My mother, Maria, had a reputation for being the best cook in our whole county. The truth is, she was. In particular, nobody was a better baker. Out of her oven came some of the best breads, pastries and cookies I’ve ever tasted.
Her talents really had a chance to shine when the holiday season approached. In early December, she always started to bake her Christmas cookies, and I’ve already proudly shared with readers of this column two such recipes the past two Decembers. This year will be no different - except for the cookies, of course.
Maria Puck was famed for her ginger spice cookies. Flavored with both fresh and dried ginger, cinnamon and cloves, and sweetened three different ways with granulated sugar, brown sugar and blackstrap molasses, they have a taste that’s complex and even sophisticated, yet pleasing to everyone, young and old alike.
Fortunately, these cookies also had the benefit of being very easy to make, because my mother always baked dozens and dozens of them, so much in demand were they from our neighbors. In fact, cookies were the only gift our friends and neighbors really wanted or expected from us at Christmas; and if, for whatever reason, the expected gift arrived late or my mother forgot to send them for someone, we could be certain to get phone calls asking if everything was OK - and when the cookies would arrive.
Maybe one of the reasons people liked to receive those cookies well on time, or even a little bit early, is that ginger spice cookies only get better with time. The butter and molasses in the dough keep the cookies moist for several weeks, and they seem to get even more delightfully chewy as the days go by. Meanwhile, the flavors of the sweet spices harmonize and turn even more delicious. I only wish age improved me like that!
All this means that you can start preparing these cookies right now for the holidays. You can mix the dough up to a week ahead of baking, forming it into logs as directed in the recipe and storing them in the refrigerator. Once you shape and bake the dough, the cookies will keep for several weeks, if you pack them after they cool in single layers between sheets of waxed or parchment paper or aluminum foil in airtight containers - such as metal holiday gift tins - and then store the containers at cool room temperature.
Of course, it’s perfectly all right if you decide to bake the cookies at the last minute, too. They’re still great when eaten the same day they’re baked. Whenever you pop them in the oven, be prepared for your entire home to fill with wonderful aromas of the holiday season.
MARIA PUCK’S GINGER SPICE COOKIES
Makes 4 to 5 dozen
2 3/4 cups (680 ml) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1- to-2-inch (2.5-to-5-cm) piece fresh ginger
1/2 pound (250 g) unsalted butter, cut into 1 1/2-inch (3.75 cm) pieces
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (125 ml) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (125 ml) packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup (60 ml) blackstrap molasses
In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour and baking soda and set aside.
Over another bowl, grate the piece of ginger. Put the grated ginger in a fine-meshed strainer and press out its juice into a bowl until you have 1 teaspoon of ginger juice. Set aside.
Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl with an electric hand mixer. Cream the butter at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add the ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves and salt, and continue to beat for another 30 to 60 seconds. Add the granulated and brown sugars and beat until smooth, about 1 minute. Beat in the ginger juice and egg. With a rubber spatula, scrape down the side of the bowl. Then beat in the molasses just until blended.
At low speed, beat in the flour in several batches, just until it is incorporated. Stop and scrape down the bowl again.
On a work surface, put 2 sheets of waxed paper or parchment paper, each about 2 feet (60 cm) long. Along the center of each sheet, put handfuls of the dough, half on each sheet, and form them with your hands into logs. Wrap up securely in the paper, then wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and preferably overnight or longer.
When you’re ready to bake, position the rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees (180 C). Line the baking sheets with parchment paper. To shape a cookie, pinch off from a log of dough a piece equivalent to about 1 tablespoon, and roll it between your palms to form a ball about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. Place the balls 2 inches (5 cm) apart on the lined baking sheets. Bake the cookies until they are just firm to the touch and their bottoms are lightly browned, 14 to 16 minutes total, reversing the baking sheets front to back halfway through to ensure even baking. Remove from the oven and cool on racks, or slide the parchment off the baking sheets and cool on the parchment.
(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores.)