This recipe started as a historical reenactment and turned into an attempt to see how close I could get to my own Platonic ideal of a cookie while staying within the spirit of antebellum cuisine. After a few tries I got something I was pretty happy with, and this one you can make for your friends without having to explain that it was part of some guy’s research project.
The reenactment was a complete failure, at least as a reenactment. I was trying to make Mary Randolph’s sugar gingerbread:
Take two pounds of the nicest brown sugar, dry and pound it, put it into three quarts of flour, add a large cup full of powdered ginger, and sift the mixture; wash the salt out of a pound of butter, and cream it; have twelve eggs well beaten; work into the butter first, the mixture, then the froth from the eggs, until all are in, and it is quite light; add a glass of brandy, butter shallow moulds, pour it in, and bake in a quick oven. Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook (1824; reprint Baltimore: John Plaskitt, 1836)
I did the usual improvisation: cutting the recipe down to 1/4 size because I do not have an antebellum-sized family; guessing at how big a glass of brandy she meant; substituting muffin pans for “shallow moulds.” I added nutmeg because I thought brandy really cried out for nutmeg. And everything was going fine until I tried to pour it into the muffin pans. It didn’t pour. I had dough, not batter. So I shaped it into balls and baked it on baking sheets, as cookies.
The cookies had decent flavor, but they were dry and bready, and they were stale the next day. Not really worth making again. I liked the brandy flavor, though, and this is the only recipe I’ve seen that used it — leave it to the Virginians to put brandy in the gingerbread! — so I started wondering whether I could make this into a cookie I really liked.
The frustrating part of this is that I know how to make a soft, chewy ginger cookie. For a chewy cookie you want the butter melted, not creamed, and you need far more sugar than any antebellum cook would ever have used — three times the proportion of sugar to flour that Mrs. Randolph called for. (“Sugar” gingerbread meant not that it had a lot of sugar but that it used sugar instead of molasses.) But I wanted the cookies to be at least plausibly antebellum, so I hunted around until I found a recipe for gingerbread nuts that called for melted butter and a little more sugar:
Put into an earthen vessel 1 lb. of molasses, 1 lb. of coarse brown sugar, and 1 lb. of butter; place the vessel over the fire in a sauce-pan of boiling water, and let it remain until the butter and sugar are dissolved. In the mean time mix together 1 1/4 oz. of allspice pounded fine; 2 ozs. of ginger, and 2 lbs. of flour; stir this into the butter, sugar and molasses; make into small cakes and bake them about a quarter of an hour. Sarah Josepha Hale, The Ladies’ New Book of Cookery (New York: H. Long & Brother, 1852).
Good enough for a mashup.
I did three other things to the final recipe. First, added the zest of an orange, which gives another layer of flavor and does appear in some antebellum gingerbread recipes. Second, used just all-purpose flour, because nothing is going to scream cookie! to our jaded twenty-first century palates if it’s got whole-wheat in it. And third, took the cookies out of the oven when they were just a bit underdone, so they’d stay chewy in the centers. I am certain that no respectable nineteenth-century housewife would serve underbaked cookies, but I am neither nineteenth-century, a housewife, nor respectvable, so what the hell. Enjoy.
Recipe: Brandy-orange ginger cookies
Yes, you really want three tablespoons of ginger. That is not a misprint. Trust me!
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons ground ginger
- 1/2 a nutmeg, grated, or 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup butter
- 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
- 3 eggs
- grated zest of 1 orange
- 2 tablespoons brandy
- Preheat the oven to 375° and set the racks in the upper and lower middle. Grease two baking sheets.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, nutmeg, salt, and baking soda.
- Melt the butter. Pour it into a second bowl and stir in the brown sugar, then the eggs, and finally the orange zest and brandy. Stir in the flour mixture to combine.
- Shape the dough into 1-inch balls and set an inch or two apart on baking sheets. Bake about 10 minutes, or until the cookies are golden at the edges and just set but still soft in the middle.
Makes about 3 dozen cookies.