Much of the Southeast U.S. has been under a winter storm warning since we went to bed last night, and as I have watched tentatively out the window today, half expecting the power to go out from wind-toppled trees that have been coated with sleet and ice, I wrestled with my desire to be at the stove and the oven. There’s something very cozy about simmering a stew or pulling a loaf of bread from the oven on a blustery day, and this is definitely one.
The day was beautiful at first, with mainly fluffy snow falling at a steady pace. We knew it would morph into a nasty mix, though, so we bundled up and headed out early for a walk around the neighborhood with our dog, Nilla, who absolutely loves cold and snow. It was beginning to sleet when we got back to the house.
After much consideration, I finally gave in to the temptation to bake. It feels risky for many reasons. Our gas range is technically dual-fuel, with a natural gas cooktop but an electric-powered oven, so I had to choose something that could be done quickly (or at least put aside to bake later, should the power go out). Also, I come from a long line of highly accomplished cookie bakers, and that’s a lot to live up to, given that I hardly ever venture into treat baking. On top of that, my dear husband has made a reputation for himself with his own cookie baking, so I’m living on the edge in several ways today.
When Les makes cookies, they are almost always a version of chocolate chip; sometimes they have chips and chunks, with big, chewy bits of dried cherries or cranberries. Sometimes he adds cocoa powder to the dough itself, making them chocolate on chocolate with more chocolate. No wonder he is so popular, right? But he seldom strays from the chocolate chip category, and I wanted something different today.
Without my own arsenal of go-to cookie recipes, I reached for a family cookbook—this homemade, 3-ring binder notebook, chock-full of recipes submitted by various members of my maternal family, and especially my great-aunt Adele. She was my Gram’s sister, and she was a master cookie baker if there ever was one. She was so known for her baked goods that her grandchildren called her “Grandma Cookies,” and I have my own memories of the treats she joyfully baked and shared with everyone. At Christmastime, you could count on receiving a box of various homemade cookies—and it didn’t matter if you lived across the street or on the other side of the country. She saved up cracker boxes and tea bag boxes and coffee tins and filled them up with her goodies so you could always have a taste of home.
I’ll never live up to that standard, but I did a decent job with her peanut butter cookie recipe, with a few adjustments of course. First, I made a half batch, because we don’t need 60 cookies when we are stuck in the house. I never use only white flour in any recipe, so I subbed in an amount of whole wheat pastry flour which is nice and soft for tender baked goods. I don’t use shortening either, but real butter worked great. And, because my hubby is so fond of chocolate chips, I divided the dough in half and added mini chocolate chips to one portion of it for his taste, and the cookies turned out great both ways.
Some of the instructions in Aunt Adele’s recipe were a bit vague for this cookie novice but, thankfully, my Aunt Joy offered her experience to help me fill in the blanks.
1 stick salted butter, slightly softened* (see notes)
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 cup light brown sugar, packed*
1 large egg
1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract
1 tsp. baking soda, dissolved in a small amount of hot water*
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 tsp. kosher salt (or 1/4 tsp. regular salt)*
1/4 to 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)*
Butter should not be so cold that it’s hard, but not room temperature either. When you cream it with the sugar, you want it to be smooth and just slightly firm. I was impatient so I took a shortcut with my straight-from-the-fridge stick of butter.
My great-aunt’s original recipe suggested equal parts sugar and brown sugar, but I like a soft cookie, so I used all brown sugar. When you measure brown sugar, be sure to pack it snugly into the measuring cup. When you turn it over into your bowl, it should mostly hold its shape.
I have long wondered why some cookie recipes call for dissolving the baking soda in hot water. Given that it appears on many of the recipes my grandmother and her family have shared, I even considered that perhaps it was something they all learned from my great grandmother or something. But a quick bit of research (thank you, internet) turned up the real reason—dissolving the soda helps ensure that it can be evenly dispersed throughout the dough. If I were to mix it in with the dry ingredients, it would be prone to clumping. Now we know!
I cook and bake mostly with kosher salt, which has larger crystals than table salt. Those crystals take up more space in the measuring spoon, but some of that space is just air, so I use a little extra. My conversion is probably not exact, but I generally like to add a bit of extra salt to a baked good anyway to enhance the other flavors.
I used mini chocolate chips in half the cookie dough, and kept the rest as simple peanut butter dough. If you want chocolate chips in all the cookies, use 1/2 cup rather than 1/4 cup, as I did for my half-batch.
Cream together the butter, peanut butter and sugar until evenly combined and somewhat fluffy.
Add egg and beat until blended. Stir in vanilla, then stir in dissolved baking soda.
Add flour, beating only until incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides, then mix again only long enough to blend in loose flour.
If using the mini chocolate chips, fold them into the dough. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for about one hour before baking.
Preheat oven to 350° F, with oven rack in the center position, or two racks roughly positioned near the center of the oven.
Roll cookie dough into balls about 1 1/4” diameter. Place them on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Flatten in a criss-cross pattern, using a fork dipped in flour to prevent sticking.
Bake 9-11 minutes, depending on your oven. The cookies will be very puffy, and slightly dry at the edges when finished. Cool on the sheet about two minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.
Sometimes, saying your goals out loud is enough to cement them into reality, and this has been true for my quest to have a calmer, more peaceful Christmas season. Letting go of expectations for a “perfect” holiday has given me the freedom to enjoy it more, regardless of how things unfold. One thing I really wanted to do this year (for the first time in a long time) was settle in to making Christmas cookies, and I am on a roll—figuratively and literally—with these sweet little rugelach. They are my first cookies of the season and making them satisfies not only my desire for a pretty holiday treat, but also another item on my culinary bucket list.
