Did you ever lose something, thought you’d found it only to discover what you found was not really what you were looking for? That’s happened to me a number of times, once with a dog. We went on a month-long vacation and left a house sitter to care for our two collie dogs. Our sable colored collie, Megan, ran away and the house sitter found her at the local dog pound much to our relief. Mild-mannered Megan was a wanderer. When we lived in Gainesville, FL in the mid-70s she’d regularly mozy down to the Hari Krishna Temple a few blocks away, snooze in the shade while listening to their chanting, get feed and eventually head back home. They liked having her around according to the abbot, so I never worried that she was causing a problem. Collies are not particularly smart but to her credit, she never bought into the Krishna thing, although I did wonder once when she showed up with a white mark between her eyes. On closer examination, it appeared to be the work of local pigeons. But, I digress…when we got home several weeks later from our trip we looked in the backyard and saw an old washed-out sable collie that was not Megan. We took the old dog back to the pound, sadly we never found Megan, her wandering had finally caught up with her or perhaps the Hari Krishnas did.
On the surface, the story I’m about to tell is about a lost family recipe, a molasses cookie recipe of all things but, as you will see, it’s much more than that…
The recipe is attributed to my great-grandmother Maude Phelps, I’m sure it predates her, but that is where the cookie legend begins. Everyone in our family right down to our kids has eaten and made these cookies. We don’t make them often but when we do, everybody is in cookie heaven, that is, until the day we discovered we’d lost the recipe!
Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar-making process. Cheap and plentiful, molasses was widely used in many baked goods prior to the 20th century. Unlike refined sugar, molasses retains an array of vitamins and minerals. Molasses is also hygroscopic, it absorbs moisture. If you’ve ever reached for a previously opened bag of brown sugar in the back of the pantry and found it hard as a rock, that’s due to the hygroscopic properties of molasses in the brown sugar. Baked goods made with molasses become softer with time. Molasses cookies become a bit sticky and taste better the second day.
I was about 9 or 10 years old when I had my first molasses cookie. I was by myself visiting my great-grandmother Maude Phelps, who coincidentally had an old collie dog named Major that looked a lot like the collie from the dog pound now that I think about it. My grandmother was not a warm and doting grandmother so a visit, particularly solo was not much fun. As I stood in the kitchen watching her work at the sink, she turned and asked if I’d like some cookies. Cookies! I perked right up! She walked across the kitchen, opened the cellar door, and reached up to the left of the top step gently lifting a cookie jar from the shelf. Moving slowly with the cookie jar nestled in her arms she put it on the kitchen counter, lifted the tin lid, looked at me, smiled, and said “help yourself”.
The cookie jar was half-filled with mysterious-looking light brown cookies. My 10-year-old brain quickly scanned through known cookies: not chocolate chip, not oatmeal, not peanut butter… I began to worry. I reached in and found a sticky mass of cookies stuck together one on top of another. I couldn’t pull them apart without breaking them. Now I was really worried because my grandmother was a tad strict, “will grandma be mad at me if I break them?” I thought. She smiled and said, “don’t worry, that is what happens with molasses cookies, they stick together”.
I walked away with a stack of half-torn cookies clutched in my hand. I sat at the kitchen table by the window. She poured me a glass of milk and brought a small plate to put the cookie pieces on. I cautiously took a tiny bite. Sweet but not too sweet, I’d never tasted anything like this cookie before. The cookie was soft, not hard like most cookies I’d eaten. I immediately fell in love with the taste of molasses. The moist cakey cookies stuck to the roof of my mouth and my fingers, I had to wash them down with milk and lick my fingers clean. I asked if I could have some more. “Why certainly,” she said beaming proudly as she brought the cookie jar over to the table.
I recently verified this memory with my mother asking, “did grandma Phelps keep a cookie jar at the top of the cellar stairs?” Indeed, she did, my mother confirmed. That was my introduction to molasses cookies.
Many years ago my mother gave me the recipe on a 3 x 5 card. Over the years it became stained with molasses fingerprints and smeared flour. When we’d make them we’d simply pulled out the card and followed the directions not giving it much thought. I am notorious for improvising in the kitchen but when it comes to baking that is not a good idea. Baking is science at work, I always followed the molasses cookie recipe to the letter.
We moved from our house of 22 years in 2007 somehow the molasses cookie recipe card got lost in the move. We didn’t realize it until many months later when we decided to make them one day. In a panic, I called our kids “Do you know what happened to the molasses cookie recipe card? Did you take it? ” I asked if they had a copy of the recipe but nobody did. I thought, okay, my mother will certainly have the recipe, I’ll ask her to send it. I was relieved when she said she’d mail me a new card. We got the card a week or so later and promptly made cookies following the recipe exactly as we always did…the cookies were not the same. The original cookies are light and cakey in texture, these were not cakey. We studied the recipe. Was there something different or missing? Since we’d always followed it exactly as written none of us knew the recipe from memory. My wife Sue said, “isn’t buttermilk in the original?”. You’d think I’d remember some like that since you either have buttermilk in your fridge or you don’t. Who keeps buttermilk around these days just in case (well we do actually)?
I called my mother and told her this is not the correct recipe, the cookies are not cakey enough. She said she’d ask her sister Carole. Carole sent me a recipe, we made it and that was not correct either. Then my mother said she had a recipe from my Aunt Eunice (Maude’s daughter-in-law), she sent that, it was pretty close. Finally, I posted a short version of my molasses cookie woes to Facebook, and my cousin Kim saw it. She messaged me with 3 more molasses cookie recipes from my grandmother, my mother’s mother Helen, Maude’s daughter. Now we had 6 versions of the recipe all slightly different.
The truth is who knows what the original molasses cookie recipe really was. I’m certain that many years ago Maude Phelps made the cookies with lard or butter she churned herself. As a ten-year-old, I may have eaten cookies made with lard rather than Crisco. Recipes are always evolving. They change with the times, with the availability of ingredients, at the whim of the baker, or even due to mistakes. “Oh, I forgot to add salt! Gee, these taste pretty good”! A new recipe version is born.
The “right” molasses cookie recipe was the one we had gotten used to eating, it hit all the right notes. To us, that was “the recipe”. But in reality, it was “our” version, it was ours because we made them and enjoyed them as a family. We brought ourselves into the recipe. Taste memory is not a sterile recollection of something special eaten but the emotion, the excitement, the anticipation, and joy that comes along in the process and context of giving a recipe life.
My love of molasses cookies begins with my experience as a 10-year-old in my great-grandmother’s kitchen and all that came with it. My children’s memories begin with making them in our kitchen with us. Our granddaughters will remember those cookies or any other thing we bake together as special because of the context, because of us. Old family recipes remain vital only as long as we are willing to take the initiative to make them, to give them life by passing along those intangibles that make these recipes so memorable, otherwise, they remain lifeless recipes written on a card.