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In A Family's Lost Cookie, Lots Of Love, And Molasses

Dec 6, 2012
Originally published on December 7, 2012 2:09 pm

Frederick Rickmeyer, our hats are off to you and your note-taking ways.

Shortly after the turn of the last century, Frederick started documenting his wife's recipes on the blank memoranda pages of a cookbook. He included titles like My Wife's Own Original Spanish Bun and comments like "as good as ever," along with the ingredients and dates.

That "as good as ever" rating, included on a December 1914 recipe called My Wife's Jumbles, intrigued his great-granddaughter Laurie Pavlos, of Old Saybrook, Conn. Pavlos inherited the fragile and fading cookbook, along with more of Frederick's notes, from her grandmother. But Pavlos' attempts to re-create her great-grandmother Ethel Rickmeyer's jumbles, or molasses cookies, all failed.

"They were runny and strange, and they smelled good until they started burning," she tells NPR's Melissa Block. Pavlos tried the recipe as drop cookies, resulting in a smoky disaster. She had minor success with them as bar cookies, but knew something was just not right.

So she wrote All Things Considered's Lost Recipes project to ask for help from our kitchen detectives. Fortunately, Nancy Baggett, author of Simply Sensational Cookies, had a clue.

"My great-grandmother, same vintage [as Ethel], would have made exactly this kind of cookie," Baggett tells Block. "They were late 19th century, early 20th century, when we were still using a lot of molasses. The cakey gingerbread people are familiar with is also of the same style, except this is in a drop cookie form."

As for why the recipe won't work, Baggett thinks Frederick may have simply written down the wrong measurements.

"There's too much liquid in the recipe," she says. "Remember, home bakers often really didn't measure things. [Ethel] may have used a coffee cup or a teacup to measure the flour, and just thrown in a little of this and that. [Frederick] could have been a very precise kind of person, but sitting at the table and jotting down what she was saying would have led to a little bit of a problem for someone 100 years later."

Baggett has another quibble with Frederick's notes: "These really aren't jumbles," she says. "The traditional word jumbal actually referred to a really 16th, 17th, 18th century cookie."

It's thought the word comes from the Arabic word for twin, gemel, which makes sense, since the cookie was originally shaped like a pretzel. They were also not particularly sweet.

"Eventually, they evolved into a sugar cookie shaped into a ring," Baggett says, noting that people have also lost the history behind the word jumbal. "They assumed it meant a jumble of ingredients and changed the spelling. Now, a jumble can pretty much be anything you want."

Pavlos says the reworked Rickmeyer recipe yields a good molasses cookie, although they are a bit finicky as they need to be baked for the precise amount of time for the right texture.

Block, who tried the final product, describes the dark, golden brown cookies as "really chewy — not too sweet, which is great. They feel like a vintage cookie to me, but in a good way."

Baggett says taste preferences for this cookie may be a generational thing. "People that did enjoy the old-fashioned, very spicy gingersnaps or drop molasses cookies would probably like it very much," she says of her reworked recipe. "But I don't think my grandkids would like it, because they've never had anything that strongly molasses."

For those little taste buds, Baggett also offers a less molasses-laden recipe, below.

Pavlos says her great-grandmother's jumbles are unlikely to replace the popular sweet molasses cookies her mother used to make, but she does like the leanness of the recipe.

"This is an interesting thing," she says. "It doesn't have egg, it doesn't have dairy. It has very little fat. People who are avoiding those things may find this recipe very interesting."

Recipe: Great-Grandmother Rickmeyer's Molasses Cookies

Cookbook author Nancy Baggett offers this version of the molasses "jumble" cookie recipe drawn from Frederick Rickmeyer's handwritten notes. American home cooks were always exhorted to be frugal, Baggett says, so cookies like these that required no eggs, butter or even salt and made use of leftover sour milk were enormously popular. (The updated version here calls for fresh milk soured with a little cider vinegar.)

2 cups unsifted flour, plus 2 to 3 tablespoons more if needed

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) Crisco (upped from original 1 tablespoon)

1/4 cup packed light or dark brown sugar

1 cup molasses (not blackstrap)

1 teaspoon warm water stirred together with 1 teaspoon baking soda until dissolved

3 1/2 tablespoons whole or low-fat milk, stirred together with 1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar

Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees. Thoroughly stir together 2 cups flour, the cinnamon and the ginger in a bowl. Set aside.

