There is something very special and nostalgic about s’mores, the delightfully sugary campfire treat that I first learned of when I was a young girl. I cannot say for sure that my first experience of s’mores was during my time as a Girl Scout, though legend has it a troop leader named Loretta Scott Crew first dreamed them up to feed 16 hungry girl campers in 1927. But I do know that my first taste of this wonderful confection—toasted marshmallow and Hershey’s chocolate square, melted between two graham crackers—was like a seductive symphony of ooey-gooey summer heaven. The only cooking involved in making s’mores is toasting a marshmallow to golden perfection, and then allowing the contained heat within the marshmallow to melt the piece of chocolate bar when you squish the graham cracker cookies together.
Truth be told, I was prone to wreck my marshmallows by over-toasting them. I’d position my marshmallow stick (and yes, where I come from, we used actual sticks) directly into the hottest part of the campfire until my puffy marshmallows blazed with a blue light around them. I’d blow out the fire, only to skim off and eat the scorched sugary jacket and plunge them back into the fire for another round of overcooking. I’m quite sure that was not the intention behind the “toasted” marshmallow portion of s’mores, but nobody ever accused me of following the rules—I like what I like.
Now that I’m all grown up, I still love the idea of s’mores, but I cannot fathom the notion of sitting around a campfire in the dead heat of summer, and we don’t usually fire up our patio chiminea until at least October. Not even for a sticky-sweet s’more—sorry.
Luckily, I have other plans for those delicious flavors, and just in the nick of time, it seems, given that today is National S’mores Day. Why, I wondered, couldn’t I represent the same s’mores flavors in a cold treat form that was more suitable for the middle of August?
And that was my approach to this yummy spectacle of summer sweetness. For a change of pace, I skipped the eggs in my ice cream base and used sweetened condensed milk instead. I wanted the vanilla ice cream to be a pure palate of white, but I was also trying to avoid cooking as much as possible. It’s been pretty dang hot here in the South, and if I have the option to keep the stove turned off, I’m taking it. The marshmallow swirl was also a no-cook step, and for this, I relied on a tried-and-true fruit dip recipe that fuses marshmallow fluff with cream cheese. The dairy ingredient gave the fluff just enough body to take away the ultra-sticky consistency but retain the marshmallow flavor.
I did turn on the stove briefly to make the fudgy swirl that represents the melted chocolate square of a traditional s’more, but that was a small price to pay for this delicious final result.
Happy S’mores Day, everyone!
Ice Cream Base
14.5 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. vanilla flavored vodka (optional, for improved texture)
Gooey Marshmallow Swirl
2 oz. full-fat cream cheese (this is 1/4 of a regular brick)
1 cup marshmallow fluff (give or take, as this stuff is difficult to scoop and measure)
Of course, you will also need graham crackers, about 6 cookie sheets, broken into pieces
For the base of the ice cream, whisk together the condensed milk, whole milk and heavy cream. When the mixture is smooth and even, stir in vanilla extract. Cover and refrigerate until all other ingredients are cold and ready for layering.
For the marshmallow swirl, use an electric mixer to whip the cream cheese and marshmallow fluff together. Allow enough time for the mixture to settle into a smooth consistency. Cover and refrigerate.
For the fudge ripple, combine sugar, corn syrup, water and cocoa powders in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk constantly until mixture reaches a just-barely-boiling point. Remove from heat and stir in sea salt and vanilla extract. Transfer to a bowl, cool several minutes, then cover and refrigerate until fully chilled.
To make the layered ice cream: Freeze the base ice cream according to manufacturer’s instructions; my Cuisinart machine takes about 20 minutes. During the final minute, add the vanilla flavored vodka. This ingredient is not essential, but it helps make the ice cream scoopable immediately upon removal from the freezer. If you avoid alcohol—no problem; simply remove the ice cream about 15 minutes before serving to slightly soften.
When ice cream is finished churning, add a slight ribbon of fudgy ripple to the bottom of an insulated ice cream container. Spoon in a few dollops of the ice cream base, followed by the graham cracker pieces and a generous drizzling of the marshmallow fluff mixture. Swirl on more fudge ripple, then repeat with ice cream, graham pieces and marshmallow fluff mixture. Be generous with the s’mores ingredients for best results. Any remaining fluff or fudge swirl mixture can be used to “dress up” your ice cream at serving time.
It was July, 1986. My wardrobe included stirrup pants, big blouses and my favorite pin-striped, high-waisted skinny jeans. The ones with the pleats. My hair was permed and teased out to here, and all the girls were lusting after Tom Cruise in Top Gun. I was restless in my not-so-exciting hometown, and I spent entirely too many weekend nights on the dance floor at a bar called the Rusty Nail, drinking the most sticky-sweet drink that was all the rage that year.
When we were not enjoying our Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, the “fuzzy navel,” made with orange juice and DeKuyper Peachtree schnapps, was the “cocktail” of choice for me and so many of my friends, whether we were out on the town (which meant we were in the next town over), hanging at home (because our town didn’t have much going on) or gathering for a bridal shower (because getting hitched is what several of my friends were doing that year). Man, we were so cool.
It was an odd time for me, as I turned 21 and I would finally be cleared to order a drink in public. Again. There was a great deal of confusion for my friends and me, as the state of New York had raised the legal drinking age not once, but twice, in a short period of time. First, they raised it from 18 to 19, after I had been legally imbibing for about eight months. Then, when I was 20 and enjoying my fuzzy navels, they upped it to the national standard age of 21. In the next town over, this did not present as much of a problem, because I had a fake ID. Yes, it was bad, but shame on the state for having a no-photo ID that was made of plain old paper. I had used a safety pin to scratch off the bottom part of the 7 and a #2 pencil to reshape it into a 2, giving myself a Feb. 25 birthday! Seriously, it was ridiculous that the powers in Albany did not find a way to “grandfather” in the people who were already considered “of age.”
In my hometown though, everyone knew I was a July baby, so I had to rely on the bottles of DeKuyper Peachtree schnapps I had already purchased (when I was younger, yet “old enough”), and that was what carried me through the final stretch of waiting. Let’s just say that I bought a lot of orange juice during those weird alcohol retrograde months.
A few weeks ago, for nostalgia’s sake, I brought home a bottle of Peachtree schnapps when I spotted it in our local ABC store (that’s what we call our state-run liquor stores in North Carolina), and Lord have mercy, I wish I could have seen my own face when I took a sip! It has a fake fruit flavor and a slight medicinal edge, definitely not what I remembered as being “totally awesome.”
