December 04, 2008

Tis the Season for Cookies

I've been in a quandry about my holiday baking, having difficulty in deciding exactly what to bake, but the Months of Edible Celebrations post on Christmas Cookies provided me with the motivation I needed to move forward. It was there I found out about The Twelve Days of Cookies Gourmet Cookie Extravaganza currently going on over at Coco Cooks and where I was led to this fabulous online article with seven decades of cookie recipes that I probably wouldn't have seen otherwise.

I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon reading the Gourmet article and all the reader comments, then proceeding on to the blogs of the bakers who are participating in the cookie extravaganza event.

I really liked the magazine feature and am grateful to Louise for bringing it to my attention. Being constantly immersed in older recipes and cookbooks, I thought it was nice that some of the those recipes were included. I especially liked the fact that the recipes weren't altered, or modernized, a bit.

Some of the commenters evidently had issues with the recipes being run exactly as they originally read even though this was explicitly stated on every page. The main problem seemed to be that those recipes from the 1940s and 1950s were fairly short and sweet and sometimes lacked explicit detail. I noticed that the recipes gradually grew longer and more detailed as the decades progressd and by the 1990s and 2000s the practice of what I call recipe hand-holding had kicked in. There were noticably fewer comments on the latter recipes.

Explicit detail can be just as frustrating to some as the lack thereof is to others.

Admirers of old cookbooks are familiar with earlier way of doing things. Sometimes the entire recipe might take up a scant a 1/2 inch of print. These are two examples of what women had to work with back in the 1800s:

Two cups molasses, one of lard, one table-spoon soda, one of ginger, flour to roll stiff. Miss Mary Gallagher.

From: Buckeye Cookery, And Practical Housekeeping, 1877


One cup brown sugar, two cups molasses, one large cup butter, two teaspoonfuls soda, two teaspoonfuls ginger, three pints flour to commence with; rub shortening and sugar together in the flour; add enough more flour to roll very smooth, very thin, and bake in a quick oven. The dough can be kept for days by putting it in the flour-barrel under the flour, and baked a few at a time. The more flour that can be worked in and the smoother they can be rolled, the better and more brittle they will be. Should be rolled out to wafer-like thinness. Bake quickly without burning. They should become perfectly cold before putting aside.

From: White House Cook Book: A Selection of Choice Recipes Original and Selected, During a Period of Forty Years' Practical Housekeeping, 1887
I like how the bakers in the cookie event don't seem to be distressed by the lack of information in the older recipes; instead, they tackle any problems that arise and find solutions. It will be interesting, after it's all over, to see how many of them chose to bake the cookies from the earlier decades.

I picked out a few promotional cookbooks pertaining to holiday cookies that were published in years past by the food companies. Most of them aren't really, really old because I didn't feel like pushing the sewing machine cabinet and the box holding the spare third printer out of the way to get back to where those were on the shelves.

And as it turns out, I'm only looking at one of them today, as this post has already grown much longer than I'd originally anticipated. (And now I have cookie baking to do!)

94 Brer Rabbit Goodies (undated, 48 pages) isn't devoted exclusively to cookies, but since molasses used to be a very popular cookie baking ingredient, and it specifically mentioned Christmas cookies, it made the cut.

From the beginning of the booklet:

Say Merry Christmas with Cookies

I hope all my readers know the joy of making Christmas Cookies. I know of nothing that injects more real Christmas spirit into a household than the fragrant, spicy, intangible odors that float through the house when mother begins her Chrismas baking.

I always start two weeks before the holidays, making a different kind each day. The
molasses drop cookies ar so simple that two batches can be made easily in one day. I make plenty of Great-Aunt Ruths' gingersnaps and cut them out in shapes that will delight the youngsters and any young guests they may have during the jolly season.
I believe this booklet was probably published during the 1940s and I don't especially feel that the directions are lacking. The author, Ruth Washborn Jordan, dispenses plenty of advice in the beginning of the booklet about the ins and outs of molasses cookery.

Watch your Oven!

In molasses cookery one must be very careful to have the right oven temperature, as molasses burns very easily. A moderate oven for most will be safest.

Gingerbread and cookies bake best at 325° to 350° F. Gingersnaps make be baked in a little hotter oven but must be watched very carefully.

If housekeepers realized the perfect results obtained by using an oven thermometer I am sure every stove would be equipped by one.

Once I saw Grandmother Jordan put a sheet of old-fashioned writing paper in the oven and when she saw my surprise she informed me that was her way of testing the oven for her fruit cake, which needed a slow oven. If the paper browned delicately and evenly in five minutes that was the proper heat.

Gingerbread requires a moderate oven and in that case the paper should be medium brown in five minutes.

A hot oven would make the paper a dark brown in the same length of time. These tests are helpful but cannot be absolutely depended upon.
I'm not sure this method would be recommended today, but it's interesting just the same.


2/3 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 cup Brer Rabbit Molasses*
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 tablespoons cold water
4-1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon soda
1 tablespoon ginger

Cream shortening with sugar. Add beaten egg, then molasses, vinegar and cold water. Sift flour, soda and ginger and add to first mixture. Stir in as much of the flour as you can, and knead in remainder. Roll out, cut in desired shapes and bake 10 to 12 minutes in moderate oven (350° to 375° F.). These are delicious made either thick or wafer thin. Thick ones, cut in stars and sprinkled with sugar before baking, make fine Christmas cookies.

*Brer Rabbit Syrup may be substituted for Brer Rabbit Molasses

The recipe below, for Dandy Snaps, is similar to the Gourmet Brandy Snaps recipe for July 1949. No brandy in either one of them, by the way.


