In my previous post I mentioned the challenges nineteenth-century cooks faced trying to overcome the flavor of molasses. Eliza Leslie, a popular cookbook author in the 1830s and 1840s, published a few recipes using lemon zest, and in this post I’ve adapted one of her better ones.
I tried, first, a recipe for “Franklin cakes,” which involved a lot of eggs, was baked in “little queen cake tins” — I used a muffin pan — and wound up resembling failed popovers, dense and eggy. They weren’t at all bad, though I don’t know that I’d make them again. If you’ve ever eaten gingerbread cake with lemon curd, the flavor combination is similar, but with modern gingerbread, it’s a comparatively delicate combination. In this recipe, you get the impression the molasses and lemon are fighting for their lives.
Miss Leslie’s “gingerbread nuts” were better — “nuts,” because you roll them into little balls that resemble nuts. (Think Pfeffernüssen or “pepper nuts,” the German spice cookies now seen only at Christmas.) They’re something like gingersnaps, but the molasses and lemon take center stage, and the spice fades into the background.
Rub half a pound of butter into a pound and a half of sifted flour; and mix in half a pound of brown sugar, crushed fine with the rolling-pin. Add two large table-spoonfuls of ginger, a tea-spoonful of powdered cloves, and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon. Stir in a pint of molasses, and the grated peel of a large lemon, but not the juice, as you must add at the last, a very small tea-spoonful of pearl-ash dissolved in a little lukewarm water, and pearl-ash entirely destroys the taste of lemon-juice and of every other acid. Stir the whole mixture very hard with a spaddle or with a wooden spoon, and make it into a lump of dough just stiff enough to roll out into a sheet about half an inch thick. Cut it out into small cakes about the size of a quarter dollar; or make it up, with your hands well floured, into little round balls, flattening them on the top. Lay them in buttered pans, and bake them in a moderate oven. They will keep several weeks. Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery, In Its Various Branches (Philadelphia: E.L. Carey & Hart, 1840), pp. 363–4.
Recipe: Molasses-lemon wafers
Makes about 50 cookies.
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cut into small pieces
- 1/2 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
- grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1 cup molasses
- Preheat the oven to 350° and lightly grease two baking sheets.
- Whisk together the flours, spices, salt, and soda. Rub in the butter (see directions here) until the texture resembles cornmeal, then rub in the sugar. Stir in the molasses.
- Roll tablespoonfuls into balls between your hands. (The mixture is pretty sticky; slightly wet hands help. You can also chill it first if you care more about practicality than historical authenticity.) Place them on the baking sheets an inch or so apart; they will spread as they bake.
- Bake 10-12 minutes or until just set up enough that you can move them off the pans. Cool on racks. They will harden as they cool, then soften up again after a day or two.