In a heavy, medium-large saucepan, melt the Crisco over medium heat until just melted, stirring. Immediately remove from burner. Vigorously stir in the brown sugar, then the molasses and water-soda mixture until well blended. Gently stir in the flour-spice mixture, then the milk mixture until evenly incorporated. Do not overmix. Let stand to cool and firm up for 5 minutes. If necessary, a tablespoon at a time, stir in up to 3 tablespoons more flour to stiffen the dough just enough that it can be dropped; it should still be slightly fluid, not stiff.

On well-greased baking sheets, drop the dough using a slightly mounded 1 tablespoon measuring spoon, spacing the cookies about 2 1/2 inches apart. Bake, center rack, until the edges are nicely brown and the cookies are just barely firm when pressed on top, about 8 to 11 minutes. Let stand to firm up for 3 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Let stand until completely cooled before packing airtight. Makes about 30 cookies, 2 3/4 inches each.

Recipe: Glazed Double-Ginger Molasses Monster Cookies

Nancy Baggett says the strong molasses element in the Rickmeyer recipe may not appeal to modern tastes. She suggests readers try this 21st century version for those who'd like to compare how Americans' tastes have changed over time.

For Cookies:

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butted, slightly softened

1 cup packed light brown sugar

2/3 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1/2 cup light or dark molasses

1 tablespoon peeled and finely grated fresh ginger root

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon, Saigon cinnamon preferred

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour

For Glaze:

1 cup powdered sugar, sifted after measuring

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into bits

Position a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees. Grease several large baking sheets or coat with nonstick spray.

In a large mixer bowl, beat the butter and brown and granulated sugars until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, then the molasses, ginger root, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and salt, and beat until smoothly incorporated.

Gradually beat in the flour until the dough is smooth and well-blended. If the dough is crumbly, work in up to 3 teaspoons water until it holds together. Let stand for 10 minutes, if needed, to firm up slightly.

Divide the dough in half. Then shape each half into 12 balls. Space them about 3 1/2 inches apart on the baking sheets. With a palm, press the balls down until evenly thick and 3 inches in diameter.

Bake on the oven's middle rack for 10 to 15 minutes or until the cookies are browned on top and just beginning to firm up when tapped in the center. Be careful not to overbake. Remove the pans from the oven. Let the cookies firm up for several minutes. Using a wide-bladed spatula, transfer the cookies to racks and let cool completely.

For the glaze: In a 1-quart saucepan, stir together the powdered sugar, butter and 3 1/2 tablespoons water until blended. Bring to a boil, stirring, over medium high heat. Boil just until smooth and translucent, 30 to 45 seconds. Stir to recombine the glaze, then use immediately while still hot; it may become grainy or thick if allowed to cool.

Using a pastry brush (or a paper towel) dipped into the glaze, brush evenly over the cookies until all are glazed. Thin glaze with drops of water if needed. Let stand until the glaze sets, at least 30 minutes. It may become sugar and flaky like doughnut glaze; this is normal.

Makes 24 4-inch cookies

Glazed Double-Ginger Molasses Monster Cookies recipe excerpted from Simply Sensational Cookies, by Nancy Baggett. Copyright 2012 by Nancy Baggett. Excerpted by permission of Wiley.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



As cookie-baking season kicks in full force, it's time for another in our Lost Recipe series. We've asked you to write us with memories of an old family recipe that you just can't replicate, and then we enlist a kitchen detective to come to the rescue to figure it out. Well, today, we're joined by listener Laurie Pavlos of Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Laurie, welcome.


BLOCK: And you wrote in asking for help with a recipe called Great-Grandma Rickmeyer's jumbles. I gather you never knew your great-grandmother, but you did know her husband, and you have the recipes that your great-grandfather wrote down.

PAVLOS: That's right. He and my great-grandmother lived for most of their married lives in a cemetery in Glendale, New York.

BLOCK: In what?

PAVLOS: In a cemetery. He was the superintendent. And he wrote recipes down in a printed cookbook.

BLOCK: And what was this recipe?

PAVLOS: Well, this one he titled my wife's jumbles, and it looks like they were baked in December, and maybe they were Christmas cookies. I don't know.

BLOCK: Because he puts dates on things.

PAVLOS: Right. It says 12-10-14, so it's 1914, and then there's a note that says as good as ever 12-14-1916.


BLOCK: I love that. You sent us, Laurie, a copy of the page from this book with his handwriting, and it's one quarter cup sugar, one tablespoon Crisco, a cup of molasses and then water, soda, flour, cinnamon, ginger. You tried making these? How did they come out?

