Come Wednesday, Andrew and I are heading back to Boston’s North Shore where we’ll be visiting our families. Our towns are the kind of historic New England towns where the houses are often brandishing signs of the year they were built, the glass in the windows is always thicker at the bottom suggesting a notable age, and the entryway doors are lower and shorter hearkening back to the time when people were simply of a more modest height. We are neighbors to Salem, with its rich and dark history of persecutions, Puritans and propriety. Halloween is a real hoot there, by the way. And nearby is a little town named Marblehead. It’s a coastal town, small, beautiful, quaint. It delivers brutal winds in the winter and a much-needed breeze in the summer off the Atlantic. Sometimes you can spot a lobster or two sunning themselves in the shallow water. Marblehead, like Salem, is also rich in history, and its early sailors are considered the forerunners of the American Navy. It is also a town rich in fishing and fishermen. This cookie here belongs to them.
It’s not often that a cookie hails from the same place as you. And when you find out that it does, you pay attention and take notice. Especially when this cookie comes with a history and a story. On the outside, the cookie looks humble. It is, as you can see, brown and outside of a few sparkly granules of sugar decorating its top – it is a cookie unadorned. And it kind of likes it that way. It’s a cookie that doesn’t boast, isn’t in your face, and just quietly goes about its business with resolve and persistence.
If I had to describe this cookie in one word, it would be toothsome. When you bite into it, it tastes substantial, though not heavy. Having eaten my share last week, I can tell you it is a sturdy snack, and there’s a reason for it.
Originally, we’re told, the cookies were baked by a man known as Old Black Joe Brown and an Aunt Crese, who ran a tavern on Gingerbread Hill in Marblehead. Back in the day (as in Colonial times!), fishermen used to take barrels of Joe Froggers on their journeys, because the cookies kept for awhile. Also, they were also quite a bit bigger in those days than the three inch versions we have here today. And they were made with shortening instead of butter, which probably added to their longevity. The version here uses both, because you can’t drop the shortening entirely – it will alter the texture (and historical accuracy!) too much. Before the shortening police comes after me – let me just say “no trans-fats”. But even that aside, shortening isn’t the kind of thing I’m ever eager to use. In this case, it was imperative to the consistency and chewiness of the cookie – and while I was skeptical when I made them, I was, in the end, glad to follow the ingredients to a tee.
Outside of chilling the dough overnight (something I recommend you do with all your cookies), it is not a difficult cookie to put together, and happens to be exactly the kind of a snack you want around this time of year – when it’s cold and windy out, a spicy, gingery cookie with a nice undertone of molasses, is exactly the remedy for the seasonal case of the grumps. My one suggestion is this: read my tips and directions carefully. Though this recipe comes from a wonderful sequel from the magicians at Baked, it is a book that is rich in the kind of recipes that make you want to bake all weekend long (something I did a weekend ago). But in looking back I found that I could’ve used some extra instructions and tips in individual recipes. So I went ahead and made sure you get all the helpful tips you could possibly desire. The things I do for you!
In many ways a recipe is a little piece of history, a time capsule, connecting generations, teaching us about how we used to and continue to live. I love that quality in food – that in many ways it’s not just something we do as a habit and as a necessity. It is something that strings us all together, family to family, country to country. In this case, a Russian immigrant made a cookie that originated from a town where she went to middle school; the same cookie that was a habitual snack for early fishermen of that area. I find that kind of amazing.
Adapted from Baked Explorations
4 cups (18 ounces; 510 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp (5 grams) salt
1 1/2 tsp (4 grams) ground ginger
1/2 tsp (2 grams) freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp (2 grams) ground cloves
1 tsp (6 grams) baking soda
4 tbsp (1/2 stick; 2 ounces; 57 grams) unsalted butter
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
3/4 cup (5 ounces; 142 grams) dark brown sugar
1/4 cup (2.2 ounces; 62 grams) granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups (300 mL) dark molasses
1/3 cup (78 mL) very hot water
3 tbsp dark rum
Coarse sugar to decoration
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, ginger, nutmeg, clobes, and baking soda. Set aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and shortening together until smooth and there are no visible lumps. Add both sugars and beat until just incorporated. Using a spatula, scrape down the bowl, add the molasses, and beat until the mixture becomes uniform in color.
Heat the water until very hot. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, alternating with the hot water, in three parts, starting and finishing with the flour mixture. Scrape down the bowl with a spatula, add rum, and mix for about 15 seconds. Cover the bowl and let the dough chill (and rest!) for at least 3 hours, but preferably overnight.
Your dough will be very pliable and wet when you remove it from the refrigerator next time, you may want to rechill between batches. Because the dough is so wet, and will stick, your best bet is to roll it out between overlapping pieces of wax paper lining the top and bottom of the dough.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Line your workspace with overlapping pieces of wax paper, and generously flour the dough. Roll the dough between the wax paper to ¼ inch thickness. Lift the top wax paper off and using a 2 to 3-inch round cookie cutter, transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheet. Be sure to set your cookies at least 2 inches apart. Sprinkle a tiny bit of the coarse sugar on top of each cookie.
Bake the cookies for about 8-12 minutes, until they are set. Place the baking sheet on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Use a spatula to transfer the cookies to the rack to cool completely. Cookies can be stored for up to 3 days in an airtight container.
Makes about 36-48 cookies, depending on the size of the cutter.