Holy Crap, it’s Christmas! Cookies Part II: Soft Molasses Cookies

warm spiced cookies + a $5 bottle of blanc de blancs (thanks trader joe!) = enough holiday spirit to finally get around to decorating the tree

The Lovechild of a Gingerbread Man and a Snickerdoodle

Most of my Christmas standards are things I make because other people like them or because they’re my grandma’s recipes. In some ways, isn’t Christmas really all about grandmas? These are the one exception. They’re the cookies I make because I like them.

you could use cinnamon sugar if you want, but there's plenty of cinnamon in the dough and with the molasses making the dough darker, I'm not sure it would have much of a visual effectTexturally, they’re almost identical to snickerdoodles—they have the same ratio of butter : sugar : flour :  eggs and they’re also rolled in sugar before baking, so the outside gets crackly and has a little crunch. But flavor-wise, they’re all gingerbread: molasses and cinnamon and nutmeg and ginger and cloves. You can imagine how they smell as they bake.

The best part about these cookies is that if you don’t over-bake them, they turn out amazingly soft. And they stay that way even after they cool, even if you don’t store them in a perfectly airtight container, even if you want to make them a week before Christmas and savor them until New Year’s Day. I think it must be because of the little bit of oil in the dough. It does make them a little more prone to falling apart, but I think that’s a small price to pay for enduring just-out-of-the-oven softness.

If you like the kind of gingerbread that bites back, you might want to double all the spices. I think they’re  perfect as is: as much butter as you can possibly get into a cookie without it melting into a puddle of goo (which they occasionally do anyway, as you can see at approximately 3 o’clock in the picture above), just enough molasses and spices to be festive without getting too overbearing, and a little sparkle from the sugary coating. They’re also the easiest part of this year’s pared-down cookie assortment.

I don't know why they look so much darker here than above. Same cookies, I swear. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Recipe: Soft Molasses Cookies (from JoyofBaking.com)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flourI would not use blackstrap molasses. Also, whatever kind of measuring device you use, spray it with non-stick cooking spray first and you'll save yourself a lot of fuss.
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/4 teaspoon regular)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons neutral cooking oil (I used peanut)
  • 1/3 cup unsulphured molasses
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup white sugar (for rolling)

Method:

1. Whisk the dry ingredients together (flour, soda, salt, & spices).

2. Cream the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy (2-3 minutes with a stand or hand mixer, 5-10 minutes arm power).

3. Add the oil, molasses, egg, and vanilla to the butter mixture and beat until fully incorporated.

4. Add the flour mixture and stir just until fully incorporated.butter and brown sugar, beaten until light and fluffy

5. Cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or up to a week.

6. Preheat the oven to 375 and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

7. Put the white sugar in a bowl. Shape the cookies by pinching off pieces of dough about the size of a walnut, rolling them between your palms until they form smooth balls, and coating them in the sugar.

8. Using something with a flat bottom, like a drinking glass, flatten the balls slightly.

squish. also, this glass wants scotch.

9. Bake for 9-10 minutes, or until the tops of the cookies are crinkled but barely dry. They will look a little underdone.

10. Let them cool on the pans for about 10 minutes and then remove them to a cooling rack or paper towels to cool completely. Store any that don’t get eaten immediately in an airtight container.

Holy Crap, it’s Christmas! Cookies Part I: Date-Nut Pinwheels

making with the holiday smells

Christmas kind of snuck up on me this year. Normally, I’d be at least a week into a meticulously worked-out plan to make a dozen different edible gifts and send them all over the country. It started in high school, when I’d bake a dozen kinds of cookies, carefully selected to represent a balance of chocolate/fruit/nuts/mint and a variety of shapes and colors and textures. Last year, I got excited about giving people mulled wine kits with little cheesecloth bags of mulling spices and made four different kinds of chocolate-covered buttercreams. This year, it wasn’t until a week before the holiday that I had the sudden realization that if I didn’t make cookies right now, I would not be making any Christmas cookies at all this year. 

