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Frederick Rickmeyer, our hats are off to you and your note-taking ways.
Shortly after the turn of the last century, Frederick started documenting his wife's recipes on the blank memoranda pages of a cookbook. He included titles like My Wife's Own Original Spanish Bun and comments like "as good as ever," along with the ingredients and dates.
That "as good as ever" rating, included on a December 1914 recipe called My Wife's Jumbles, intrigued his great-granddaughter Laurie Pavlos, of Old Saybrook, Conn. Pavlos inherited the fragile and fading cookbook, along with more of Frederick's notes, from her grandmother. But Pavlos' attempts to re-create her great-grandmother Ethel Rickmeyer's jumbles, or molasses cookies, all failed.
"They were runny and strange, and they smelled good until they started burning," she tells NPR's Melissa Block. Pavlos tried the recipe as drop cookies, resulting in a smoky disaster. She had minor success with them as bar cookies, but knew something was just not right.
"My great-grandmother, same vintage [as Ethel], would have made exactly this kind of cookie," Baggett tells Block. "They were late 19th century, early 20th century, when we were still using a lot of molasses. The cakey gingerbread people are familiar with is also of the same style, except this is in a drop cookie form."
As for why the recipe won't work, Baggett thinks Frederick may have simply written down the wrong measurements.
"There's too much liquid in the recipe," she says. "Remember, home bakers often really didn't measure things. [Ethel] may have used a coffee cup or a teacup to measure the flour, and just thrown in a little of this and that. [Frederick] could have been a very precise kind of person, but sitting at the table and jotting down what she was saying would have led to a little bit of a problem for someone 100 years later."
Baggett has another quibble with Frederick's notes: "These really aren't jumbles," she says. "The traditional word jumbal actually referred to a really 16th, 17th, 18th century cookie."
It's thought the word comes from the Arabic word for twin, gemel, which makes sense, since the cookie was originally shaped like a pretzel. They were also not particularly sweet.
"Eventually, they evolved into a sugar cookie shaped into a ring," Baggett says, noting that people have also lost the history behind the word jumbal. "They assumed it meant a jumble of ingredients and changed the spelling. Now, a jumble can pretty much be anything you want."
Pavlos says the reworked Rickmeyer recipe yields a good molasses cookie, although they are a bit finicky as they need to be baked for the precise amount of time for the right texture.
Block, who tried the final product, describes the dark, golden brown cookies as "really chewy — not too sweet, which is great. They feel like a vintage cookie to me, but in a good way."
Baggett says taste preferences for this cookie may be a generational thing. "People that did enjoy the old-fashioned, very spicy gingersnaps or drop molasses cookies would probably like it very much," she says of her reworked recipe. "But I don't think my grandkids would like it, because they've never had anything that strongly molasses."
For those little taste buds, Baggett also offers a less molasses-laden recipe, below.
Pavlos says her great-grandmother's jumbles are unlikely to replace the popular sweet molasses cookies her mother used to make, but she does like the leanness of the recipe.
"This is an interesting thing," she says. "It doesn't have egg, it doesn't have dairy. It has very little fat. People who are avoiding those things may find this recipe very interesting."
Recipe: Great-Grandmother Rickmeyer's Molasses Cookies
Cookbook author Nancy Baggett offers this version of the molasses "jumble" cookie recipe drawn from Frederick Rickmeyer's handwritten notes. American home cooks were always exhorted to be frugal, Baggett says, so cookies like these that required no eggs, butter or even salt and made use of leftover sour milk were enormously popular. (The updated version here calls for fresh milk soured with a little cider vinegar.)
2 cups unsifted flour, plus 2 to 3 tablespoons more if needed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) Crisco (upped from original 1 tablespoon)
1/4 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
1 cup molasses (not blackstrap)
1 teaspoon warm water stirred together with 1 teaspoon baking soda until dissolved
3 1/2 tablespoons whole or low-fat milk, stirred together with 1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees. Thoroughly stir together 2 cups flour, the cinnamon and the ginger in a bowl. Set aside.
In a heavy, medium-large saucepan, melt the Crisco over medium heat until just melted, stirring. Immediately remove from burner. Vigorously stir in the brown sugar, then the molasses and water-soda mixture until well blended. Gently stir in the flour-spice mixture, then the milk mixture until evenly incorporated. Do not overmix. Let stand to cool and firm up for 5 minutes. If necessary, a tablespoon at a time, stir in up to 3 tablespoons more flour to stiffen the dough just enough that it can be dropped; it should still be slightly fluid, not stiff.
On well-greased baking sheets, drop the dough using a slightly mounded 1 tablespoon measuring spoon, spacing the cookies about 2 1/2 inches apart. Bake, center rack, until the edges are nicely brown and the cookies are just barely firm when pressed on top, about 8 to 11 minutes. Let stand to firm up for 3 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Let stand until completely cooled before packing airtight. Makes about 30 cookies, 2 3/4 inches each.
Recipe: Glazed Double-Ginger Molasses Monster Cookies
Nancy Baggett says the strong molasses element in the Rickmeyer recipe may not appeal to modern tastes. She suggests readers try this 21st century version for those who'd like to compare how Americans' tastes have changed over time.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butted, slightly softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup light or dark molasses
1 tablespoon peeled and finely grated fresh ginger root
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon, Saigon cinnamon preferred
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted after measuring
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into bits
Position a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees. Grease several large baking sheets or coat with nonstick spray.
In a large mixer bowl, beat the butter and brown and granulated sugars until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, then the molasses, ginger root, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and salt, and beat until smoothly incorporated.
Gradually beat in the flour until the dough is smooth and well-blended. If the dough is crumbly, work in up to 3 teaspoons water until it holds together. Let stand for 10 minutes, if needed, to firm up slightly.
Divide the dough in half. Then shape each half into 12 balls. Space them about 3 1/2 inches apart on the baking sheets. With a palm, press the balls down until evenly thick and 3 inches in diameter.
Bake on the oven's middle rack for 10 to 15 minutes or until the cookies are browned on top and just beginning to firm up when tapped in the center. Be careful not to overbake. Remove the pans from the oven. Let the cookies firm up for several minutes. Using a wide-bladed spatula, transfer the cookies to racks and let cool completely.
For the glaze: In a 1-quart saucepan, stir together the powdered sugar, butter and 3 1/2 tablespoons water until blended. Bring to a boil, stirring, over medium high heat. Boil just until smooth and translucent, 30 to 45 seconds. Stir to recombine the glaze, then use immediately while still hot; it may become grainy or thick if allowed to cool.
Using a pastry brush (or a paper towel) dipped into the glaze, brush evenly over the cookies until all are glazed. Thin glaze with drops of water if needed. Let stand until the glaze sets, at least 30 minutes. It may become sugar and flaky like doughnut glaze; this is normal.
Makes 24 4-inch cookies
Glazed Double-Ginger Molasses Monster Cookies recipe excerpted from Simply Sensational Cookies, by Nancy Baggett. Copyright 2012 by Nancy Baggett. Excerpted by permission of Wiley.