If my family had a collective recipe box, it would most certainly contain today's recipe. These simple spice cookies are a holiday staple in our house, and they also happen to be my brother's all-time favorite. Each Christmas, he spends hours in the kitchen mixing up a double batch of dough and rolling out hundreds of floury, gingerbread rounds - which we consume almost as quickly as they are produced. As with any cut-out cookie, it's a labor of love but one that certainly doesn't go unappreciated.
These cookies really are one of a kind, not just because of their molasses- and nutmeg-rich flavor, but also because of their unique backstory (because everyone loves a backstory!). As the name suggests, this recipe comes from Colonial Williamsburg, but you won't find it in their official cookbook. You won't even find it on their excellent Historic Foodways website (which, by the way, does include several other historical recipes, as well as some fascinating facts about food and dining in the colonial era), and that's because this recipe came to us from Colonial Williamsburg via my mother.
An even greater history enthusiast than myself - and Queen of the Backstory - it was my mother who guided us all around Europe, touring the castles, museums and historical sites of my childhood. When we returned to the states, she immersed herself, and us along with her, in American history - and Williamsburg became one of our favorite attractions.
On one particularly memorable visit, the year I turned seven, my parents indulged us with some treats from the bakery (no small luxury when there are seven mouths to feed!), and this soft, spiced gingerbread was one of them. The bakery sold them in thick, cake-like rounds, covered with a thin film of flour, and I can still remember the tenderness of that first bite and the way the flour coated our lips. Who knows, but that that might have been the very moment I became a devoted lover of spice cookies!
I certainly wasn't the only one who enjoyed that first bite, because my mother marched right back into the bakery and asked for the recipe - and to our great surprise, they gave it to her! In the nearly 20 years since, it's been handed round, and copied out and dusted off countless times.
It's a great comfort recipe, the abundance of spices and dark, treacly molasses fill the kitchen with warming, wholesome smells even before the first cookies are out of the oven. Though we usually bake them in rounds reminiscent of that first experience, I decided to bake leaf shapes this time. It's still fall and I was eager to put my pie crust cutters to a sweeter use - I think they turned out rather well.
These cookies are excellent with a cup of tea, or even enjoyed on their own. I have no idea how authentic the recipe is, but it's wholesome enough that I don't feel bad about even having a cookie or two for breakfast (okay, maybe I should feel bad, but at least it's not chocolate chips!). I've also taken them on numerous sailing trips - the ginger and molasses are said to palliate motion sickness, and they keep and travel very well.
Colonial Williamsburg Gingerbread Cookies
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 cup unsulfered molasses
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
4 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
On a well-floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut with novelty cookie cutters or a round biscuit cutter. It may be necessary to re-flour your surface several times to prevent dough from becoming sticky.
Bake on a lightly greased baking sheet for 10-12 minutes (I like my gingerbread soft so I always underbake - and there are no eggs here to worry about!). For small cookies like those shown in the picture, reduce baking time to 6-7 minutes. The cookies are done if they spring back when touched (but before the edges begin to brown!). Remove cookies immediately from baking sheet and cool on a clean countertop.
A few notes: This recipe makes a LOT of cookies - especially if you make them as small as I did. It can also be used to make crispy, gingersnap-like treats. Just increase baking time and remove cookies once the edges have just begun to brown. These are great served with a bit of milk for dunking!
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