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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

"Ginger Nuts," from Mrs. Bliss's "Practical Cook Book" (1850)

Gingery, Nutty, Blissful

Don't Make It Snappy
In the middle of the nineteenth century (before chocolate invaded and displaced all other sweet flavorings), Americans were partial to the zippy combination of ginger and molasses, which they used as the basis for untold varieties of treats. The spicy-sweet flavor duo lent itself to both "soft" gingerbread (like modern shortbread) and denser forms of hand-held treats. Toward the solid end of the spectrum were ginger snaps and a kind of ginger cookie that, sadly and inexplicably, has fallen by the wayside—ginger nuts. Our goal today is to entice you to bake up a batch of these long-forgotten Victorian chews so that you too can experience the deep, glorious taste of a really gingery cookie.

 

Mrs. Bliss gives two recipes each for ginger snaps and ginger nuts, while her more famous contemporary Catharine Beecher offers her readers only one of each. We once made Miss Beecher's ginger nuts to bring to a book signing, discovering in the process that these were durable cookies indeed. They were meant to last awhile in the cookie jar. In fact, they were so hard we were afraid we might be sued for dental damages by someone who bit into one of them without fair warning. So when we were putting together Northern Hospitality, we decided that it would be safer to put Mrs. Bliss's more pliable version on offer.

The Ingredients
Makes about 4 dozen cookies

2 cups molasses
1½ sticks butter
½ cup sugar
¾ cup rosewater
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt
5-6 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

How We Made It
We preheated the oven to 350° F. In a 2½-quart pot, we heated the 2 cups of molasses until bubbles just broke the surface (about 200° F), removed the pot from the heat, added the 1½ sticks butter and ½ cup sugar, and mixed.

 

When the butter was fully melted, the sugar dissolved, and the mixture smooth, we set it aside to cool. This took about 45 minutes. (If you're in a rush, after the first 15 minutes, you can cool the mixture in the refrigerator for an additional 15 minutes.) To the cooled molasses mixture, we added the rosewater (an edible distillate of rose petals, not to be confused with the cosmetic scent). We then mixed together the dry ingredients—the sifted flour, salt, and ground ginger.


Now we were ready to merge the two mixtures into a soft dough. We gradually stirred the dry mixture into the molasses, one cup at a time. After 4-5 cups of the dry ingredients had been stirred in, the dough was quite stiff. But it was still too sticky to roll out, so we put it in our standing mixer and added about one more cup of the dry mixture, until we had a dough that didn't stick to our fingers when touched.


We transferred the dough to a lightly floured rolling cloth and rolled it out quickly. (Overhandling will make the dough tough.) We cut the rolled dough into the 1-inch-square pieces Mrs. Bliss calls for, placed the pieces on buttered parchment paper on baking sheets, and baked them at 350° for 15 minutes.


Our ginger nuts were ready to be gobbled up! 

 

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 372.

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