The upside of having to pare my usual holiday efforts down to a bare minimum is that it made me discover what my traditions are—the recipes that have become my “standards,” the things I absolutely have to make in order to feel like the holidays are happening. So instead of scouring the internet for new ideas or comparing half a dozen different recipes to find the common denominator, this year I’m relying on tried-and-true favorites, a combination of inherited recipes and new favorites discovered somewhere along the way:

Why Date-Nut Pinwheels Make the Cut

I actually stirred the nuts in at the end rather than cooking them in the jam to retain a little more crunchMy grandmother made these every year at Christmas: a rich sugar cookie dough filled with a mixture of dates and walnuts or pecans, simmered with sugar and water until they’re like a thick jam. The cookie dough calls for half brown sugar and half white sugar, so it has just a hint of warm molasses flavor. It also calls for half butter and half shortening, so the texture is in between soft and crispy. Normally, I like cookies baked just until they’re barely done and gooey in the middle when they’re hot. But one of my uncles likes these almost “overdone,” and in this case, I think he’s onto something. The date mixture keeps them soft in the middle, but the edges get crisp and the deeper color represents more caramelization and the slightly-nutty flavor of browned butter.

You could use all butter, which will result in a slightly flatter and crisper cookie (due to the water content in the butter), or all shortening/lard, which will result in a slightly softer and puffier cookie without the buttery flavor. I like the flavor and texture you get by using half and half.

They’re not quite as simple as a drop cookie, but also not really designed to impress anyone. The logs are never quite perfectly circular and the ends are always a little wonky. I was never a big fan as a kid, but I’ve gotten increasingly fond of them. They seem to symbolize the caring labor of holiday baking. They’re something you make because they’re someone’s favorite, because they’re familiar, because your grandma made them, not to show off. And although the combination of butter, dates, and pecans may not be inventive or aspirational, it’s still pretty delicious. they're kinda decorative, in a homely way

Recipe: Date-Nut Pinwheelsabout this much dates (makes approximately 5 dozen)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup butter (8 T.), softened 
  • 1/2 cup shortening or lard
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar (divided)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 4 cups. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 1/2 cups dates, pitted and chopped you don't have to dice them too small, because they'll mostly dissolve into paste; you could probably use pre-chopped dates coated in flour, too--the flour might make the paste a little thicker, but you could just add more water if necessary
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Method:

1. Chop up the dates and nuts and place them in a saucepan with the water and 1/2 cup sugar. Simmer gently over medium heat until the mixture is thick, like jam. Let cool, and add water if necessary to make it a spreadable consistency. This step can be done in advance, just refrigerate it and then let it come back to room temperature before assembling the cookies.

2. Blend together the butter, shortening/lard, and sugars until light and fluffy (I use a stand mixer, but an electric whisk or some vigorous arm power would work too). Add the eggs and vanilla and continue whisking until well combined.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking soda. Add that to the butter mixture and stir until just combined.

3. Divide the dough into 3 equal sections, and roll each one in to a log about 1.5-2” in diameter. Cover them in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

4. Roll each log into a rectangle between 1/4” and 1/2” inch thick—I do this directly on the same piece of plastic wrap I originally wrapped it in. Spread a third of the cooled (not cold) filling evenly over the surface, leaving 1/2” plain on one of the long ends and roll it up jelly-roll style, starting from the opposite long end. The plastic wrap can help you roll.

I let the size of the plastic wrap guide the size of my rectangle, exact dimensions are not important

Repeat with the remaining 2 logs of dough, re-wrap them in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour or up to a week. Or double-wrap them and freeze for up to 3 months. 

5. Preheat the oven to 400F. Slice the chilled rolls into 1/4”-1/2” thick pieces using a serrated knife and place at least 2” apart on ungreased baking sheets (lined with parchment paper if desired). Bake for 10-12 minutes or until a little brown around the edges. Turn your baking sheets halfway through if your oven is uneven.

the dough is soft, so I find it easier to get the logs in and out of the fridge on a baking sheet as with all slice & bake cookies, you can keep a log in the fridge or freezer for short-notice treats anytime.

6. Let cool on baking sheets for 10 minutes, and then remove to wire racks or paper towels. When completely cooled, store in an airtight container.