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Cookie Day

April 3, 2020

Ever since the lock down, ever since Indiana’s governor announced that we should stay home to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, I have been baking. If posts to social media are any indicator, I am not alone in my sudden domesticity. Today, I will bake molasses cookies, the kind that Laura Kuhn taught me to bake over fifty years ago.

Laura was Grampy Wagner’s distant cousin, and a visit to her farm was special. The day I learned to bake molasses cookies, she met Granny and me at the farmhouse kitchen, gray hair neatly curled, with cheeks rosy with the kitchen’s warmth. She was dressed in a calico dress with a cinched waist and lace collar. Over it, she wore a yellow half-apron with ruffles around the edges and red flowers embroidered on the pocket. The air was already rich with the fragrance of spices and strong coffee. I settled at the long, well-scrubbed kitchen table, opened my new cookbook, and took out my pen, ready to write down everything Laura told me.

She began by laying out the ingredients. You start with the shortening, she said as she measured out the Crisco, a little more than one cup. Maybe one and one-quarter cups. About a cup of sugar. Five or six cups of flour. Usually, it takes six.

By “cup,” she meant coffee cup. Laura didn’t have sets of measuring cups in her kitchen like we did at home.

Two teaspoons soda, one teaspoon salt. Make sure there is twice as much soda as salt.
One teaspoon each allspice, ginger, and cinnamon. There should be the same amount of each spice as there is of salt.

Laura measured with a spoon like the kind you eat with. The spices in the spoon looked like little hills.

One cupful of dark molasses. Be sure to buy the dark kind. Light molasses isn’t strong enough.

Laura’s oven was already hot, ready for us to start baking. Hers was an odd-looking stove, white and standing high up on curved silver legs. It had two oven doors, a small one and a big one, side by side. They opened sideways, like a cupboard.

One cup of strong, cold coffee. The coffee is left over from breakfast, so you don’t waste any. Use the same cup you used for the molasses. The coffee will help clean it out.

I noticed that there were two metal buckets and a basket on the floor next to the stove, one filled with thin slices of wood, the other with short, split logs. The basket was filled with old newspapers. A little tin shelf nailed to the wall above the buckets held a box of wooden matches.

Cream the shortening and sugar well. Add the spices, soda, and salt.

This is a wood stove, Laura told me. To my eye, it looked sort of like the gas stove we had at home. In this one, however, the little door was for the fire. You can make the fire hot or leave it awhile to let it cool, Laura said. It’s cooler after breakfast – still hot, but not too hot, so that’s when it’s time to make the cookies. You don’t want to waste a good fire.

Mix the coffee and molasses together. Mix them well, so they don’t separate.

I had never seen a wood stove like this before. I had never seen a wood stove in a kitchen, a real stove for cooking on. It didn’t look anything like the black potbelly stove in Laura’s living room. And, unlike our stove at home, this one didn’t have any dials on it to set the temperature. The burners were flat, with handles like pancake griddles. I was not sure what Laura means by hot but not too hot, but I wrote out the instruction anyway.

Add the coffee and molasses to the mixture of shortening, sugar and spices, and mix well. Then add the flour.

Laura’s fingers were as red as her cheeks. Her wedding ring was gold, without any diamonds like Granny’s ring. She looked happy while she worked, and she smiled when I wrote down her instructions in my homemade cookbook.

Stir the entire mixture together until it forms dough. Drop the dough onto cookie sheets.

I used a big soup spoon to drop the dough onto blackened cookie sheets. I thought the pans were dirty and set out to wash them, but Laura said that the dark color is a good thing. They are seasoned, she said. I do not understand what that means, but I nod. I would tell my mother not to make me wash our cookie sheets so well next time.

Bake in a hot oven (but not too hot, I remembered) until the cookies look and feel done. Then sprinkle them with lots of sugar so they sparkle.

Ten minutes passed, and the kitchen filled with a heady aroma of ginger and molasses. The cookies were the size of saucers, and the first warm bite was melt-in-your-mouth soft, with a little chewiness at the end. The cookies glittered with sugar crystals. Cracks like rivers branched across each one, and the sharp bite of ginger when you bit in was a tangy surprise.

Laura packed a dozen cookies in a shoe box lined with waxed paper, and handed it to me. This is for home, she said.

I hugged the shoe box with its batch of fresh-baked cookies to my chest and thanked her. I still thank her silently every time I come across the recipe in my now-battered cookbook, and today, I will make my kitchen smell like Laura’s did, all those years ago.

Laura Kuhn’s Soft Molasses Cookies

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

1-1/4 C shortening

1 C sugar

6 C all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. allspice

1 tsp. ginger

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 C dark molasses

1 C cold, strong coffee

Granulated sugar for sprinkling on top

Cream shortening and sugar well. Add spices. Mix coffee and molasses well; add to mixture. Add flour and mix. Drop batter by tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake at 375 degrees until they look and feel done. Sprinkle with granulated sugar while still warm.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mrs. B permalink*
    April 3, 2020 2:14 pm

    Thanks for reading, Donna! I’m glad you like the virtual cookies.

  2. April 3, 2020 1:59 pm

    What a delightful surprise to see your blog in my emails, Kathi, and what a lovely remembrance. My mouth is now watering for molasses cookies. Alas, we have no molasses, but it will be on the list for the next time we venture out to the grocery store.

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