Saturday, September 7, 2013

My Cherished Canadian Recipe: Old-Fashioned Molasses Cookies

While I have lived in Edmonton since 1994, I grew up in Nova Scotia, in a family that has been in that part of the world for generations. I've mentioned my family background before, a mishmash of South Shore German and Swiss, Annapolis Valley English-via-Connecticut Planters, Parrsboro-area English-via-Massachusetts Loyalists, and a series of adventurous brides who crossed The Pond from England to make new lives with dashing sea captains. The recipe I'll share today comes from my husband's family. His dad's people were English sailors who stayed in Halifax when their time in the Navy ended, and Gaelic-speaking Scots whose families came to Cape Breton during the Highland Clearances; his mom's folks are Acadian French who found refuge in the wilds of New Brunswick and married Quebecois families after the Expulsion. (Some early Acadian families are also Metis by blood, although records are so scarce that mitochondrial DNA tests are often the only evidence, and the Metis families were integrated into Acadian culture, instead of developing a distinct culture as happened on the Prairies.)

Molasses was a kitchen staple in the Maritimes as a result of the trade triangle between the Caribbean, Nova Scotia, and Great Britain. We shipped timber out - or turned the timber into sailing vessels - and the ships returned laden with molasses from the sugarcane plantations. (Rum is the favoured distilled alcohol of the Maritimes for the same reason.) For more on the history of molasses as a Canadian food, check out this great post from Bridget Oland from earlier in the Canadian Food Experience series.

This soft molasses cookie recipe is a family favourite that is now at least 120 years old. It came from Mrs. Archie Legere, an aunt of my husband's Acadian grandmother, who operated a hotel at one time (at least, according to the notes in the margin of the recipe card made by my husband's Aunt Lorraine Miller). I believe it originally would have been made with butter instead of shortening, and been written with imperial measurements instead of the metric provided by Aunt Lorraine (who was a high-school home economics teacher). 

We made them as written with my mother-in-law during their visit earlier this summer. They're best eaten warm, when they're still soft; when they've cooled, I like to eat them dipped in a cup of milk or orange pekoe tea. They also make a delicious base for ice cream sandwiches.

Old-Fashioned Molasses Cookies

250 mL sugar (I use dark brown sugar for extra molasses flavour, but you can use white.)
250 mL shortening
250 mL molasses (I used fancy molasses, but you can sub in blackstrap or cooking molasses.)
(Measure molasses in a liquid measuring cup that's been coated with cooking oil.)
1 egg
5 mL ginger powder (this gives a very mild ginger flavour)
5 mL salt
1125 mL all-purpose flour (sifted)
30 mL baking soda dissolved in 60 mL strong coffee (can make using 10 mL instant coffee)

Preheat oven to 375F / 180C.
Mix all dry ingredients (flour, salt, ginger) and set aside.
Cream the shortening until soft, add sugar and mix well, add molasses and mix well, then add egg and mix well. Then make and add soda-and-coffee mixture and mix well. 

Creamed mixture of all wet ingredients just before adding flour mixture.
Add the flour a little at a time until you've used it all up. The dough will form a ball and need to be scraped off your mixer attachment a couple of times. 

Roll on a lightly floured board with a rolling pin to 1/2"/1 cm thickness. (You can also roll them thinner, and get something more like a ginger snap instead of a soft cookie after baking. You might want to roll in a little extra flour to get the consistency you want.) 

If you look closely you can tell someone has been licking the beater.
Cut with a floured cutter (we used the rim of a juice cup), flatten with a fork if desired, place on parchment paper on a baking sheet, and bake for 12 minutes.

PS: I have a very similar recipe that came from my mom's side of the family, that my great-grandmother Lantz had found in a newspaper (so, dating to 1920-ish). It calls for 2 eggs instead of one, butter instead of shortening, triple the ginger, and milk instead of coffee. My mom used to make a double batch and freeze part of the dough in a roll, which could then be sliced while frozen to make a batch on short notice. She claims they're best served with hot chocolate at impromptu skating parties on the lake.

This post is part of the Canadian Food Experience project (also on Facebook) proposed by my friend Valerie Lugonja, who is a board member of Slow Food Edmonton. The project began June 7th, 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

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