap each ball in plastic wrap and freeze at least 2 hours or overnight (or as long as a month, if you like).

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove one ball of dough from the freezer and coarsely grate it by hand or with the grating disk in a food processor into the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking pan or a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Make sure the surface is covered evenly with shreds of dough.

With the back of a spoon or a flexible spatula, spread the jam over the surface, to within 1/2 inch of the edge all the way around. Remove the remaining dough from the freezer and coarsely grate it over the entire surface.

Bake until lightly golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes. As soon as the shortbread comes out of the oven, dust with confectioners’ sugar. Cool on a wire rack, then cut in the pan with a serrated knife.

Whole-wheat peanut butter cookies with raw sugar.

The other day, I came across an old cookbook that Jim’s aunt Maria gave me.  Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies, from 1977.  It’s covered in notes from Maria—her favorites, her leave ’ems—with charm that only an old, used cookbook can have.  And it turned out to be a Christmas miracle; every recipe I’ve tried is delicious and practically fool-proof—the perfect pick me-up just as I got cookie fatigue, bored of the regular olds and needing some inspiration.  Maida, who won a James Beard award for this cookbook, makes cookies exciting.

The whole wheat peanut butter cookie with raw sugar immediately caught my eye—it’s made of whole-wheat pastry flour, and the only sweetener is raw sugar.  It’s probably a cookie conceived in the 60’s, a total hippie-cookie.  What’s even more exciting though, is that it is good. Real good.

The cookies are crunchy, hardly sweet, and taste mildly of peanut butter.  The nutty whole-wheat pastry flour reiterates the peanut butter flavor, as well as emphasizes the raw sugar’s crunch with it’s grainy texture.  The texture, really, is the best part—at once buttery and crumbly, with crisp edges and a moist but not soft middle.  Cracker-like.

It’s a very subtle, sophisticated cookie—an adult’s cookie just perfect sitting among the other Christmas chocolate, sugar, and gingerbread cookies.  It could also accompany a cheese plate.  Or—better yet—you could serve these late Christmas Eve, leaving a few with a tall glass of milk for that fat, jolly guy.  Just remember the carrots for his donkeys.

Whole-Wheat Peanut Butter Cookies

from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies

makes 48 cookies

  • 1 ¼ cups unsifted whole-wheat pastry flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • generous ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ pound (1 stick) butter
  • ½ cup smooth peanut butter
  • 1 cup raw sugar
  • 1 egg

Sift together this flour, baking soda, and salt and set aside.  In the large bowl of a stand mixer cream the butter.  Add the peanut butter and beat until smooth.  Add the raw sugar and beat well, then add the egg and beat well again.  On low speed gradually add the sifted dry ingredients, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula and beating only until smooth.

Tear off a piece of wax paper about 16 inches long.  Spoon the dough lenthwise down the center of the paper in a heavy strip about 10 to 11 inches long.  Fold the long sides of the paper over the dough and, with your hands, shape the dough into a long, round or oblong roll, 12 inches long.  Wrap the dough in the wax paper.

Slide a cookie sheet under the dough and transfer it to the freezer or refridgerator until firm (or as much longer as you wish).

Unwrap the dough and replace it on the wax paper.  With a sharp knife cut the dough into slices ¼ inch think and place them 1 inche apart on unbuttered cookie sheets.

Bake for 15 minutes or a little longer, until the cookies are lightly colored and semifirm to the touch.  Reverse the sheets top to bottom and front to back to insure even browning.

With a wide metal spatula transfer the cookies to the rack to cool.

They are spicy. And they are good.

These are the spiciest, most molassesy-est cookies I have ever eaten.  And they are good. Perfect, even, for a cold holiday evening with a glass of peaty scotch—a cookie not quite suited for a tall glass of milk, but superb with spirits, eggnog, or hot mulled cider.  I made them to kick-start my first-ever year of cookie-baking for Christmas.  I thought they would be sufficiently holly, jolly, and nice—and would keep me in good spirits throughout a week of cookie madness that I’m sure will bring on many expletives, cookie-cursing, and a bag of coal in my stocking.

Because not only did I agree to cook the brunt of Christmas dinner at my sister’s this holiday, but I’ve decided to bring dozens and dozens (and dozens) of cookies with me.  So far, so good, though I’ve only made two kinds.  I do have all the recipe-finding and shopping done for the others, and I find that part to be the hardest.  Or at least I’ll say so now, while I’m sipping my morning coffee and gazing out the window towards the river.  Later, when I’m covered in flour and there’s dirty dishes everywhere, I may have a different opinion.

But I seriously doubt that I’ll ever regret signing on to the dinner (which I’m super excited about, since I hardly ever get to cook for my family) or the cookies.  I mean, when all is said and done (even if there is a mound of dishes in the sink), when you finally get to plop down on the couch, lift your cocoa-powder splotched feet, and award yourself a sample (or 3) of each and every delectable that you’ve just created, how can anyone regret the process?  And I for one am extra lucky, because I have a very weak-willed boyfriend who will do anything, even the dishes, to share in my sampling.

These cookies in particular are good graft for the weak-willed.  Their heady aroma, of ginger and clove and allspice and molasses, fills the air, even before they enter the oven, as you whip them into a batter.  I based the recipe off on one from Cook’s Illustrated, using 2 sticks of butter instead of 1 ½ because I had mistaken the directions.  I have to laugh at myself now, as I ran to Jim terror-stricken, telling him that I had mucked up everything.  He looked at me like I was crazy—I had put too much butter? And I was upset?  The extra butter of course didn’t muck up a thing, and I like to think it enhanced the consistency, but go by the original recipe if you are like, health-conscious or something.  For the molasses, because I am a sucker for the potency of blackstrap, I used a mixture of it with natural molasses to up the spiciness factor, the result being intense and delicious. They are spicy.  And they are good.

Dark Spice Cookies

(slightly) adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, January 2002

makes about 22 cookies

  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus 1/2 cup for dipping
  • 2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened but still cool
  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar (about 2 1/2 ounces)
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup natural molasses
  • 1/4 cup blackstrap molasses

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Place 1/2 cup sugar for dipping in 8- or 9-inch cake pan.

Whisk flour, baking soda, spices, and salt in medium bowl until thoroughly combined; set aside.

In standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter with brown and granulated sugars at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low and add yolk and vanilla; increase speed to medium and beat until incorporated, about 20 seconds. Reduce speed to medium-low and add molasseses; beat until fully incorporated, about 20 seconds, scraping bottom and sides of bowl once with rubber spatula. Reduce speed to lowest setting; add flour mixture and beat until just incorporated, about 30 seconds, scraping bowl down once. Give dough final stir with rubber spatula to ensure that no pockets of flour remain at bottom. Dough will be soft.

Using tablespoon measure, scoop heaping tablespoon of dough and roll between palms into 11/2-inch ball; drop ball into cake pan with sugar and repeat to form about 4 balls. Toss balls in sugar to coat and set on prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Repeat with remaining dough. Bake 1 sheet at a time until cookies are browned, still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft (cookies will look raw between cracks and seem underdone), about 11 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Do not overbake.

Cool cookies on baking sheet 5 minutes, then use wide metal spatula to transfer cookies to wire rack; cool cookies to room temperature.