Yes, my taste has changed a great deal (thankfully), but I could not resist finding a fun way to pay homage to the drink of my youth, and this easy sorbet is the result of my effort. I am presenting it during National Ice Cream Month, as an alternative frozen treat for anyone who can’t eat ice cream, and as a nod to my younger self on her 21st birthday. The sorbet is surprisingly refreshing on its own, and I found that it also makes a fun brunch cocktail when topped with prosecco!
There is a hefty amount of peach schnapps in this sorbet, but fear not—the stuff is only 40-proof, so it isn’t going to wreck you. I pureed a handful of fresh summer peaches to add some freshness and actual peach flavor. The orange juice was a frozen concentrate (which is not as commonly available as in 1986), and I finished the mixture with a light simple syrup of sugar and water.
4 medium peaches, peeled and pitted
Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon
2 cups water, divided
1/2 cup cane sugar
2 Tbsp. light corn syrup* (see notes)
1/3 cup frozen orange juice concentrate
1/3 cup DeKuyper Peachtree schnapps
2 Tbsp. vodka, optional for extra kick
Corn syrup is not crucial, but I used it to help keep the sugar from forming unpleasant crystals in the frozen sorbet.
Cut up the peaches into chunks and transfer them to a regular or bullet blender. Squeeze in the lemon juice and toss lightly to prevent discoloration of the peaches.
Combine 1 cup of the water and all of the sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a low boil and stir until sugar is dissolved. Stir in corn syrup. Remove from heat and allow the syrup to cool.
Add the orange juice concentrate to the bullet blender, along with the peaches and about 1/2 cup of the simple syrup. Pulse a few times, then blend continuously until the mixture is smooth and uniform.
Strain the puree through a mesh strainer to remove any solids, including the stringy fibers that surround the peach pits.
Combine the pureed mixture, the remaining simple syrup, remaining water and the Peachtree schnapps in a large bowl or pitcher. Stir to blend. Cover with plastic wrap and chill several hours or overnight.
Freeze the fuzzy navel mixture in an ice cream machine for about 25 minutes, until it’s frozen and slushy. Transfer to an insulated container and freeze overnight.
For at least three weeks, I had been watching all the markets I shop, waiting and hoping to see fresh stalks of spring rhubarb. It doesn’t seem to be a very popular item here in the South, or at least not as much as in my old stomping grounds in upstate N.Y., and there’s good reason—the winter soil is too warm in North Carolina. Rhubarb thrives in areas that have very cold winters, making it a common plant in the snow belt. Some folks around here have never even had the pleasure of tasting it.
When I was young, I remember my Gram always had rhubarb growing near a small outbuilding shed behind her house, and plenty of it. To find it locally, however, takes patience. When I do see it here, it is usually a small quantity, quite expensive, and often placed in one of the obscure sections of the refrigerated case, near the other “weird” produce items (think horseradish root and kohlrabi). I had even checked at the local farmer’s market, to no avail. One grocery produce manager, when asked about the expected arrival of rhubarb, looked puzzled and asked, “what does it look like?”
By the time rhubarb makes it to the supermarket, the leaves have been stripped, and just as well—they are loaded with oxalic acid, so they are inedible and even toxic. The stems, which range in color from bright red to pink to pale green, look like smooth celery stalks and they are equally crisp in texture. I am hard-pressed to describe the flavor of rhubarb other than to say that it is tart, maybe like a cross between a green apple and a lemon. Although technically a vegetable that can be eaten raw, most people cook rhubarb with sugar and use it as a fruit, especially in pies, crumbles, jams and preserves.
My Gram made a delicious rhubarb sauce that was as delicious to me as any applesauce, and I remember asking for it as a topping on vanilla ice cream. In the summer of 2011, on my last visit with my grandmother, who had relocated to Montana to be near my aunt, we enjoyed this dessert together. Lucky for me, my aunt happily shared her recipe for this yummy dessert, which is very adaptable to include other fruits, especially strawberry. Aunt Joy and I were reminiscing the other day about the times I visited her house when I was young, and she made memorable, mouthwatering strawberry-rhubarb jam. It’s a fantastic flavor combination!
Just a couple of days before my mandoline accident, when I decided to shave that extra 1/8” off the end of my finger, I had been overjoyed to finally find fresh rhubarb in one of the markets I shop. My usual time in the kitchen has been abbreviated by my injury (which is driving me crazy, if you want to know the truth), but I have a wonderful and willing husband, Les, who has been my “hands” for some the kitchen tasks that are tricky for me right now. I won’t say that it has all been smooth sailing (I am a bit of a bossy britches), but we are getting better at working together to make some great food, including this fabulous dessert. Les did all the washing and cutting of fresh ingredients, and I did more of the mixing.
This delicious crunch was Les’s first-ever taste of rhubarb, so I leaned a little heavier on the strawberry than I otherwise would. I expected that his sweet tooth might reject the tartness of rhubarb on its own, but he really enjoys the flavor, so next time, I will go all-in with rhubarb. Assuming, of course, I can find it. 😊
1 1/2 cups fresh rhubarb, cleaned and diced
1 1/2 cups strawberries, cleaned and halved
1/2 cup cane sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar* (see notes)
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour* (see notes)
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 stick (8 Tbsp.) salted cold butter
Pinch of kosher salt
My aunt’s original recipe calls for 1 cup sugar, but I split the amount between regular and brown sugars. I use brown sugar in strawberry shortcake and love the rich, warm flavor. Use all regular sugar if you prefer.
I like to use some portion of whole wheat flour in all my baked goods, but if you don’t have whole wheat pastry flour, increase the amount of all-purpose to 3/4 cup.
Preheat oven to 350°F, with rack in center of oven.
Toss together rhubarb, sugar, flour and ginger transfer into a buttered 8 x 8 glass baking dish.
Use a pastry blender or pulse with food processor to combine flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and butter until mixture appears as crumbs. Toss or lightly pulse with oats just to combine.
Spread oat topping over rhubarb filling. Sprinkle the top with a pinch of kosher salt.
Bake at 350° for about 40 minutes, until oat topping is browned and crunchy, and filling is bubbling up around it.
Serve warm, perhaps with vanilla ice cream. Store leftovers in the refrigerator, and reheat for additional servings.
Before we talk about these amazing chocolate-and-spice brownies, let’s clear this up: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. This has long been the belief of many Americans who assume that all the revelry and celebration associated with the 5th of May must be hugely significant to Mexico’s overall history, but it is not correct—Independence Day in Mexico happens in September. Cinco de Mayo is observed in commemoration of what happened half a century later, in 1862, in one Mexican state.