PAVLOS: I tried a few times. There's just a list of ingredients. There are no instructions.




PAVLOS: So I tried...

BLOCK: Leaves a little to the imagination.

PAVLOS: Right, right. They just were runny and strange. They smelled good until they started burning, but I really was at a loss. I couldn't figure out how to do it, and clearly, my great-grandmother had success with them, so I was a little frustrated.

BLOCK: Yeah. She had success because they were as good as ever.

PAVLOS: Ever...


PAVLOS: ...right.

BLOCK: Well, let's bring our cookie expert and baker Nancy Baggett into the conversation. She's the author of "Simply Sensational Cookies." Nancy, welcome.

NANCY BAGGETT: Oh, thank you.

BLOCK: And when you saw this recipe, this handwritten recipe from 1916, did it make sense to you?

BAGGETT: It made sense to me in a lot of ways, and I could look immediately and imagine that Great-Grandfather Rickmeyer was sitting there writing down, but he got it wrong. I could immediately tell why Laurie had had problems. There was too much liquid in the recipe. So I set to work fiddling with what I thought he should have written down. Folks, like my great-grandmother, would have made exactly this kind of cookie. They were late 19th century, early 20th century. We were still using a lot of molasses. The cakey gingerbread, as people are familiar with, is also of the same sort of style, except this is in a drop-cookie form.

BLOCK: I'm fascinated by the notion that there's Crisco in here, not much of it, just one tablespoon. I wouldn't have thought there was Crisco in 1916.

BAGGETT: It had just come on the scene, and there was a very audacious campaign to get all the ladies of the day to try it. And because it was white, it was touted as being pure, and so I suspect that Mrs. Rickmeyer wanted to be (foreign language spoken) and jumped right in and tried it.

PAVLOS: Right. I have heard that they would try anything new. They were right on the cutting edge.

BLOCK: Well, Laurie, you tried the reworked cookie recipe that Nancy came up with. You sent us a few cookies. They're sitting here in the studio. Why don't you tell us what you think?

PAVLOS: As the recipe shows, they're pretty different from our usual cookies. We usually take butter and sugar and beat it up and add an egg, and then we add the flour, and this is just a small amount of fat. So they're a little trickier to get them just right.

BLOCK: Mm. I'm taking a little taste as we talk here, Laurie. Well, they're really pretty dark golden brown, really chewy, not too sweet, which is great, but, yeah, they're very plain. They feel like sort of a vintage cookie to me...

PAVLOS: Right, right.

BLOCK: ...in a good way.

BAGGETT: Which they were.

BLOCK: Why do you think your great-grandfather was such a great note-taker and a recipe jotter?


PAVLOS: I have heard that he was fascinated with history. I think that in writing down recipes like this, he felt that he was doing some recordkeeping, and he was a kind of precise man, which troubles me a little bit with this question about the liquid but...


BLOCK: You're saying he was very precise, so it troubles you the notion that Nancy has raised that he may have gotten the proportions wrong.

PAVLOS: Right. I don't question her because I've tried doing it the way it's written, but I think that the flavor of the cookies is very close to what he enjoyed.

BAGGETT: You know, in his defense, Laurie, I'm thinking she's probably making them and telling him what she's doing. Remember, the home bakers often didn't really measure anything. I mean they might have - she might have used a coffee cup or a teacup to measure the flour and just throwing in a little of this and that. So it seems to me that it's quite reasonable that he could have been a very precise kind of person. But sitting at the table and just jotting down what she was saying would have led to a little bit of a problem for somebody 100 years later.

BLOCK: I bet, Laurie, that you feel a little bit more connected maybe to your great-grandparents by coming up with a recipe that may be similar to what they were tasting back then?

PAVLOS: Especially because my great-grandfather wrote down things like this, you know, as good as ever, and some of his recipes were like my wife's best. So he really enjoyed the cooking and wanted to record it for someone, and, you know, he recorded it for me.

BLOCK: Well, Laurie and Nancy, thanks to you both.

BAGGETT: Oh, you're quite welcome and happy baking.


PAVLOS: Thank you very much. This was fun.

BLOCK: Listener Laurie Pavlos and cookie detective Nancy Baggett. You can find Nancy's reworked version of the jumbles recipe at npr.org and get a glimpse of Great-Grandfather Rickmeyer's notes too.h Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.