Spicy Hermit Cookie Bars

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How is everyone settling into 2018? The beginning of the year is hectic, but every year I forget that because of the lazy dream that is the end of December. For some, the holidays are chaotic, but for me, they’re slow. The end of my year, every year, is just eating, drinking, and going to Christmas parties, where you bring gifts of wine that you bought based solely on how much you like the label. But then January shows up and all the holiday decorations come down, everyone is eating Whole30, it’s freezing, and I’m expected to go outside? Of my house?!

The only good thing about January is that I switch from holiday movies back onto my regularly scheduled program of foreign ghost movies. (We watched a really terrifying Iranian one on Netflix the other day called Under the Shadow. Whoa.) I only recognize two seasons: Christmas and Halloween.

But let’s get to the matter at hand here: Cookies. My favorite cookie (excluding my Christmas go-to, the Chocolate Crinkle) is oatmeal raisin. Some might say I have bad taste in cookies. Some might even say that the humble oatmeal raisin is barely a cookie. But I won’t die on this hill–I’m not even a huge fan of cookies in general. Cake? Pie? Yes. Cookies… eh, sometimes. I know this might be dangerous to admit online, for the whole world to see. I have the same fear when I tell people I don’t really like wine (except for the labels). People stare at me like I’ve never even seen those “Rosé All Day” t-shirts.

I tried a new kind of cookie this week that might seem old-fashioned, too savory, and to have too many raisins. But it’s a winner. The Spicy Hermit cookie.

Very similar to a chewy gingerbread, recipes for the spicy hermit cookie was first printed as far back as the 1870’s, showing up in Midwestern newspapers. The earliest mentions of the cookie in the Northeast show up around 1896 in Buffalo, New York. Even though the recipe made it into Midwestern newspapers first, this particular recipe likely has its origins with the English-Scottish colonists in New England, as it is very similar to English plumb cakes and gingerbread recipes from Medieval times, which use molasses as an ingredient (instead of honey, a traditional ingredient in German gingerbread).

Where the name of the cookie comes from is also a mystery. It may have been chosen to describe the cookie’s lumpy, brown appearance, like a hermit’s robe. Another possibility for the name comes from the idea that these cookies would keep longer than others, because of their high fat and sugar content, and could be stored away, like hermits. In some recipes, the cookies are referred to as Harwich Hermits, which suggests they may have been created, or at least popularized, in Harwich, Massachusetts. In the cookbook, 250 Treasured Country Desserts, it’s said that because of their ability to keep for long periods, sailors on the New England coast would take the cookies out to sea with them.

There are thousands of recipes for hermit cookies. Sometimes they’re soft, sometimes they’re crisp. Sometimes they are made as a drop cookie (in the 50’s and 60’s they seemed to be a popular addition to children’s packed lunches), and sometimes as a bar. For this post, I made them into bars, because why should round cookies get to have all the fun? And also, it was a test to see if I like cookies better if they’re in bar form. Spoiler: I do.

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Spicy Hermit Cookie Bars
Makes approximately 16 bars. This recipe is a variation of Ina Garten’s, changing the ingredients slightly, and using this article about the science of cookies to tweak the recipe for a more cake-like bar.

Ingredients:
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and browned
1/4 cup dark molasses
2/3 cup golden raisins, minced
1/2 tsp orange zest
1 tsp vanilla
1 large egg, plus 1 large egg white
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
2 cups, plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoons ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
For glaze:
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
3-4 tbsp heavy cream

Instructions:

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, ground cloves, ground nutmeg, and salt.

In a pan, melt the butter until it begins to brown, about 10 minutes. You will know it’s done when it begins to smell nutty, and stops popping. Allow to cool.

In a bowl, combine the egg and egg white. Beat briefly until scrambled. Add in half of the brown sugar mixture and beat until smooth. Add the remaining brown sugar and beat until smooth and light brown in appearance. Stir in the molasses.

Pour the browned butter into the flour mixture and stir to combine. Next add the egg and molasses mixture, and the raisins and orange zest. Stir until combined. The mixture will be quite craggy and sticky. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour, but overnight is best.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two small, or one large, cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Pour the dough out onto a floured surface. Shape into a disc, cut it in half, and roll each half into a log about one foot in length.

Place each log on the cookie sheet, at least three inches apart.

Bake at 375 degrees for about 18-20 minutes, turning the pan about halfway through.

Remove from oven and allow to cool while you make the glaze. To make glaze, stir together the confectioner’s sugar and the heavy cream until smooth. Drizzle the mixture back and forth over the still-warm bars.

Allow to cool completely, cut into 1 1/2-inch bars, and enjoy!

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A soft and chewy cookie bar, spiced with ginger, clove and nutmeg, rich with molasses–and of course, studded with raisins–is my kind of cookie. You might like it too, even if you prefer to drink your grapes instead of bake with them.