But the story of Cinco de Mayo is a great tale of triumph by a people whose love for their land outweighed the military might of a wealthy bully, and my brownies pay tribute to their passion. It is a tale so inspiring, it cannot be properly told without an incredible, dramatic anthem, like this one by Ennio Morricone (take a listen as you read). Yes, he is Italian, but Morricone’s composition is perfect for this story of a proud and dedicated people. You may also recognize this stunning piece from the ads for Modelo Mexican beer.
Mexico’s newly elected president, Benito Juárez—who was also the first indigenous political leader of the country—had inherited some economic troubles and overdue loans by European governments, and they were demanding payment. Juárez was able to cut a deal with the leaders of the U.K. and Spain, but the French president at that time wanted to call their loans by foreclosing on the region of Puebla, which was along the main road between the capital of Mexico City and the port city of Veracruz. This obviously did not sit well with Juárez. He rallied the loyal locals to stand with the Mexican Army in holding their ground (figuratively and literally) in Puebla, and when the French troops arrived the morning of May 5, outnumbering the Mexican troops and patriots by nearly 3-1, they were in for a surprise. What the Mexicans lacked in numbers, they more than tripled in might and spirit, and the French troops were forced to retreat by the end of the same day.
It was only one battle in a lengthier saga that later ended with the French taking the land for a short few years, but the story rings patriotic for anyone with a heart for civil rights, which was also playing out in the U.S. during those years. Cinco de Mayo is considered a minor holiday in most of Mexico, but here in the States, someone else’s one-day battle victory has become reason enough to throw a party. This one, not surprisingly, works out especially well for the distributors of Mexican beer. Come to think of it, the Cinco de Mayo story itself should be in one of those Modelo commercials. That would make a lot of sense.
My idea of a party, naturally, always comes back to the food. For Cinco de Mayo, I’ve skipped the obvious margaritas in favor of a sweet treat that honors the Mexican tradition of chocolate, which was so revered by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs that they used it as currency. Today, chocolate continues to play a significant role in the traditional moles of the Puebla region. Chile peppers complement chocolate exceptionally well, so I’ve added a hint of chipotle powder to these brownies, which are also kissed with extra dark cocoa, a good dose of cinnamon and real vanilla. And all the Mexican grandmothers shouted, “amén!”
If these brownies sound a bit too gourmet for your kitchen skills, relax, because this decadent dessert begins with a box of Ghirardelli. I’m all in favor of a shortcut that makes sense, and they are, in my opinion, the best box brownies, but use the one you like. The oh-so-easy ganache is optional, but allow me to tempt you further by mentioning that I spiked it with a splash of Patron XO Café Dark, a coffee- and cocoa-infused Mexican tequila. To keep it humble, I’ve baked it up in a cast-iron skillet, but don’t be fooled—this is a rich and decadent dessert for the ages, and it is worth fighting for. Call it “the ecstasy of chocolate,” if you wish.
1 box brownie mix* (I love Ghirardelli dark chocolate, but use your favorite), plus listed ingredients to make them
1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder (Mine is from King Arthur Baking, but Hershey Special Dark would be OK)
1 tsp. espresso powder*, optional (deepens the chocolate, but does not add coffee flavor)
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. pure ground chipotle* (see notes)
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
1/3 cup Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips
A few pinches of coarse sea salt or kosher salt
Butter, for greasing the skillet or brownie pan*
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 oz. Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips*
1 Tbsp. Kahlua or Patron XO Café Dark liqueur, optional
The brownie mix I use produces a chewy, fudge-style brownie. In addition to the mix, be sure you also have the ingredients listed on the box for making them.
Espresso powder is a specialty ingredient that I found in the baking aisle of a gourmet supermarket. You could also substitute a good quality instant coffee, such as Starbucks Via brand, or simply omit it.
I am crazy about the combination of chocolate and chiles! Chipotle, which is smoked jalapeno, is especially nice here. You could also use up to the same amount of pure cayenne powder, which is spicier, or pure ancho powder, which is milder and more fruity. Please do not use what is generically labeled as “chili powder,” as these random blends usually also include salt, garlic, oregano and other spices you wouldn’t want in brownies. Check your labels, always.
My decision to use the cast-iron skillet presented a few other adjustments, because a 10.25” skillet means a slightly different distribution of brownie batter. Also, the cast iron is heavy and retains heat differently than my usual 8 x 8 glass dish. I have adjusted the baking time accordingly in my instructions, but please consider your mix recommendations as well as your baking vessel.
According to my digital kitchen scale, 1/2 cup of chocolate chips was only three ounces, which falls short of “equal parts” with the cream. If you don’t have a scale, measure out 1/2 cup, then pile on as many more chips as you can without them spilling, and you’ll be in good shape.
As if the brownies are not decadent enough, believe that the next step makes them even better. If you have ever thought of ganache as “fancy,” you can lay that idea to rest. It is nothing more than equal parts hot cream and rich chocolate. I’ve spiked it with a Mexican liqueur, and it sends these brownies into purely heroic territory.
As we inch toward some new variety of normalcy in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, my husband, Les, and I have been making an informal list of the top things that helped us get through the past year. Beyond the obvious things, such as face masks and avoiding crowds, we leaned into a few new routines as we fumbled through a year in lockdown.
Last week, I shared one of our favorite rituals—our Friday night menu of homemade pizza and smoked maple old-fashioned cocktails, our “quarantini” of choice. Today, I’m offering up a slice of this easy, no-cooking-involved spring dessert, in honor of the musical duo that has provided the soundtrack for our Friday nights at home for the past year.
My “tequila and lime” pie is obviously a riff on a margarita cocktail. It is bright and citrusy, sweet but tart, with refreshing lime juice plus two shots of tequila and a splash of orange liqueur. The crust, though similar in appearance to a graham cracker cheesecake base, is made from buttery crushed pretzels, a salty accent just like the one you’d expect on the rim of your margarita glass. I’ve made this pie for many years and always called it “margarita pie,” but it shall be known henceforth by its new name, “Tequila and Lime,” which also happens to be the title of a song by our Friday night friends.
Nearly every week during lockdown, we have cozied up in front of our big wall-mounted TV for “Quarantunes,” streamed on Facebook Live by Glenn Alexander, an awesome musician and all-around good guy, and his lovely and talented daughter, Oria, who graces us with her phenomenal voice and occasional playing of flute and turkey legs. Yes, I said turkey legs—you must press “play” and see it to understand.
