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.

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


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.


Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns

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I don’t want to alarm anyone, but TOMORROW IS THANKSGIVING! Is it just an aging thing, where every year when another holiday season rolls around, you ask, “Where is time going?!” Must be.

Anyway, I absolutely love the holiday season. Our parents are dispersed, so we sort of occasionally pop in here and there, sometimes for the holidays, sometimes not, depending on our travel budgets and work commitments. We’d like to see them all more, but that’s how it is. (My God, we are getting older.) Anyway, that means that we generally do holidays here at home, or with friends in the city. This year, we’ll be here at home, which is great for extreme homebodies, such as ourselves. When we were putting our meal list together, we realized that all we really wanted was side dishes and pie. And what’s the other benefit to cooking a Thanksgiving meal just for ourselves? We get to serve only side dishes and pie.

This is also just a busier work time for both of us. I have a few projects to finish before Christmas and Alex is diligently working on the final stages of his dissertation, which has us both ripping our hair out. Anyway, while he’s working on that, I’ll be in the kitchen practicing my own form of Thanksgiving meditation, which is cooking while listening to Christmas records, then watching the Thanksgiving episodes of Bob’s Burgers. I’m hoping for a little snow, maybe. I missed Chicago’s first snow of the season because I was in Indiana–but I celebrated with the traditional first-snow meal of the Dakotas, ICYMI.

But, onto the reason we’re all here: The buns! Back when my family actually used to get together for holiday family dinners, everyone would bring a dish, or several, and we would feast and laugh. There was probably football on. One year, my mom decided to do a completely innocent thing and made some pecan sticky buns for dessert. Then they were so good that the world collapsed, and everyone lost their mind and demanded that she make them again for every single family dinner after that. True story.

Our family doesn’t really do holiday dinners anymore, at least not the giant ones that we used to, so it’s been actual years since I’ve had my mom’s pecan rolls. But when I was visiting her last week, we got to talking about them.

I had some wild ideas about doing the recipe a little differently. I’m always trying to change things up a bit on here. I’ve found that updating classics is a great way to learn about and honor the past, but also evolve with times. However, I would feel awful doing a twist on such a fantastic original, if my mom wasn’t all for it. I mean, I know we’re just talking pecan buns here, but they are my mom’s pecan buns. Instead, she gave me her blessing. “You should do it,” she said when I told her my idea. “It sounds delicious.” (Moms have such a wonderful, unique way of making you feel like every idea you have, big or small, is great and completely in the realm of possibility. I’m pretty sure if I said, “Hey mom, I think I’m also going to run for president,” she’d say something like, “You’d be so good at that! We should go get an outfit for your first press conference.”) Luckily for me, this updated version turned turned out just the way I imagined they would.

You start with a pretty basic sweet dough recipe, then you punch it up with some bright orange and spicy ginger. It will fill your house with all the right smells.

Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns

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Orange Ginger Pecan Sticky Buns
Makes 8-12 buns.

Sweet rolls:
1 1/8 tsp active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 lukewarm milk
1 egg
2 tbsp butter, extremely soft
6 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 – 2 cups all-purpose flour

Orange caramel pecan sauce:
5 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup pecan halves
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 tsp orange juice

2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp orange zest
1 1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger


Whisk together the warm water and yeast in a large bowl. Allow to sit for about five minutes.

Oil a large bowl.

Add the milk, egg, butter, sugar, salt, and 1 cup of the flour. Mix well. Continue adding enough flour to make the mixture easy to handle, up to 2 cups total.

Place the mixture onto a well-floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and no longer sticks, adding flour as needed, about five minutes.

Once the dough is elastic, place in the oiled bowl, and turn over to cover the entire surface of the dough with oil. Cover the bowl with a dishtowel and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

While the dough is rising, create the orange caramel pecan sauce. In a saucepan, add the butter and heat until just melted (or continue to heat until browned). Remove from heat and mix in the brown sugar until dissolved. Add the pecans, vanilla extract, and orange juice. Pour the sauce into the bottom of an 8- or 9-inch pie or cake pan that is at least two inches tall.

For the filling, melt the two tablespoons of butter in a small bowl; set aside. In another small bowl, thoroughly combine the sugar, cinnamon, orange zest, and the grated ginger.

After it’s risen, punch the dough down and pour out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough out into a 13″ x 9″ rectangle.

Brush the two tablespoons of melted butter over the entire surface of the dough. Then coat the top of the dough with the orange-ginger mixture.

Roll the long side of the dough up tightly into a roll. Use a knife or unflavored floss to cut the uneven ends off. Then continue cutting 8-12 rolls, about 1 1/2 inches thick, out of the dough.

Place the rolls swirl side down into the orange caramel pecan sauce in the pan.

Cover and allow to rise for about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until golden brown.

Remove from oven. Immediately place a dish over the top of the pan and quickly invert, allowing the orange caramel pecan sauce to drizzle over the top.

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Gosh, they’re good. Something about the orange and ginger cuts right through all the sweetness and balances everything out. Don’t like pecans? Don’t add them. (Although they do toast up a bit at the bottom of the pan, essentially becoming sweet, crispy bites of heaven.) These are a great dessert for your Thanksgiving dinner and, honestly, a really solid day-after Thanksgiving breakfast option. Even reheated these babies are top-notch.

This Thanksgiving day, and every day, I’m thankful for my family (especially you, mom!), my friends, and the fact that you all show up and I get to share these recipes with you all. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!