Every Christmas season, my mother made ginger-molasses cookies. Every year, she pulled out the recipe, written in blue ink, slightly smeared from butter stains and time. My grandmother’s spidery handwriting crawled across the index card. I don’t remember my mother’s mother ever baking, but I’m told she did, once. This recipe probably came from her mother, or an older aunt, or a magazine article from the 1940s. They grew up in Pennsylvania, near Amish country, and the baking tasted of generations.
By the time I was 7 or 8, I was helping my mother bake the Christmas cookies. Back then, I felt mature because I could open a cupboard door and heft out the five-pound bag of flour and carry it to my mother. The counters still loomed above my head. Baking felt like magic. Sift, pour, stir — every action seemed important. The smell of ginger powder — tumbling out of the square McCormick’s tin box — made me smile every time.
As the years went on, I began baking the cookies. I loved the familiar actions, the thumbed index card I only saw once a year, the smell of the cookies coming from the oven. And the cookies themselves, of course. Thick instead of crisp, these cookies had heft. Layered tastes of ginger and molasses, a bite of butter, the dimpled bottoms where an extra bit of sugar baked unevenly — all topped with a simple powdered sugar frosting. These cookies were Christmas to me.
When I found I had to go gluten-free, I gave up baking. How would I ever understand all those little bags of flour? Would I ever eat pie? Happy to be healthy for the first time in my life, I romped through foods and thought I would never hold a cookie in my hand again.
It’s not really a surprise that the first real baked goods I posted on this site were around the holidays. We long for the familiar, the kiss of ritual, the span of time we taste in that Scottish grandmother’s fruitcake everyone passes around. (And passes by. You won’t see me trying to adapt a fruitcake gluten-free any time soon.) The holidays have emotional resonances beyond the actual cookie.
A few months after my diagnosis, I started baking again because I missed the smell of cookies in the oven. I missed dragging out the flour, even though the bags are much smaller now, and my hands more capable. I missed that sanctified space in the kitchen, quiet and measured, of laying out ingredients to bake.
And now, when I meet folks who are new to this, or who feel overwhelmed by baking in general, I hear this:
Baking feels daunting. It takes too long and I just don’t have the time. Besides, I’ll make a mess of the kitchen and I’m not going to be good at it. I might as well buy the packaged goods. But the gluten-free packaged cookies taste like sawdust and three pounds of sugar. Now I won’t have anything to eat for the holidays. Damn, life stinks.
If this is your first gluten-free holiday season, or your tenth but you are afraid of baking, or you can eat gluten but you just don’t take the time to bake, I have a word for you. Try.
There is nothing like baking. The cookies that spread, the ones that burned at the edges because we rushed to the phone, the attempts at family favorites that fall flat — they are all better than not baking at all. Which is better, an imagined perfection or an uninhabited kitchen?
Whoever first created that thick ginger-molasses cookie recipe that my mother had written in a small tin in her kitchen? I salute you. I still haven’t figured out entirely how to make those cookies gluten-free. But I’m still trying. It’s Christmas, after all.
p.s. I’m honored to be part of Bon Appetit’s holiday round-up of food blogs they love. My goodness! They’re calling it Blog Envy and they posted it on their website yesterday. You’ve already seen my sugar cookies if you read this site. But there are so many great recipes for the holidays from incredible bloggers that I highly encourage you to click here now. I mean, David Lebovitz’s milk chocolate and black pepper ice cream? Dreamy.
GINGER-MOLASSES CUPCAKES, adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s gingerbread recipe
Since I put up the post on chocolate cupcakes with coffee ganache a few weeks ago, I’ve been in a cupcake mood. There’s something so cheerful about cupcakes, right? And luckily, it’s really not that hard to make gluten-free cupcakes successfully.
These cupcakes taste exactly like the ginger-molasses cookies my mother always made for the holiday. I’ve been determined to conquer those cookies. Meanwhile, these slipped out easily. Now, I’m not sure I need the cookies anymore. It’s hard to turn down ginger-molasses cupcakes for breakfast. (Ahem. The Chef and I had to taste them one more time this morning before we told you about them.)
Dense and moist as gingerbread, these cupcakes are not dainty mouthfuls. They’ll fill you up. The ginger rushes in for the first few bites, followed by a whoosh of brown sugar and butter, followed by the faintest afterburn of ginger later. The texture owes its thanks to teff flour and cream cheese. And they’re ready for tweaking, so you can make them your own.
I have a feeling we might be eating these at my parents’ house this Christmas.
(And part of this post is also on the fabulous blog, Cupcakes Take the Cake. I’m the guest blogger today, but they have so much to offer us. You really need to go read them too!)
for the cupcakes
2 tablepoons fresh ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup sorghum flour
1/2 cup sweet rice flour
1/2 cup potato starch
1/2 cup teff flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup whole milk
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
for the icing
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon heavy cream (or more, depending on the consistency you like)
Getting ready to bake. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease your cupcake tins with canola oil and dust them with a bit of sweet rice flour.
Preparing the ginger. Peel the ginger with a fine micrograter or nutmeg grater. Or, you can slice it fine, if you wish. Mix the ginger with the tablespoon of sugar. Stir and set aside.
Combining the dry ingredients. Sift each of the individual flours into a bowl through a fine-mesh sieve. When you have combined them all, sift the combination through the sieve. This helps to make the flours fine, and to create one flour for baking. Add in the baking soda, salt, and spices. Stir well and set aside.
Creaming the butter and sugars. Put the softened butter and sugars into a mixing bowl. Stir and whirl until they are well-combined and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Making the batter. Add in the eggs one at a time, waiting for a moment before adding the next one. Pour in the molasses and continue the mixer. Throw in the sugared ginger. Reduce the speed of your stand mixer to low and add 1/3 of the dry ingredients. Beat. Add the milk. Beat. Add another 1/3 of the dry ingredients. Beat. Drop in small bits of the cream cheese by hand, as the mixer continues to run. As soon as the ingredients are all added and just combined, turn off the mixer.
Baking the cupcakes. Spoon the batter into the cupcake tins, filling them about 3/4 of the way full. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the middle of the cupcake comes up clean. Take the cupcakes out and allow them to cool. Don’t worry if the cupcakes fall a bit flat. That creates the texture of gingerbread in these cupcakes. Cool the cupcakes for 10 minutes, and then let them tumble out of the tins. Allow them to cool to room temperature before frosting them.
Frosting the cupcakes. Combine the powdered sugar and cream and stir until the mixture is smooth. If you want the cupcake thick, stop. If you want it to be more of a drizzle, then add a bit more cream. Frost the cupcakes. Eat.
Makes about 12 medium-sized cupcakes.