Together, they are “Blue Americana,” and both Glenn and Oria (pronounced “oh-RYE-uh”) are equal parts gifted and goofy, and their weekly concert, staged from a table in their home kitchen, has helped us maintain humor and a sense of normalcy throughout the turbulence of the past year. We first met Glenn from his role as lead guitarist for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, a Jersey-based bluesy rock band that my husband has followed for about four decades. Not coincidentally, a Southside concert was the first date that Les and I had in 2015, though Les insists it wasn’t a date and maybe it wasn’t for him, but I still remember how he looked in black jeans that night, and how I wondered to myself, “why have I not noticed this before?” But I digress.
When COVID was still making early headlines, Les and I had gone to one of our last live music shows—a “Jukes” concert, just one night earlier than the Little River Band show I wrote about in my previous post, “Reminiscing.” Yep, for two consecutive nights, just ahead of the first COVID surge, we were nuzzled next to strangers in busy music venues. The reality of the virus obviously had not yet hit us. At the start of the Jukes concert, Southside Johnny strolled onto the stage with his shirt untucked and his usual sense of humor, telling the crowd not to get too close, because they had found the first “coronavirus person” in North Carolina, and he pointed to his left, directly at Glenn Alexander, who replied with his own swagger and wit, “I’m more of a Dos Equis person.” And then they rocked the house.
When we learned later that Glenn was streaming Facebook Live shows on Friday nights, it was a no-brainer—of course we would be watching, whenever we didn’t have plans. Which turned out, of course, to be the whole next year. Little did we know that these two—Glenn, with his virtuoso guitar skills and a side shot of tequila and lime, and Oria, with her sultry, soulful voice and adorable, unapologetic silliness, would become part of the family.
Glenn and Oria, we love and appreciate you! Here’s a delicious slice of “vitamin T” for you and Dr. Fauci!
1 stick (8 Tbsp.) salted butter, melted
1 1/4 cups finely crushed salted pretzels* (see notes)
2 Tbsp. coconut sugar (or regular sugar)
14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice, from about two large limes* (see notes)
Zest of one lime*
2 oz. (1/4 cup) 1800 Silver tequila*
1 oz. (2 Tbsp.) Grand Marnier orange liqueur*
8 oz. heavy cream, whipped
A few drops of green food coloring (optional)
The measurement of pretzels is after crushing, so you will probably need to crush about 2 cups of loose pretzels to get this amount. Crumbs should be small and uniform, but not as fine as powder. If you have any leftover crumbs, you can use them to garnish.
Use a microplane to remove the zest of one lime before you juice them, and it’s best to use organic citrus anytime you will be eating a portion of the peel. Here’s a tip for getting the most juice out of your fresh limes: microwave them on high for about 40 seconds. Cool until they are easy to handle, then roll under your hand on the counter before halving and squeezing them.
This time around, I used 1800 Coconut tequila, for a little extra tropical flavor. I have also used Cuervo gold tequila with excellent results, so use whatever brand is your favorite, but remember that with so many mixers in this pie, it is not necessary to use a top-shelf tequila. Save the really good stuff for Quarantunes!
I use Grand Marnier in my margaritas, so I have also used it in my tequila and lime pie. Use a splash of triple sec if you prefer or if it is what you have on hand.
Here we go!
Melt butter in a small saucepan. Use a fork to combine pretzel crumbs and coconut sugar into the butter. Press into a 9” freezer-safe pie plate, using the bottom of a small dish to compress the crumbs. Put this into the freezer for at least 20 minutes to firm up the crust while you make the filling.
In a large bowl, whisk together condensed milk, lime juice, tequila and triple sec. Stir in green food coloring (if using) and lime zest.
Use a spatula to gently fold in the whipped cream.
Pour mixture (slowly) into the chilled crust and chill or freeze until serving time. For a chilled pie, give it at least two hours in the fridge; for a frozen slice, freeze at least four hours, preferably overnight.
Place the pie plate in a shallow skillet filled with about an inch of warm (not hot) water, just a minute or two until the buttery crust is loosened enough to remove.
Top each slice with a dollop of additional whipped cream (spike it with Grand Marnier if you wish), a little lime zest and leftover pretzel crumbs.
We are only a few days from Easter, and the promise of new life is everywhere—from the blossoming daffodils and buds on the trees, to the cheerful song of so many birds outside my open window. I am nervously awaiting my first dose of COVID vaccine tomorrow and feeling an odd sense of disbelief that we are finally seeing real light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. Easter feels even more special this year, and I cannot stop myself from baking up something delicious and, in these parts, so appropriate for Easter.
Last weekend, my husband and I took our dog for a stroll through one of the oldest parts of our city, where it always feels like Easter to me. Old Salem is a precious gem in the apron pocket of our downtown; amid all the tall, modern buildings—including the old R.J. Reynolds Tobacco headquarters, which was the prototype for New York’s Empire State Building—you’ll find this quaint and humble community, established in the late 1700s by the Moravians, Protestant refugees from what is now the Czech Republic. Only a few steps from the bustling noise of downtown, a visit to Old Salem is like stepping back in time 250 years.
Beyond the cobbled streets, brick-lined sidewalks and meticulously restored houses, shops and tour buildings, you’ll arrive at Home Moravian Church and the gated entrance to God’s Acre, the final resting place of the people who founded this community so long ago.
It is here, in God’s Acre, that thousands of residents of all religions gather on Easter morning for what is believed to be the oldest sunrise service in the U.S. Under non-pandemic circumstances, you’d find yourself among the throng, shuffling along behind the brass choir and witnessing the beauty of the sun rising in the east above this expansive graveyard. This year, as last, the observance is limited to a livestream event, complete with the usual music and liturgy—and all are welcome to join virtually. Rise and shine—this Easter service begins at 6:15 a.m. Eastern. The weather is expected to be chilly, but beautiful.
At Easter, everyone around here is a little bit Moravian, and though there will be no crowd gathered at sunrise, we can still enjoy this delightful sugar cake, a favorite Easter tradition. And I hope this recipe will help you enjoy it as well, wherever you live and whatever you believe.
Moravian sugar cake is a specialty of this local culture—it is sort of a mashup of streusel coffee cake and buttery brioche bread, and thick with the sweetness of brown sugar and warm cinnamon spice. I have enjoyed this treat since my arrival in Winston-Salem 33 years ago, but until recently, had only purchased the mass-produced version of it that is usually so popular at Christmas. Little did I know that it is easy to make at home, and so much better! Mashed potatoes lend a unique softness to this yeasted cake, and the technique of pressing fingers into the dough (as you would when making focaccia) is what coaxes the buttery brown sugar-cinnamon mixture to form deep, pillowy pockets.