1/2 cup Brer Rabbit Molasses*
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
2/3 cup sugar

Heat molasses to boiling point, add butter, then slowly, stirring constantly, add other ingredients which have been sifted together. On oiled baking sheets drop 1/2 teaspoon batter at intervals of 2 to 3 inches. Bake in a slow oven (325° to 350° F.) about 10 minutes. Cool slightly and roll over the handle of a wooden spoon.

*Brer Rabbit Syrup may be substituted for Brer Rabbit Molasses

This recipe for Cinnamon Snaps is similar to the one they chose for October 1944,
Cinnamon Sugar Crisps:


1 cup sugar
1 cup shortening
1 cup Brer Rabbit Molasses*
2 teaspoons soda
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 to 6 cups flour
2 tablespoons warm water

Cream sugar with shortening. Add molasses; then add soda dissolved in warm water. Stir 2 cups flour with remaining dry ingredients and add to first mixture. Add enough more flour to make a stiff dough. Roll out very thin on slightly floured board. Cut in desired shapes and bake 8 to 10 minutes in a moderate oven (350° to 375° F.). This is an old Dutch recipe used by the good housewives when New York was called New Amsterdam. The spicing is unusually good.

*Brer Rabbit Syrup may be substituted for Brer Rabbit Molasses


6 to 8 cups of flour
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 tablespoons ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 cups Brer Rabbit Molasses*
2 tablespoons vinegar
4 scant teaspoons soda
1 cup boiling water

Sift 6 cups of the flour with salt and spices. Cream shortening and sugar. Add egg. Beat all together until light. Add molasses and vinegar, then sifted dry ingredients. Lastly, add soda dissolved in boiling water. If necessary, add more flour to make a soft dough. Stand in cool place over night. Next morning flour hands well, break off small pieces of dough, roll into balls, place in baking pan and pat flat into cakes (not too thin). Sprinkle with sugar. Bake 8 to 10 minutes in moderate oven (350° F.). Makes about 100 plump, spongy cookies.

*Brer Rabbit Syrup may be substituted for Brer Rabbit Molasses

I guess it's nice to know that one has choices today in regards to the type of recipes they prefer. I occasionally look at cooking videos if I'm not familiar with or unsure of a particular cooking technique. This video on how to make ginger snaps would surely satisfy anyone who has issues with scant recipe instructions.


At 6:05 PM CST, Blogger ~~louise~~ said...

Hi Kathy,
Where do I begin? First, thank you so very much for thinking about me. I really appreciate it:)

This has to be my very best favorite post of yours EVER! The time, the energy, the detail and now you're going to bake cookies!

I sometimes wonder whether visitors to my blogs are "frightened" away from trying a recipe for the exact reasons you mention. Gee, I hope not. Although, I do think I should include a few more "modernized" recipes, many vintage recipes are the parents of those we still enjoy today.

Thank you so much for sharing Kathy, I had a wonderful visit:)

At 8:35 AM CST, Blogger T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

You hit on a lot of interesting points about the differences in baking recipes then and now. It seems that bakers were conditioned to know what certain directions meant, i.e., "hot oven" or "bake until brown." I was baking a recipe from my mom's aunt the other day that was three lines long, and called to say, "what did she mean by "brown?" as they were meringue cookies. My mom wasn't home, so I settled for "off-white."

At 7:52 PM CST, Blogger glamah16 said...

Thanks to linking to me, and thanks to Louise for linking too. I knid of like the older style of recipe writing and dont feel so bad when I try write out one my recipes. I love this genre of food blogging about historical cooking and cookbooks. I will be back.

At 9:10 PM CST, Blogger Kathy said...

Louise - I like to think that we are doing our part in preventing the "parent" recipes from being lost forever.

T.W. - A couple of the Cookie Extravaganza blogger posts mentioned one of the older recipes having something that was beaten for an hour in the mixer and how it only took a few minutes to achieve the same results today. I hadn't thought of something like the mixer making that much of a difference.

glamah16 - I really enjoyed reading about how you all made some of those old recipes come to life.

At 2:22 PM CST, Blogger P-Dot said...

I think you have hit on something that I had never thought of. The absence of instructions. Many of my recipes are abbreviated down either because they are old or because I have rewritten them that way.
It scares the soup out of the younger people and I end up explaining for a half hour what something means. There is a large group of young ladies and guys that
did not grow up in the kitchen with their Mom's cooking and instructing them. The Mom's were out in the work world themselves either out of necessity or because they could now.
BTW..I had a huge collection of cookbooks and food company books from my Grandma and from my years of collecting. Some years ago I had a major change in my life and had to get rid of all of them and I really enjoy reading your comments about them.

At 8:46 AM CST, Blogger Kathy said...

P-Dot - Thank you for stopping by! You are right that many young people didn't learn to cook for the very reasons you've stated. Isn't it lovely, though, to see the number of food blogs there are today, many of them published by younger people who are interested in cooking/learning how to cook?

I'm glad you're enjoying my cookbooks. I try not to think of the day I might have to ever get rid of them. (In anticipation of such an event, I have a collection of postcards that I keep because I believe they won't take up as much space as the cookbooks.) Please come back and visit again!

At 3:59 PM CST, Blogger P-Dot said...

Hi Kathy,
I hadn't thought about it until you mentioned it but the blogs are mostly written by younger women. That IS encouraging after all.
This post has things on it I actually remember. My Mom sent away for so many things that were offered by companies. I looked over everything as it came in and in those days I retained much of what I saw. Not so much any more.
Thanks for dropping by and leaving your nice comment. I started the blog to encourage some of my old (mean it both ways) friends to share about aging but most are a little afraid of the whole blog thing.
Keep up the good work here.
Pdot aka Penni


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