As much as I love to bake bread and rolls, I hardly ever bake sweet things, such as cakes, pies or cookies. I’m not sure why, because I do like them, and I have fond memories of doing that kind of baking in my grandmother’s kitchen. The holidays are a perfect time for baking sweets, and so far, I am loving it.
Rugelach (which is pronounced in such a way that it might seem you are gargling with a feather in your throat) is a treat that originated in Poland and is popular in Jewish culture, and it has been on my bucket list for a couple of years. My husband, Les, remembers them from childhood, not only because he is of Polish-Jewish descent, but also from the bakeries and pastry shops all over New York, where he was raised.
The cookies are tiny, which makes them perfect for gift-giving or tucking into an extra little space on a dessert platter. My rugelach dough is made of butter, cream cheese and flour, with only a slight hint of powdered sugar. The rest of the sweetness comes from the layers of filling and the large crystals of sugar sprinkled on top before baking. Given the variety of flavors I have seen, you can put almost anything in rugelach, and the gears of my mind are already spinning ideas for my next batch. This time, I used a jar of jam we spotted while waiting in line to purchase our fancy Christmas tree stand.
The fruity filling in these bite-sized little rollups is F.R.O.G. jam, with the letters representing the flavors of fig, raspberry, orange peel and ginger. That’s a whole lot of holiday flavor happening in one spoonful, and though Les is not particularly fond of ginger, he likes the other flavors and said my addition of cinnamon sugar and chopped pecans rounded these out nicely for him. The cookies are made in stages, including a significant amount of time chilling the dough, and then the cookies before baking, so plan accordingly.
As always, I learned a few things along the way to making these, and I’ll share those discoveries throughout the instructions below.
4 oz. full-fat cream cheese (this is half a brick package)
1 stick cold unsalted butter
3/4 cup all-purpose flour* (see notes)
1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour*
1 Tbsp. powdered sugar
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
2/3 cup jam, preserves or marmalade
2 Tbsp. organic cane sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 cup chopped, toasted pecans
Egg wash and coarse sugar sprinkles, for baking
For best results, measure flour using the fluff, sprinkle, level method. If you dunk your scoop directly into the flour bag, you will compact the flour and end up with heavy cookies.
I always sub in a portion of whole grain into everything I bake, but if you do not have whole wheat pastry flour (I like Bob’s Red Mill) or white whole wheat (King Arthur is a great choice), it is fine to use a full cup of all-purpose flour. I personally like the flavor boost of the whole wheat, and it helps me justify eating an extra cookie. 😉
Combine flour, powdered sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times to blend them evenly. Add cold pieces of butter and cream cheese. Pulse a few times to cut the fats into the dough, then run the processor continuously just barely long enough to see it come together but not long enough for it to clump in a ball around the blades.
Scrape the dough out onto plastic wrap. Divide it into two equal pieces and shape them into disks about the size of hockey pucks. Wrap them tightly in the plastic wrap and refrigerate a few hours to overnight.
The rolling out and rolling up stage of this recipe moves quickly, so I encourage reading through it completely before beginning. As with any butter-based dough, you want to try to keep it as cold as possible so that it remains flaky during baking. Get all your filling ingredients measured, lined up and ready. Warm the preserves in a small saucepan until they loosen up to spreadable consistency, then remove from heat. Divide the cinnamon sugar and toasted pecans so that you have equal amounts for each dough disk. Set up two baking sheets, lined with parchment, and arrange enough space in the fridge to chill them for an hour or two.
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured countertop, until it is about 1/8” thick and roughly 12” in diameter. Working from the edges inward, brush half of the melted preserves onto the dough round. You should see quite a lot of dough through the preserves and try to keep the glaze light in the center of the dough round, which will ultimately be the tips of each rugelach.
Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar all over the glazed dough, and then scatter the toasted pecan bits evenly over the sugar. Lay a piece of parchment or waxed paper over the dough round and gently press to secure the pecan bits into the dough. Carefully peel the paper away and set it aside for the second batch.
Using a pizza wheel, cut the dough into 16 equal triangles, with tips at the center of the dough round. The easiest way to do this is to cut it into fourths, then cut the fourths into eighths and finally the eighths into sixteenths. This will make sense to you when you begin cutting. Some of the pecan pieces will fall off or come loose; just press them back onto the dough.
Beginning with one of the triangles, start rolling from the outer, wide end toward the center, as if rolling up a crescent roll. Keep it tight as you go and place the cookie on the parchment-lined baking sheet. I found it easier, once I had about three of the triangles rolled, to use my bench scraper to loosen a triangle away from the round before rolling. The far-away side of the dough round was the trickiest, and next time I may try rolling it on parchment paper that can be moved around for the rolling step.
When all 16 cookies have been rolled, cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge. Repeat with the second dough disk. Chill the cookies for at least an hour before baking.
Toward the end of chill time, pre-heat the oven to 350° F, with the oven rack in the center position. I baked only one sheet at a time, but if you wish to bake both at once, arrange the racks with enough room for both and plan to rotate the pans halfway through baking time.
Prepare an egg wash (beaten egg with a teaspoon of cold water) and lightly brush the chilled cookies. Sprinkle them with a pinch of sugar. You can use decorative sugar or (as I did with my second batch) a pinch of natural turbinado sugar.
Bake for about 25 minutes, until cookies are puffed up a bit and golden brown in color. Cool on the pan for about 5 minutes, then use a spatula to transfer them to a cooling rack.
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!”