In addition to the generous crust of sweetness on top of the cake, the dough itself is rather heavy on sugar, which gives the yeast a real run for its money—under most conditions, yeast does not thrive in such a sweet dough, but, as you’ll soon see, the potatoes help in that regard as well. Come along, let’s make some!
2 1/4 tsp. instant dry yeast (one standard envelope)
3/4 cup mashed russet potato, boiled without salt and cooled to room temperature
3/4 cup whole milk, scalded and cooled to room temperature
1 egg, room temperature
2/3 cup cane sugar
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour* + 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour (see notes for tips)
1 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. pie spice, optional
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter and 3 Tbsp. salted butter, cold*
My guide recipe called for 3 to 4 cups of flour, which is a very wide range. If you measure the flour properly; that is, following the “fluff, sprinkle and level” method, you will use almost exactly 4 cups total. I measured out the full amount and added it gradually as suggested, and ended up with about a tablespoon left over. Also, I never, ever use only white flour in a recipe, but if you do not have the whole wheat pastry flour, feel free to use the total amount in all-purpose flour.
As with most baking recipes, a little bit of salt plays up the important flavors of the food, so I used equal parts salted and unsalted butter in the topping.
Combine mashed potatoes (they should be somewhat wet) and yeast in a small bowl. Cover and let stand at room temperature for about 2 hours. The sugar in the dough will make the yeast work extra hard for moisture, so the mingling with the potatoes gives it a leg up before that part of the recipe begins.
Transfer potato-yeast mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add milk, sugar and egg, stirring to blend completely.
Measure out the total amount of flour, and scoop about 1/2 cup, leaving 3 1/2 cups in the bowl. Add salt to the larger bowl. You may not need the full amount of reserve flour, but you want to have the total of salt in the recipe.
Add flour to mixing bowl, 1/2 cup at a time, blending thoroughly after each addition. The ideal dough will be even consistency and tacky, but not too sticky. Dough should pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl while kneading.
Add softened butter, a tablespoon at a time, kneading to fully incorporate each addition before adding more.
With lightly oiled hands, divide total dough between two buttered, 8 x 8” baking dishes, such as Pyrex or metal cake pan. Spread dough evenly to the edges of each pan. Cover loosely with plastic and rest cakes at least 90 minutes, until cakes are nice and puffy.
Preheat oven to 350° F. Combine brown sugar, cinnamon and pie spice. Cut in cold butter to evenly distribute through the sugar mixture. You can use a pastry blender, a fork or a few pulses in the food processor.
With lightly oiled hands, gently press your knuckles into the cake dough. Follow a random pattern, with plenty of indentations, but also plenty of high spots. The goal is to create deep pockets for the butter-sugar mixture to sink into, without deflating the entire cake surface.
Scatter the butter-brown sugar mixture evenly over the cakes. The sugar mixture does not need to be pressed into the indentations; it will find its own way during baking.
Bake cakes for about 30 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through for even baking. Cool cakes in the pan several minutes before cutting. Enjoy warm or at room temperature.
The only thing I can think of to make a chocolate cheesecake better is a little bit of booze, and the only thing that can top that is to make it no-bake. Done and done. This easy, no-fuss dessert comes together quickly, and it doesn’t require gelatin or any special measures to set up firmly. Chocolate-flavored graham crackers provide a dark, flavorful base for this cheesecake, and the filling is sweetened cream cheese accented with a ton of chocolate and a wee bit of Irish cream liqueur. I’ve used My Dad’s Homemade Irish Creme, the same as we made at Christmastime, but if you want to make it super easy, make a quick run to the liquor store for a small bottle of Bailey’s.
I used a springform pan for this dessert, but I’ll bet you could also make it in a pie plate with sloped sides for easy serving. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and fresh berries or a little bit of Jameson-spiked whipped cream. Or, do what we did and just dig in.
This is a wonderful, sweet finish to our St. Patrick’s Day celebration!
1 sleeve + 3 chocolate graham crackers
4 Tbsp. salted butter, melted
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted (plus a bit extra to grease the pan)
Line the bottom of an 8” springform pan with parchment paper, cut to size. Rub unsalted butter on the parchment and sides of the pan. Break up the graham crackers into a food processor and pulse into rough crumbs. Pour in the melted butter and pulse a few times to combine. The mixture should look like wet sand. Press the crumbs into the bottom of the pan and up the sides about an inch. Refrigerate the pan for at least an hour to firm up the buttered crumbs.
10 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
6 oz. milk chocolate chips* (see notes)
8 oz. pkg. plus 1/2 of second pkg. full-fat cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup (superfine) caster sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, room temperature
1/4 cup Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur*
At our house, we really love the flavors of darker chocolate, but blending with milk chocolate is important for texture. Darker chocolate has lesser amounts of cocoa butter, and it can become gritty in recipes. To ensure the creamy, smooth texture that is a signature of cheesecake, it’s best to include some portion of milk chocolate.
Bailey’s Irish cream liqueur is the simplest thing to use in this recipe, but if you have time to make your own (using My Dad’s Homemade Irish Creme recipe), there’s an advantage to doing so. The homemade Irish creme is twice as thick (less watery), so I was able to incorporate two additional tablespoons of that crazy good flavor.
Here we go with a visual walk-through, and full written instructions are included at the bottom.
Bring a saucepan of water to a simmer. Place a heatproof bowl over the pan and add the semi-sweet and milk chocolate chips. I used a steamer insert in between, as an extra measure to keep the heating gentle. Do not let water or condensation into the bowl with the chocolate. Heat until chocolate melts, stir it smooth, then let cool slightly. I transferred the melted chocolate to a second bowl to cool it more quickly.
In a separate bowl, beat cream cheese with electric mixer until smooth. Gradually add caster sugar to the cream cheese, scraping down the sides as needed so that sugar is fully blended. The superfine sugar will dissolve pretty quickly.
Lightly whip heavy cream in another bowl until thickened, but not peaked. Stir in Irish cream.
Fold cooled chocolate into cream cheese mixture, then stir in the spiked whipped cream mixture.
Spoon or carefully pour the filling mixture into the springform pan over the chilled chocolate crust. Smooth the top, cover and chill at least two hours, preferably overnight.
To serve, run a hot knife around the edge of the cheesecake filling to separate it from the sides of the pan. Carefully release springform ring and transfer cheesecake to a serving plate. Cut into slices as garnish as desired.
