Sunday, March 27, 2011

Molasses Spice Cookies

A friend of mine who lives in my building was recently put on full-time bedrest due to her pregnancy. I hate to see friends of mine suffer through medical problems, so I decided to make her some cookies to cheer her up. I thought about what cookies to make, and settled on Molasses Spice Cookies.

One of my favorite sources of recipes is America's Test Kitchen, the same people who produce the magazine Cooks Illustrated. A couple of months ago, I won a copy of their new cookbook, The America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook (ATK Healthy from here on). As soon as I received it in the mail, I promptly opened it and started to look for recipes that were interesting.

One recipe that stood out was Molasses Spice Cookies. I used to eat cookies like these from Trader Joe's until they stopped being kosher. I was very happy to find a recipe to replace them, and one that was healthy to boot. I made a batch in February, and they tasted amazing. They were also very easy to put together. The entire process lasted about 45 minutes. Quick, easy, and healthy? Those are winners in my book.

Today, when I started to make the cookies, I was partway through measuring out my flour when something caught my eye. The recipe in ATK Healthy calls for a combination of all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour. But the expiration date on my whole wheat flour was well in the past. Despite not seeing anything amiss in the flour, I chose not to take any chances and threw the flour out.

Now what was I supposed to do? I could replace the whole wheat flour with all-purpose, but I know that the two can't be substituted quite that easily. While I'm a bit vague on the exact science involved, I am aware that whole wheat flour has a different consistency and moisture-absorbing capability than standard flour. I hopped onto the Cooks Illustrated website to look for some guidance. Instead, I found a recipe for Molasses Spice Cookies that only used all-purpose flour! Problem solved, right?

Not exactly. The recipe on the site used the creaming method for the sugar and butter. For those unfamiliar, this is when you mix softened fat with sugar at a medium speed. It's an effect that can really only be achieved with an electric mixer. Unfortunately, I don't have an electric mixer to use with milk-products. For reasons of keeping kosher, I have to keep my mixer dairy-free. The advantage of the recipe in ATK Healthy was that it melted the butter instead of creaming it.

I decided to take a chance and use the ingredient list on the website and the methodology of ATK Healthy, hoping that it would all work out. I weighed out my flour and mixed in my baking soda and salt. I don't have a dairy skillet, so I used a 2 quart pot to melt my butter before mixing in my spices. Then, I transfered the melted butter to a bowl, stirred in white and brown sugar, molasses, an egg yolk, and vanilla extract. So far, everything looked to be going OK.

Then I started to mix in the dry ingredients and I hit a bit of a snag. Remember how I said I don't have an electric mixer for dairy? I had been using a wire whisk until this point, and it started to get too thick to mix. Ideally, I should have ditched the whisk for a spatula, but I didn't think about that until later. Instead, I kept straining to move the whisk through the mixture as best I could. Eventually, I tossed the whisk aside and just started to use my hands (yes, they were cleaned first). After a few moments, I had my dough.

I started to form small balls of dough, and noticed pretty quickly that the consistency was not the same as I remembered it. Still, I was determined to make these cookies. I continued to form the balls, rolled them in sugar, and put them on a baking sheet. Here's what the first batch of cookies looked like before they went into the oven.

I put them into the oven and prayed that they would be edible at the very least. I'm usually nervous about recipes I make for the first time, and changing methodologies qualifies as a first time thing for me. After 11 minutes, I removed the cookies from the oven...and breathed a sigh of relief. The cookies looked great. I put the second sheet of cookies in and they came out just as good.

I waited a little while before trying one. I overbaked them just a bit. Instead of being completely chewy, the exterior was slightly hard, but that was not enough to be considered a failure. I wrapped up 10 cookies and brought them downstairs to my neighbor. She was incredibly appreciative and took a bite out of a cookie. Her face lit up as she chewed. "This is great," she said. "I've always wanted to have a good chewy cookie. Thanks for bringing them by."

Mission accomplished.

Molasses Spice Cookies (Adapted from Cooks Illustrated, January 2002 and America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook)

1/3 cup granulated sugar (about 2 1/2 ounces)
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (11 1/4 ounces)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice (I had whole allspice which I coarsely ground)
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar (about 2 1/2 ounces)
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup molasses (about 6 ounces), light or dark

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl.

3. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low-medium heat. Stir in cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice, and pepper and cook until fragrant (about a minute). Pour the mixture into a large bowl and cool slightly.

4. Using a whisk, mix in the white sugar, molasses, brown sugar, egg yolk, and vanilla into the butter until smooth. To easily pour out molasses, I spray the inside of a measuring cup with cooking spray before measuring the molasses out. It makes cleanup a lot easier.

5. Stir in the flour mixture until combined.

6. Pour some white sugar (about 2-3 tablespoons) into a shallow bowl or plate. Take a heaping tablespoon of dough and roll it into a ball. Then, roll the ball lightly in the sugar until well coated and place it onto the baking sheet. If the sugar doesn't stick, you can lightly moisten your hands when rolling the dough into a ball. Space the balls about 2 1/2 inches apart.

7. Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for 9-12 minutes until the edges are set and beginning to brown, but the centers are still soft. Rotate the baking sheet halfway through.

8. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before moving to a cooling rack (though I like to eat them when they're still warm.)


Welcome to my blog! This is a project I've wanted to do for quite some time, but never really got around to it. Until now.

In this blog, I'll write about some of the fun I have in my kitchen. I'm mostly a baker, but every now and then I veer off into the murky world of cooking. I have no formal culinary training. I own a lot of books about baking and cooking, such as Harold McGee's On Food And Cooking and Michael Ruhlman's Ratio. I've made a lot of desserts in my lifetime, most of which were well-received. For about two years, I operated a "restaurant" in my college dorm room, but that's a story that will come up later (probably around bread baking).

Why do I enjoy baking so much? It appeals to me because I'm a scientist at heart. But I'm a bit of a "mad scientist." While I usually stay on point with the recipe, I often have to make changes. Sometimes, this is because I forgot to make sure I have an ingredient and I'm 20 minutes into the process and need to come up with a substitution on the fly. Other times, it's because of dietary restrictions. And I also keep kosher, so I need to find effective ways of replacing butter in a lot of things.

I want to share with everyone the adventures I have in my kitchen, not only talking about the end result but about the process, too. And yes, even though the title of the blog has "Baking" in it, there will occasionally be posts about cooking. A guy needs to eat more than just cake and cookies, you know.

I hope you have as much fun with this as I do. Enjoy.