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.
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!”
The whole family is abuzz about the ways my Gram made Christmas special. I’ve been reminiscing this season, as I’ve hung on our own tree the precious ornaments Gram gave me throughout my childhood. My aunt coached me through the making of Gram’s molasses cookies, a recipe that was handed down from my great-grandmother. And today, I’m misty-eyed over this sentimental essay shared by my younger cousin, Brad. Our grandmother made an indelible mark on all of us. ❤
Christmas conjures memories, often of things from childhood. Like presents received, trips visiting family, or perhaps getting terribly sick with the flu and swearing off mincemeat pie or anything that even smells like it for rest your life. OK, that was a little personal memory. But you get the idea.
Like my cousin, Terrie, I have many fond memories of our grandma. She was a special, kind, fun, silly and loving person to us both. Grandma taught Terrie and me a lot of lessons about cooking, and I say to this day, just as my cousin does, that my love for cooking stems from the many hours spent in her kitchen.
When I was young, one Christmas tradition was that the week after Thanksgiving, it was time to go spend an entire day at Grandma’s kicking off the Christmas season. I would be dropped off early in the morning and Grandma would have the day planned. It started with me putting up the Christmas village she made at a ceramics shop, which, coincidentally, was owned by family members from my dad’s side of the family. (It was a pretty rural community.)
The village is one of my favorite things to do each holiday season, and I am very particular about the arrangement, the color of the lights, where the little pipe cleaner townspeople live and what they are doing in their little Christmas town. I think each year as a child, I had new and more elaborate soap opera-type stories.
At Grandma’s house, after the Christmas village came the tree. As I remember, it was the silver tinsel-type tree that was considered chic during the ‘70s. That, or knowing Grandma’s frugality, it was found at a yard sale. I do remember she had some beautiful and, what I thought at the wise age of 5 or 6, were super-fancy and expensive ornaments. The fragile ones Grandma would hang up, and the less-likely-to-break-in-an-excited-youth’s-hands ones, I would place around the tree. And then move. And move again. And move again. To this day, I rarely hang an ornament that isn’t moved about two or three times before the holiday season is over.
The afternoon brought the cookie baking, and Terrie is going to share one of our favorites—Gram’s Molasses Cookies. During my early years, I was the only grandkid living close to Grandma, so I got to spend the whole day as “host” of my own baking show in her kitchen. I seriously would pretend I was on TV telling my audience what I was doing. Making the cookies was so much fun—learning to sift the flour and why you had to sift, measuring the ingredients, asking about the difference between “oleo” and butter. Terrie has a photo that Gram took of me baking those cookies, and to say I was not the tidiest 4-year-old “chef” would be an understatement.
I am so thrilled that Terrie is sharing this recipe, and I hope they bring warmth and happiness to your family this year and for years to come, as they have with Terrie and me.
If you’d like to go behind-the-scenes in making the molasses cookies that are so special to our family, you can link to the recipe by clicking the photo below. Enjoy!
It strikes me funny that a dessert as simple and humble as bread pudding shows up so frequently on upscale restaurant menus. Rarely do you find it an option in a sandwich shop or a casual dining joint. But go to a “nicer” place, and there it is—usually spiked with some kind of liqueur and almost always drenched in a rich creamy sauce. They can make it as fancy as they like, but as far as I’m concerned, my grandmother set the bar on bread pudding. Hers was never quite the same twice, but it was always delicious.
Of all the cooking lessons Gram gave me in her small upstate New York kitchen, one of the most important—that she lived out every day—was to “waste nothing.” As a survivor of the Great Depression, she saved things that most people threw away, including scrap pieces of aluminum foil, fabric remnants, even used twist ties. But the best things she saved went into a bread bag in her freezer, until she had collected four cups worth, enough to make a batch of her famous bread pudding. End pieces of stale bread, that last uneaten sweet roll and even the occasional hamburger bun were revitalized into a delicious, custardy dessert that was cinnamon-y and sweet and tasted like a day at Gram’s house.
I was taken aback recently to realize that I only have four handwritten recipe cards left to me by my cooking mentor, but I’m thrilled that one of them is titled “Basic Bread Pudding.” When I got the news last summer that she had passed away, just as I was awaiting delivery of my new gas range, I pulled out every bread scrap we had in the freezer, and this pudding is the first thing I baked in it.
Like everything else she made, Gram’s recipe for bread pudding is flexible; it’s meant to make use of whatever ingredients you happen to have on hand. The formula is simple, and you can dress it up (or not) however you like. If you like it more custardy, she had a suggestion for that on the back of the card (I’ve included it below, as a direct quote from Gram).
In honor of what would have been Gram’s 99th birthday this week, I’m proud to share her recipe with you. She would have been tickled pink, and also a little surprised, because to her, bread pudding was a given.
There’s a reason that bread pudding today is showing up on upscale restaurant menus. It’s rich, dense, custardy, and so, so comforting. You can flex the flavors to match the season, serve it warm with a creamy sauce or chilled, straight from the fridge. Frankly, I’m in favor of having it for breakfast. Bottom line, it’s a fantastic dessert that you can make yourself, and (by way of my pictures and descriptions) my grandma is going to show you how easy it is.
For this batch, I’ve followed Gram’s lead in pulling some scraps from the freezer. I made sourdough challah a couple months back, and I also found some leftover cinnamon rolls, just minding their own business in the freezer. I swapped out the raisins for chopped dates and dried apples, and some of the cinnamon for cardamom. Oh, and I also boozed them up a little bit by soaking the dates in some Grand Marnier (of course, I did).
Ingredients for “Basic Bread Pudding”
2 cups milk
4 cups coarse bread cubes
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 beaten eggs
1/2 cup raisins (or other fruit)
1 tsp. cinnamon or nutmeg
Pour into 1 1/2 quart casserole. Set in pan of hot water. Bake at 350° F for about one hour or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.
For more “custardy” pudding, use 4 cups milk and reduce bread cubes to 2 cups.
Gram (on the back of the recipe card)
Follow along, to see how easy it is to create this luscious dessert! You’ll find a downloadable recipe to print at the end of the post. Enjoy!
I suppose you want to know about the rich caramel sauce that’s drizzled all over the pudding? It’s salted caramel sauce, which I might have made from scratch (but didn’t). This time, I took an easy shortcut by warming salted caramel ice cream topping in the microwave with a few tablespoons of heavy cream. It thinned out nicely and provided the perfect finishing touch. Gram would’ve loved that idea, I’m sure of it. Just wait ‘til Christmas, when I share her recipe for molasses cookies!