Pardon me for a moment, as I ponder the best part of Super Bowl LV—I don’t mean the game, though I’m sure that Tampa Bay fans everywhere are still celebrating and bragging on social media about the blowout win. I’m not talking about the fun party, because as much as I love chilling at home with my husband (and making great food together), we were definitely feeling the void and missing our usual houseful of friends and neighbors. Nope, I am calling out the best part. For me, it was these brownies.
I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s diet or anything; just hear me out for a sec on these brownies. Soft and fudgy, peanut butter swirly, crunchy pretzel salty, holy moly, yum. They smelled fantastic while baking, and I don’t feel one bit ashamed for taking a major shortcut—a box brownie mix.
There, I said it. Though I love my time in the kitchen, especially creating fun, new twists on foods everybody loves (pizza, for instance), I don’t make desserts very often because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. That’s probably what attracted me to these brownies in the first place—they are not only sweet, but also nutty and salty and crunchy. I’ve adapted these from a scratch recipe by Valerie Bertinelli, the actress who now has her own cooking show on Food Network. I considered (for about a second) making them from scratch myself for our quiet, at-home Super Bowl festivities, but the reality is that Ghirardelli does it way better than I do. It was the peanut butter swirl and salty pretzel topping that won me over, anyway.
I gleaned a few bits of wisdom from the reviews for Valerie’s scratch-made recipe, such as using a smaller pan and a lesser amount of the peanut butter swirl mixture, and then I settled in to enjoy a shortcut version of what so many fellow bakers had to say—”best brownies ever!”
1 box Ghirardelli brand “dark chocolate” brownies, + ingredients to make them, which included an egg, 1/2 cup oil and 1/4 cup water.
1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder
1/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks
1/2 cup smooth and creamy peanut butter (not the “natural” variety)
1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted to remove lumps
3 Tbsp. salted butter, melted
A handful of salted mini pretzels, broken by hand
An extra sprinkle of coarse sea salt, if you like a bit more of this contrasting flavor
The photos tell the story, but if you keep scrolling, you’ll find a downloadable PDF you can save and print for your recipe files. Enjoy!
Preheat oven to 325° F, with rack in center of oven. Butter a glass 8 x 8” baking dish.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the peanut butter, confectioner’s sugar and melted butter. I used my handheld mixer for this step, but Valerie mixed it up just fine with a spoon, so do what you like there. Set this mixture aside while you prepare the brownie base.
Add dark cocoa to the brownie mix. Add the egg, oil and water, blending together until all dry ingredients are moistened. Fold in the extra chocolate pieces. Spread batter evenly into baking dish.
Spoon dollops of the peanut butter mixture randomly over the top of the brownie base. You may find that you have a little bit of the peanut butter mixture left over, as I did. But if that’s the case, just follow my lead and eat it straight off the spatula, the beaters, the bowl, and that little bit that spattered on the counter. No problem (it’s delicious).
Use a butter knife blade to drag the peanut butter dollops through the brownies, marbling as much or as little as you like.
Use your hands to break the mini pretzels into pieces, scattering them all over the brownies. Sprinkle on a few pinches of coarse sea salt (optional).
Bake brownies 45 to 50 minutes, according to package instructions. Cool completely before cutting, and try not to eat the whole batch in one evening.
One day, I’ll learn that if I’m going to ask my husband, Les, to pick a dessert for me to make, I should make it a multiple choice. When I gave him free rein to decide on dessert for our tiny Thanksgiving for two, I imagined he’d choose from the obvious traditional sweets. You know, maybe pumpkin pie or bourbon pecan pie, or maybe this would be the year he’d ask for the apple cranberry pie I’ve mentioned for the past three Thanksgivings. Nope.
“Make a real New York cheesecake,” he said.
Cheesecake? C’mon, that’s not a Thanksgiving dessert. But maybe I could do a maple cheesecake with a caramelized apple topping, and that would be delicious and appropriate for Thanksgiving. But my hubby was clear about it: he was craving the authentic New York-style cheesecake—tall, dense and creamy. Oh, and topped with bright red cherries. His memory was based on the desserts made by one Miss Grimble, who was apparently an institution in the city of his youth. Not to set the bar too high, right? I’m good at researching, so I was on it.
Most recipes for this style cheesecake require baking in a water bath, which promotes even baking and a smooth top without unsightly cracks. That made me nervous right out of the gate. I know for certain that my springform pan is not watertight, a truth I learned when a birthday quiche I made for a gal pal a few years ago leaked out all over the oven. I wasn’t up for a repeat of that performance, for sure. And I was also insecure because there were differing opinions about the right temperature to bake a New York-style cheesecake. Some “authentic” recipes insisted the cake should bake in a water bath at 500° F for the first few minutes, then about half that temperature for almost an eternity. Other “real cheesecake” recipes said skip the water bath and just cool the cake in the oven to avoid the cracking on top. With so many opinions, I made the only decision that felt safe: I searched the King Arthur Baking Company website, read all the way through their recipe instructions as well as the accompanying blog post written by baking expert P.J. Hamel, and then I donned my apron and got to it.
The King Arthur recipe included instructions for a shortbread cookie-style crust, which I promptly replaced with a homemade graham cracker base (Les swears this was how Miss Grimble did it) and the blog post suggested two major rules for perfect cheesecake: start with room temperature ingredients, and don’t whip air into the filling mixture. One thing that attracted me to this recipe was that it did not emphasize a need for a water bath. Whew.
This turned out to be one of the tastiest and prettiest desserts I have made at home, and I did find a way to adapt it to the flavors of the season. Les got his cherry topping, but I spiked it with fresh cranberries and real cinnamon. We both loved it, and the cranberries are making it a festive dessert option all the way through the rest of the holiday season.
1 handful ginger snap cookies (I used Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger cookies)
1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted
Pinch of kosher salt
4 packages (8 oz. each) full-fat cream cheese*
1 3/4 cup organic cane sugar
5 large organic eggs*
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. Fiori di Sicilia flavoring*
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup full-fat sour cream*
2 cups frozen dark sweet cherries
1 cup fresh cranberries, rinsed and sorted
1/4 cup pure cherry juice (or water)
1/4 cup organic cane sugar
1 cinnamon stick, about 4” long (or a few pinches ground cinnamon)
The most helpful thing I learned from the King Arthur experts is the importance of bringing all ingredients to room temperature before blending. This helps prevent clumping of the cream cheese and ensures the cheesecake mixture is the best temperature headed into the oven. Plan wisely, and take all the refrigerated ingredients—cream cheese, eggs and sour cream—out of the fridge at least a couple of hours before you begin.
