This delicious ginger-spiced, molassas-darkened cookie can be rolled thick and chewy or thin and crisp. It can be adorned with frosting and sprinkles or left in it’s bare-baked splendor. It can be enjoyed with a cold glass of milk or a dram of your favorite whiskey. It is this family’s favorite Christmas cookie.
The universally agreed upon greatest Christmas cookie in our house isn’t even one of my family recipes. It’s BD’s maternal grandmother Helen Molnar Zemke’s gingerbread cookies. Up until two years ago, I had never attempted the cookies. I didn’t need to. I’d just wait until Pat (BD’s mother, Helen’s daughter, my mother-in-law … you following?) would go into her baking frenzy and suddenly boxes of gingerbread cookies would appear in our house.
Christmas 2015 found Pat in the hospital (she’s fine!) and no cookies in the works. The locust bitterness was palpable! Keeping the cookies going, and the mutiny at bay, meant someone was going to have to take over that year … Subbing in for Pat in the gingerbread baking arena is like being told Lin-Manuel Miranda’s leaving Hamilton and it’s all you now. I could have been the poster child for the flop sweats that first time. Fortunately, the recipe is forgiving and the audience was appreciative. A thumbs-up from Pat after her taste-test didn’t make me feel too shabby either.
Happily, Pat’s back to baking her cookies but I’ve added the recipe to my blog (with her blessing) so that in the event Pat moves to Tahiti to take up where Gauguin left off and I was to die in a spectacular fiery ball of disaster, the show can go on! Lin-Manuel … and Pat … would have it no other way.
As the story goes, Pat (of Pat’s Baked Beans fame) and her brother Dennis had to recreate the recipe for Grandma Zemke’s gingerbread cookies after their mother’s death because Helen never recorded the recipe herself.
Slight aside here … ahem … PEOPLE WHO HAVE RECIPES OTHER PEOPLE LOOK FORWARD TO ENJOYING (EVEN IF YOU WON’T SHARE AS LONG AS YOU TAKE BREATH IN THIS LIFE): Write your recipes down! Thankee thankee vurra mush. (That was my Elvis voice.)
So, with no further ado [I’ve really got nothing else to add], I give you Grandma Zemke’s gingerbread cookies!
Note on ingredients: 1) Yes, that is Crisco. You must use Crisco to get the right texture. Put your judginess on the back burner until you try these puppies. 2) Use the most “robust” molasses you can get hold of. Pat prefers Brer Rabbit green label but you can’t always find it. Monica, my faerie princess sister, got me this bottle. Just use the darkest molasses you can find. 3) Finally, these are, natch, spice-centric cookies so make sure your spices are fresh.
The dough comes together quickly. First sift all of the dry ingredients (except the baking soda) together. For mysterious scientific reasons, you will dissolve the baking soda in warm water before adding to the mixing bowl. And this folks, is the secret to Grandma Zemke’s fabulous cookies. Hahaha … kidding. I’m sure it’s just leftover from the days of single-acting baking soda. That being said, I’m not messing with perfection but please do let me know if you just sift it in with the dry ingredients.
Next, cream together the sugar and Crisco and then add the molasses.
The dough is very sturdy, looks almost chocolate, and smells like Christmas. Certain locusts are torn between whether these cookies taste best baked or as fresh-from-the-bowl dough. So far, frosted baked is slightly ahead. Only slightly.
Once the dough is combined, divide in two, pat into two flat disks, and wrap well with plastic wrap.
Refrigerate overnight. It’s a very, very soft dough and is easiest to work with totally chilled. Gratuitous aside: (you will thank me!) Here’s Hardywood‘s Gingerbread Stout. Seek it out! BD hordes the stuff. We haven’t had a beer from this Richmond, VA, brewer that we didn’t like but this one is a particular favorite in this house come Christmastide.
Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do alert: If you like your cookies very thin or find the dough too soft for your comfort zone, roll the dough on the baking parchment, pull away the excess dough,and slide the parchment onto the baking sheet.
Ready for the oven.
Fresh from the oven and ready for icing … or impatient fans. As with my sugar cookies, I make a simple buttercream though royal icing would work as well.
Let me know if you make the cookies or have questions for Pat. She’s very excited to share this wonderful recipe with you all.
GRANDMA ZEMKE’S GINGERBREAD COOKIES
1 cup sugar
1 cup (8 oz) Crisco shortening
1 cup dark molasses
2 tsp. baking soda dissolved in 2 TBS warm water
3-4 cups of all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbs dry ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp nutmeg
Cream together sugar and shortening.
Dissolve the baking soda in the warm water. Add to the sugar and shortening. Add the molasses. Scrape down the bowl.
Sift together 2 cups of the flour and the rest of the dry ingredients. Add to the sugar mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add additional flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until the dough is not sticky but not cracking dry.
Divide the dough in half, pat into flat disks, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 2 hours (overnight is best). Can be left in the refrigerator 2-3 days before baking
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F.
Roll the dough (on parchment if you find the dough fussy) to the thickness you like and cut out with cookie cutters dipped in flour. Thinner = crisper. Thicker = soft and chewier. Place on ungreased or parchment-lined cookie sheet.
Bake 5 to 8 minutes. Let cool on the cookie sheet for a few minutes and then transfer to a cooling rack.
Frost and decorate with your favorite icing or just enjoy plain. Store in a cookie tin or covered for up to a week. Fair warning: If you store in a sealed container, the cookies become very soft.