Do you remember the first time you had to drive to your grandparents’ house and you realized that while, karaoke-like, the roads on the way look familiar, you actually had no navigational awareness of how to actually get there?
My mother bakes approximately twelve million kinds of Christmas cookies each year. A few are optional depending on what else is going on, but the staples are peanut blossoms, almond stamp cookies, and gingersnaps. The other day I decided that I wanted to make cookies, so I asked my dear darling spouse what he would prefer. When he chose gingersnaps, I knew I wanted to make my mom’s recipe.
Except that I had no idea what recipe she uses. And it was midnight, her time. And I felt like I was driving where all the streets look familiar but I just didn’t know where to turn to get to cookies. Sigh.
Luckily of the four cookbooks I currently have here one is my mom’s family cookbook, Grandma Would Be Proud. Dedicated to Mom’s paternal grandmother, the cookbook was a family project in the early ’90s. My mom actually did the calligraphy for the book! Isn’t it purty?
Mom’s Grandma W, the cookbook says, “was of German stock, a person who worked hard all of her life. She raised eleven children of her own,” including my grandpa. She is portrayed on the cover how all of her grandkids remember her: wearing an apron, her hair pulled back in a tight bun.
When Mom’s cousin decided to put the book together and solicited recipes from her relatives, she got over 600 submissions! Many of them are desserts. I found the dessert chapter. “Desserts & Sweets,” in fact.
It starts on page 35 and ends later. Much later. About here:
Yup, that’s page 116. The whole book is just over 200 pages. I learned later that this cookbook does actually have the recipe my mother uses. It actually has three gingersnap recipes with the same ingredients, the only variations being the amount of each spice added and the directions (all of which are vague). And the first ingredient they all list? Shortening.
Uh-oh. I didn’t have any shortening. Well, butter is technically a kind of shortening, but they meant Crisco. Oh well, fat is fat, right? Wrong. Shortening melts at a higher temperature than butter (which I knew), so you end up with a different consistency of cookie.
My cookies, while “snappy,” were flat flat flat. They melted into ginger puddles. My inferno of an oven with the 75-degree swing did not help matters. They tasted ok, but were a bit oily because of the melting of the butter.
The directions are also, again, vague. When I talked to my mom after the fact, I mentioned that I thought the dough should be chilled even though none of the recipes said so. “Oh, yeah, you have to chill it,” she said. Duh. Because butter melts at body temperature (like while using your body-temperature hands to shape the cookies), the dough was also very sticky and hard to handle. Boo.
After such a disappointment, I decided to make another batch, even braving my least-favorite parking lot in La Jolla to go buy shortening. The other changes I made were to ramp up the level of spices and to freeze the dough before baking to prevent excessive spread. While the delicate flavor was good, I wanted a little bit more kick.
The shortening-based batch was better, but not perfect. I will confess, I like the buttery flavor, so of the 3/4 cup called for, I used 1/2 cup shortening and 1/4 cup butter. They were still a bit melty because of that, but I didn’t mind. The real trick is freezing the spheres of dough.
Let’s compare. On the left are the cookies that I froze before baking. On the right are the cookies that were made from chilled dough, but not frozen.
Aaaaaand from the side (front = frozen, back = not frozen):
Much better, yes? The frozen dough gave a slight crackly pattern on top where the non-frozen ones just puddled sadly. Even if using all shortening I think freezing would help. The ramped-up spices also worked really well, I think. I didn’t put it in the recipe, but I used a coarse sugar (Sugar in the Raw) for rolling the dough, and I added a sprinkle of cinnamon to it. It was hard for me to sample enough cookies to really make sure they were delicious, but I did it just for you.
So go make gingersnaps, but don’t screw them up and have to eat the whole batch yourself, then a second batch which you have to sample generously to test the changes. It’s a rough life.
Adapted from Grandma Would Be Proud
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
3/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar (plus extra for rolling)
4 tablespoons molasses
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
(optional) up to a tablespoon of fresh grated ginger
1.) Cream shortening and sugar together until fluffy. Add egg and molasses and mix to combine.
2.) Sift together dry ingredients and add to to shortening mixture. Stir in fresh ginger if using. Chill dough in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or in freezer until cool.
3.) Scoop out about a teaspoon of dough at a time and roll into balls. Roll in sugar. Freeze until ready to bake.
4.) Set dough balls about 2 inches apart on a baking tray. Bake at 350F for 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.