Fiori di Sicilia is a specialty ingredient I purchase from King Arthur Baking Company. You may not have heard of it, but you would find the citrus-vanilla flavor reminiscent of Italian panettone or a frozen creamsicle treat. The ingredient is not essential for this cheesecake, but I love the “special something” it brings to desserts. This was my substitute for lemon zest in the original King Arthur recipe.
The recipe that inspired me did not require a water bath, but P.J. Hamel suggested in her “cheesecake tips” using cake strips, which are soaked and wrapped around a cake pan to promote even baking. Find these online or at a gourmet kitchen store, or give the recipe a go without them. I already had them, so I used one and it worked great.
Preheat oven to 400° F. Butter the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan, then cut a piece of parchment paper to size for the bottom, and butter the parchment.
Use your hands to break the graham crackers and ginger snaps into smaller pieces. Pulse into fine crumbs in a food processor or use a rolling pin to smash them into fine crumbs in a large zip-top bag. Pour melted butter into crumbs and stir to mix well. It should resemble the texture of wet sand.
Press crumbs firmly into a springform pan, evenly covering the bottom and about a half inch up the sides. I used the bottom of a small glass bowl to compress the crumbs.
Bake at 400° for 10 minutes, then remove pan and allow crust to cool at room temperature.
In a stand mixer on the lowest speed, beat cream cheese and sugar until well blended. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat again briefly.
Beat in vanilla, Fiori di Sicilia (or lemon zest) and salt.
Add eggs, one at a time, beating until blended and scraping bowl after each egg.
Stir in sour cream and give the mixture another thorough scraping.
Carefully spoon in part of the filling mixture, taking care to not disturb the crumb crust. Gently pour in remaining filling and use rubber spatula to smooth the top of the cheesecake.
Reduce oven temperature to 325° F and slide the cheesecake into the oven on a center rack. Bake 50 minutes, or until filling is set around the edges and slightly jiggly in the center. Turn off oven and prop door open, allowing cheesecake to cool slowly. This will help prevent the top of the cheesecake from cracking.
When cheesecake is completely cool, cover cheesecake with aluminum foil and refrigerate at least overnight.
Cinnamon Cran-Cherry Sauce
Combine frozen cherries, cranberries, sugar and cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan. Stir and cook over medium heat until it reaches a low boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Berries and cherries should be softened and thickened. Transfer mixture to refrigerator overnight. Try not to eat it all with a spoon!
When cheesecake is completely cooled and chilled, run a clean knife carefully around the inside of the springform pan, then release to plate the cheesecake. Cut into wedges and top with cinnamon cran-cherry topping.
Store leftovers covered in the refrigerator for up to a week. We found that we liked the flavor and texture even better after a few days in the fridge. Enjoy!
You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the products or companies I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or products for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion about recipes, products and gadgets. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 🙂
Childhood is one of the greatest examples of selective memory banking ever. I remember the smells and sounds of baking these molasses cookies at my grandma’s house, all the way back to when I needed to stand on a chair to reach the counter and make the cookie shapes. What I don’t remember is working so hard to get the dough right. Perhaps I’m overthinking it and not taking a simple, intuitive approach. Or could it be that these were a cinch for Gram because she made them all the time and I haven’t dared an attempt for 25 years?
As I was rolling out the dough for these—my favorite cookies ever—I found myself missing the metronome-like cadence of the cuckoo clock that hung on the back wall of my grandparents’ family room, and the rising aroma of potatoes simmering on the stove, much less the patient encouragement of Gram saying something like, “That’s it, now change direction and roll it the other way—good job.” What I had last weekend at my house was the sound of Led Zeppelin blasting from the Bose speaker in the next room, me cursing up a storm and vowing to NEVER make these freaking cookies again, and my husband and the dog just staying the heck out of the way. Yes, I’m certain that Gram had this process down to a science, and she probably handled all the hard parts of this exceptional recipe and let us grandkids show up just in time to have all the fun.
This was the first time I’d flown solo on this family heirloom recipe for Molasses Cookies—and yes, I do believe it should be capitalized, same as a classic novel or an epic film, because they’re just that good. For as long as I can remember, visiting my Gram’s house (anytime, but especially at Christmas) meant that I could reach my short, grubby fingers into the brown and tan beanpot she used as a cookie jar, and pull out one of these super-sized, super soft, sugar-crowned molasses cookies. Several years ago, I spotted a similar bean pot in an antique store and bought it without even checking the price tag. Last year, I found another bean pot and sent it to my younger cousin, Brad, who was my sidekick for so many baking adventures at Gram’s house. Just after we lost Gram in the summer of 2019, I found on Etsy a sweet creative soul who helped me turn our family recipe into a tea towel keepsake. Yes, these cookies deserve serious respect.
Mixing the dough was not complicated. It was just a little confusing, without solid direction on which order to add certain ingredients. The recipe card says, in Gram’s distinctive scrawl, “Mix. Chill at least overnight.” A more thorough explanation might have suggested first creaming together the butter and sugar, then adding eggs one at a time, blending completely after each one, and scraping down the sides, etc., but I suppose that knowledge is meant to be in my genes (and apparently it is). I did OK to that point, but lost my confidence when I got to the baking soda. Oh, how I wished I could just call her up and ask, “should the soda be dissolved in boiling water, or just hot tap water? Also, is it alright if I use butter instead of shortening? And the card says 6 or 7 cups of flour, but how do I know when the dough is right? I’m so confused, Gram, and I need you here.”
For these challenges and more, I had a helpful assist from my aunt, who offered her own experiential wisdom, plus a bonus family history lesson that I never knew. It seems that my great-grandmother, original author of this recipe, ran some kind of underground cookie business. These molasses cookies and her famous-to-our-family sugar cookies were her top sellers. Great Gram also saved up her own money to buy laying hens, and had an eggs-for-sale business. She was an entrepreneur long before women were supposed to be! I do remember the old hen house in back of her house, come to think of it. And suddenly, I realized again that these are big family shoes to fill.
I took deep breaths and followed the advice Gram gave me so many times on so many things—she’d say, “try it and see.”
For starters, I halved the recipe, which is a little tricky given that the original calls for 3 eggs, but I’ll explain what I did when we get to the instructions. Gram’s recipe card lists shortening, which was a common ingredient when money was tight (and before research showed how awful the stuff is), so I subbed in real unsalted butter. I never bake anything with only white flour, so I swapped about a third of it with whole wheat pastry flour, which is nice and soft and perfect for cookies, quick breads and pastry dough. Finally, to aid in keeping the dough soft, I used a combination of white and brown sugar, hoping that the latter would help compensate for the softness that would be lessened with the butter swap. Yes, I think Gram was also my first science teacher.