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Parker House Rolls

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Yesterday was the first day of winter, the longest day of the year. But I’m so ready, because that means today it will start getting a little lighter a little earlier, and 4:30pm will start to feel less like midnight. I am unexpectedly back in Indiana this week, because my poor mama fell and broke her wrist! And even though I didn’t plan on coming home for Christmas, it’s nice to be home around the holidays, even if it’s for an unfortunate reason. AND! With Christmas approaching, I’m obviously thinking a lot about food. For some people, the holiday means presents. For me, it means food.

Awhile back, Alex sent me an article that says the favorite Thanksgiving side dish of the Midwest is rolls and biscuits. Biscuits, maybe, but rolls?! Is this who we are? Judging from the amount of carbs I consumed as a child, it must be. I mean, I love bread. As a kid, I would ask my mom for a loaf of Italian bread from the store to eat in front of the TV: A LOAF of bread. Rolls, though? Idk. We always had crescent rolls at holiday dinners when I was growing up. They’re…OK. I remember biting into one once when I was little, thinking it would be buttery like a croissant. I was mistaken. So, anyway, long story short, I’m leery of rolls. I’ve been burned before.

I also realized that the only non-sweet rolls I’ve ever made were A Cozy Kitchen’s Everything Cloverleaf Rolls for a Friendsgiving a few years back. We couldn’t stop eating them. This year, though, I wanted to try a much older recipe. This holiday season, I offer you a recipe for very traditional Parker House rolls.

Parker House rolls were created in the 1880’s at the Parker House Hotel in Boston. The original hotel no longer exists, but it is located where the Omni Parker House sits now. The Parker House was famous in its own right, hosting both the famous and the infamous: In the 1860’s, Charles Dickens lived at the Parker House, and recited A Christmas Carol (how timely!) there, for the first time in Boston, 150 years ago in 1867. Two years earlier, John Wilkes Booth stayed in the hotel eight days before he assassinated President Lincoln, while visiting his brother, an actor who was performing in a play in Boston. And, Parker House rolls are not the only enduring recipe to come out of the Hotel’s kitchen. The Parker House is also said to be where the Boston Cream Pie, the official state dessert of Massachusetts, was created.

A traditional Parker House roll is unique because of its fold. Usually oval in shape and then folded over, most origin stories credit the fold to when an angry baker threw the unfinished rolls into the oven. The rolls became a staple on tables all over the country after the recipe was featured in Fannie Farmer’s 1896 cookbook, the first cookbook to include standardized measurement.

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Parker House Rolls
Makes about 2 dozen rolls. This recipe is a variation of Yossy Arefi’s recipe on Food52.

Ingredients:
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp unsalted butter, very soft
1 envelope (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup warm water (about 120 degrees)
1 1/2 cups milk
1 egg
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted (for greasing pan and brushing on top of the rolls)
Flaky sea salt, to taste

Instructions:

In a large bowl, combine 3 cups of the flour, salt, and softened butter. Beat with a hand mixer or wooden spoon until it just begins to come together.

In a smaller bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, and warm water. Whisk briefly and allow to sit for about five minutes.

In a two-cup measuring cup, or small bowl, beat together the milk and egg.

To the flour mixture, add the milk and egg mixture and then the yeast mixture. Then, add 1/2 cup of flour to the mixture, incorporating the flour fully into the mixture, and repeat this 1/2 cup at a time until you reach 4 1/2 cups of flour total. Transfer the dough to a large, greased bowl. (The dough will be quite sticky!) Cover with plastic wrap and a dish towel, and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

Once it has risen, remove and uncover the dough and punch it down. Then divide the dough into four equal pieces.

On a well-floured surface, take 1/4 of the dough and roll out into a 18′ X 5″ rectangle. Take a butter knife and make a line lengthwise down the dough, not cutting all the way through. Fold the dough over on top of itself, at the crease. Make five cuts, creating six 3-inch rolls from the dough. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and brush it inside two large rectangular pans, or cast iron skillets. Lay each individual roll into the dish. Continue with the other three sections of dough. Cover and allow to rise another 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoon of butter, brush the top of the rolls with melted butter, and bake for about 30 minutes, until puffed and golden brown.

Remove from oven, brush with more melted butter, sprinkle with sea salt, and serve warm.

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Consider this a solid for my Midwestern folks out there who love their rolls. And—you’re going to either hate or love me for pointing this out—these rolls are perfectly crafted to help you mop every bit of butter from your butter knife. (Butter mopping is an important thing to consider here in the Midwest.) Super soft, slightly sweet, and very light, with a slightly crisp exterior, Parker House rolls are a great addition to your holiday table. Or… like… any morning, smeared with butter and jam or honey. Plus, if you bring homemade rolls to any dinner, you look like a champion. You get bonus points if they’re still warm when you sit down to eat.

So, this is probably my last post of the year, unless I get to baking again and feel like there’s something I really need to share. If you don’t hear from me until next year, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to you all! I wish you lots of cookie eating and mulled wine drinking for the rest of the year. Catch you in 2018!