I have a weakness for molasses cookies of all kinds. The best of them are deeply darkly delicious; chewy, both sharp and mellow with spices. They will keep for weeks, if only I can hide them from my family. (I’ve never been able to keep any long enough to test how long they’ll actually last!) Traditional hermit cookies originate in New England, with published versions going back to the 1800s. They keep so well that sailors on clipper ships were sent off on their voyages with a tin of these cookies. Some maintain that hermits improve as they age.
Why are they called hermits? Nobody knows, really. Perhaps there’s a reference to the color – hermits have brown robes and carry their goods in brown cloth bags. Is it that they’ll last a long time if left alone? One early ‘domestic science’ writer – Anna Barrows, who wrote in an 1888 article in the Springfield Massachusetts Republican – praised the hermit cookie: “This will keep for months, if out of humanity’s reach, hence, perhaps their name.”
These cookies are unusual in that they are first shaped into logs. Once baked, the logs flatten out, and the resulting long ovals are cut crosswise into bars, or squares. While they could be made in drop-cookie style, I’ve always made them the way my grandmother, and her grandmother, made them: cut into bars, and then stacked into a tin. Traditional hermit cookies are ideal, if you want to pack up a box and mail goodies. They’ll last a long time, so even if the postal service is slow, the cookies will still be great. They are quite sturdy and not crumbly at all, so they’re unlikely to break during shipment.
Traditional Hermit Cookies
- 2 cups + 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour (262 g)
- 2 tsp baking soda
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 1½ tsp ground cloves
- 9 Tbsp unsalted butter (1 stick + 1 Tbsp)
- 1 cup packed dark brown sugar (212 g)
- 1 large egg
- ¼ cup dark molasses
- ¾ cup raisins
- coarse (turbinado) sugar for sprinkling the tops
- Sift or sieve the dry ingredients together, to mix them well and to remove any lumps.
- Cream the butter and brown sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy, scraping down the bowl at least twice. Add egg, mix well, then add the molasses, again mixing very well. Add the dry ingredients and raisins, mixing slowly so the flour doesn’t fly all around the kitchen. Stop when the dough comes together and you see no streaks of flour.
- Divide the dough into 2 or 3 pieces. With wet hands, shape each piece into a log about 1 1/2″ in diameter, about 12″ long. (Wet hands helps keep the dough from sticking to you)
- Wrap the dough logs in waxed paper and chill for at least 2 hours, or up to a week. Unbaked logs may be frozen, double-wrapped, to prevent loss of moisture.
- To bake: heat oven to 375˚ and line a cookie sheet with ungreased parchment paper. Put two logs on a single cookie sheet, leaving at least 3 inches between them, as they will spread. Sprinkle the tops of the logs with granulated or turbinado sugar.
- Bake 17-18 minutes, until the bars are puffy but still soft in the center. Slide parchment with the bars right onto a cooling rack, then let cool completely.
- When cool, cut the dough strips crosswise into bars, and store the cookies in an airtight tin.