This is at least a two-day recipe (the dough must be thoroughly chilled), and several kitchen tools will be needed on baking day. I recommend review of the entire recipe before committing to the baking step. Once you begin rolling the dough, things move quickly and you’ll want to have your ducks in a row.
The ingredients list reflects my own changes I made to the recipe, and I’m certain my grandma would have approved these choices. 🙂
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened, but not room temperature
3/4 cup cane sugar* (see notes)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 large eggs*
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. molasses (unsulphured)
3 tsp. baking soda, dissolved in 1/2 cup hot tap water
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour* (measure for success; see notes!)
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour*
3 tsp. ground ginger*
1 tsp. baking powder*
1 tsp. salt
Coarse sugar for decorating
For all baking and cooking, I prefer organic cane sugar, which is not as processed as common white sugar. The fineness of cane sugar varies by brand, and I’ve found the Florida Crystals brand to be my favorite, as it is closest in texture to typical fine baking sugar. It’s slightly tan in color, compared with pure white sugar that has been heavily refined.
My recipe adaptation is half the original recipe, which called for 3 eggs, meaning I had to get to 1½ eggs. Here’s how to divide one of them to get the proper amount: crack 1 egg into a glass measuring cup, and beat it well to fully blend the white and yolk. Note the total volume of the egg, and pour half of the volume into a separate bowl for another use. Voila!—half an egg. Add a whole egg to it, beat lightly and you’ll be ready to go.
One of my grandma’s golden rules of baking was correct measuring of flour, so listen up. Always begin by sifting or fluffing up the flour before you measure. Spoon the fluffed flour over your measuring cup and fill to overflowing. Then use the back of a knife to scrape off the excess flour. Do not plunge your measuring cup directly into the flour bag or canister, or you will not have successful cookies.
Whole wheat pastry flour is a low-protein variety of flour, and can be substituted 1:1 for all-purpose flour in many recipes. It doesn’t have the strength needed for yeast-risen breads, but it is perfect for cookies, quick breads, pancakes and pastry dough. It also meets one of my primary goals of introducing whole grain into our foods. For this recipe, the whole wheat pastry flour is approximately 1/3 of the total flour in the cookies. If you prefer, combine for a total amount of white, all-purpose flour.
Ginger and baking powder both lose their power after a period of time. Ground ginger should provide a pleasant “zing” to the cookies, and active baking powder is needed for leavening. If you can’t remember buying the containers you have, they are probably too old. This is less a concern for the ginger, as that will only affect flavor. Baking powder that is old will give you poor results, because your cookies won’t rise during baking. I use aluminum-free baking powder with excellent results.
Using a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer, cream together the softened butter and both sugars. If you want to go old-school, as my great grandmother would have done, you can do this in a large bowl with a good strong wooden spoon, and it would help you to have biceps like Rosie the Riveter. The mixture should be beaten until it looks uniform and slightly fluffy.
Combine all-purpose and whole wheat pastry flour in a medium bowl. Scoop out a heaping cup of the flour blend to a second bowl, and add the ginger, baking powder and salt, stirring to combine. This ensures the ginger and leavening agent will be evenly mixed into the dough. Set both flour bowls aside.
Add beaten egg mixture, half at a time, to the creamed butter-sugar mixture. Beat until well blended, and stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition.
Dissolve baking soda in hot water and set aside briefly.
Add molasses to the creamed mixture and beat until fully blended.
With mixer running, slowly pour in the soda water. This mixture looked very unorganized and messy; it reminded me of quicksand.
Add the second bowl of flour (with ginger and baking powder) to the molasses mixture and stir until blended. Stop mixer and scrape down the sides. Stir in remaining flour, a few tablespoons at a time, until all flour is blended. Scrape down the sides. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate at least overnight, or preferably a day or two.
On baking day, gather your supplies:
2 or 3 large cookie sheets, lined with parchment paper
Rolling pin (a round wine bottle works nicely in a pinch)
Dough mat (or board, or a really clean countertop)
Cookie cutters (preferably round, or anything not too intricate as the cookies will spread)
Extra flour for dusting (keep it handy, you’ll use this a lot)
Paper towels for wiping your hands
Small, thin spatula to assist with moving cookies to baking sheet
Large spatula for moving baked cookies
Cooling racks (at least two will be helpful)
Coarse-grained sugar for decorating (I used turbinado sugar)
A baking timer
Christmas music for inspiration (I recommend Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack)
A glass of wine (seriously, I found this very helpful when things got ugly)
My aunt on speed-dial (oh wait, that was just for me!)
Preheat oven to 450° F (much hotter than most cookie recipes, and they bake fast)
Generously flour your rolling mat or board, and begin with about 1/4 of the chilled dough. Put the rest back in the fridge until you’re ready for the next batch.
Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour. My aunt suggested that I use “a lot of extra flour,” and I think she meant to say, “Make it look like you had a blizzard in the kitchen.” You need a lot of flour to keep this ultra-soft dough from sticking. Roll it gently to about 1/2” thick.
Dip your cutter gently into the cookie dough bowl, then liberally into the extra flour to prevent sticking. Cut as many shapes as you can from the first rolling, and transfer the cookies to the prepared cookie sheet. Aim for only 6 cookies at a time, as they will puff and spread quite a bit during baking. Knead up remaining dough scraps and add them to the next batch.
Generously sprinkle each cookie with turbinado sugar.
Bake for 5 to 8 minutes (depending on your oven) until cookies are soft and puffy but not brown on the edges. Transfer cookies as quickly as possible to a cooling rack. Place the hot cookie sheet somewhere to cool.
Prepare a second batch of cookies on the extra pan. This whole scene was very stressful for me, and I found myself wondering how my grandma did this with such grace and ease, and with excitable grandchildren “helping.”
Repeat this process until all cookies are baked. You should have flour everywhere (including your hair), about 5 molasses-coated spoons stuck to the counter, a sink full of bowls and random sticky objects, a dining table covered in molasses cookies and an empty wine glass bottle. If you’re crying, well, join the club. If you’re crying and laughing simultaneously at the end of it all, you get bonus points and a commemorative recipe tea towel.
Is it OK for me to share your recipe, Gram?
She would say—no, wait, she would sing, “Oh, ya, sure!”