I walked in our kitchen one raw, damp day in December when I was 8. The wood stove made it toasty and my mother's baking filled the kitchen with a scent I recognized. She was making her traditional molasses cookies. They were lined up on the kitchen counter in perfect stacks and sprinkled with sugar. There were tubs of lard next to the sink, a coffee can as make-shift cookie cutter and an opened jar of sugar that was inviting me to dip my finger in for a taste.
That day, being there in the kitchen with my mom, who told stories of her mom making these same cookies for her, I felt safe and loved. This recipe has been in our family for so long, I am sure there have been thousands of them made by the hands of all the women to whom I am connected.
When I got pregnant for the first time, I knew right away I needed a copy of this and all the other recipes my mother used to make for us because her mother made them for her, and so on. I told her right away I wanted all the recipes that had become so dear to our family so I could keep passing on the traditions.
Many of those sticky finger prints belong to my three kids, and together we have made so much more than just food in our kitchen.
I had hopes of recreating these memories for my children and so, on my 27th birthday when I was one month away from becoming a new mother myself, my mother handed me a beautiful book with all the recipes she made for my sisters and me when we were growing up. I was so overwhelmed with anticipation. I knew as soon as I had that baby, I would be home baking up a storm.
Each recipe card was written by hand with a short caption above, which included where the recipes came from and who used to make them for her. There were some I had remembered—like the chocolate crinkle cookies, ice cream-filled eclairs and fruity cake with cool whip frosting—but there were some I had forgotten about. The recipe book has been by far my favorite and most used gift I have ever received.
That was 14 years ago and I have pulled out that book at least once a week since then. I find myself wrapped in warm nostalgic thoughts every time. These recipes cover it all—from Crab Cakes to Cream Puffs to tiny cookies filled with jelly. It also covers something else though.
It takes me back to Saturday nights, when my sisters and I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the wood stove after a bath and we watched "Star Search" while eating homemade pizza.
It takes me back to the holidays as a child and the smell of buttery cinnamon rolls filling my nostrils as I made my way downstairs. I always wanted to finish mine, but the excitement of the gifts got the best of me, which was a shame, especially since I would claim the one with the most icing.
Recipes are more than just recipes, and food is more than just food. It can help us remember an afternoon when we were 6 or a late night talk with now lost friends when we were 19.
My cherished recipe book is now too flexible, has pages falling out and all the handwritten cards are smeared with butter and sugar. But these are the same reasons it makes my heart sing. Many of those sticky finger prints belong to my three kids, and together we have made so much more than just food in our kitchen.
One of the recipes I have made time and time again are the giant molasses cookies. It is a very old recipe from my great-aunt, Clara. It calls for a cup of lard, and really, you must use that if you want them to melt in your mouth.
I have made these for my father, they are his favorite. Just receiving those as a Christmas gift, too, makes me so happy. They are big and yummy and tend to be one of those things you feel the need to break in two while telling yourself you will only eat half. But before you know it you are diving back in the jar again to retrieve the other half, and if you are like me, a few hours later, you take another "half" again.
My grandmother makes them for every family gathering, even if it doesn't happen at the holidays. These cookies are just as good in July as they are in December, but you must make these this holiday season, no matter how you celebrate. The smell is intoxicating and lingers in your home for days. They make excellent gifts, and taste especially good served with eggnog or tea.
If I didn't make them every year it just wouldn't feel right, the tradition feels too important to forget. And so, I hope you make these and enjoy them just as much as I have, but if not, I truly hope you have that one recipe you make over and over because you feel a nostalgic pull for a smell, a taste or a memory.
So many traditions start in the kitchen, and I am have enjoyed sharing this part of my childhood with my kids through my beautiful recipe book.
12 large cookies
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup molasses
1 cup soup milk (put 1 tsp. vinegar in milk)
4 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup melted lard, cooled.
5 1/2 cups flour
empty 1-pound coffee can to use as cookie cutter
1. Mix all ingredients (dough can be chilled if needed)
2. Roll out dough on floured surface to about 1/2-inch thick and cut out.
3. Bake on cookie sheets covered with parchment paper at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 8 to 10 minutes.