New York Ginger Snaps, A Recipe from 1859
Old-fashioned New York ginger snaps are as tasty today as they were in the 1850s. I’ve updated the recipe for modern cooks, made it vegan, and added a flourish. However, this is one classic recipe that deserves a revival.
I’ve long been fascinated by culinary history. Reading and learning about the origins of various foods and culinary traditions is among my private passions. However, it’s one I’ve had less and less time to indulge in recent years.
This year, with the pandemic, things have changed. Not only has life slowed down just a tad, but, I’ve also been thrust into home-schooling my youngest child — an 8th grader. As part of our home school adventure (or should I say marathon?), we recently read Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. It’s a book written around the time of the US Civil War, and — being about women — touches on cooking and other “housewifely” skills.
The Young Housekeeper’s Friend
In Little Women, Alcott references The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, by Mrs. Cornelius. This guidebook was often gifted to young brides. Nowadays, we’d rename it Housekeeping for Dummies. The Young Housekeeper’s Friend is a how-to book covering everything — from managing a household and planning laundry day, to (my favourite subject) recipes.
Needless to say, I had to get my hands on a digital version of the book. I was curious to discover how cooking traditions had evolved (or not) over the intervening 160 years. It turns out, things have not changed quite as much as you might imagine.
However, one striking difference between this book, written in 1859, and modern recipe tomes such as How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman, is the sheer volume of gingerbread recipes. There are nine different recipes for gingerbread cookies alone, as compared to five recipes for other types of cookies! Clearly, gingerbread was a very popular treat in 1859.
Nowadays, gingerbread is something most of us look forward to in the fall, or around the holidays. So, in honour of the season, and our ancestors’ passion for this tasty treat, I’ve decided to share this updated version of one of Mrs. Cornelius’ tried and true recipes!
Ingredient Focus: Molasses
Molasses is a byproduct of sugar production. It’s extracted from either sugar beets or sugar cane. Each time the sugar is pressed, a different type of molasses emerges.
There are three main types of molasses. Light molasses comes from the first press, and is commonly used in baking. Dark molasses, which is less sweet, comes from the second press. Blackstrap molasses — which is most nutritious and slightly bitter — emerges from the third press.
I don’t generally use blackstrap molasses in baking because of its very particular flavour. However, in my opinion, either light molasses or dark molasses tastes fine in most baked goods. Nonetheless, I have written this recipe for light, un-sulphured, molasses, as its flavour is milder and sweeter.
You’ll be pleased to learn that molasses is substantially more nutritious than sugar. A mere tablespoon of molasses contains the following percentages of your daily nutritional requirements for the following nutrients:
- Manganese: 13%
- Magnesium: 12%
- Copper: 11%
- Vitamin B-6: 8%
- Selenium: 6%
- Potassium: 6%
- Iron: 5%
- Calcium: 3%
While medical research on molasses has not been robust, it has clearly established linkages between consumption of molasses and bone health. (Iron, calcium, selenium, and copper all contribute to healthy bones.) Research also suggests that molasses may help improve your HDL, or “good” cholesterol levels, and its potassium may help maintain a healthy blood pressures.
So, you can safely justify your indulgence in a few New York ginger snaps as being a healthy choice. In fact, I believe there is an argument for returning to the “good old days” of consuming more molasses-based (as opposed to refined sugar) sweets.
About this Recipe
It turns out that folks enjoyed big batches of cookies back in the day. This New York ginger snap recipe makes about 7 dozen cookies!!
If you’re preparing for a bake sale or a big family gathering, that’s wonderful. Otherwise, you may find this recipe a little large.
Never fear, it’s very easy to cut the original recipe in half. Otherwise, I suggest making the entire recipe, then freezing the dough in smaller portions. Then, you can defrost it, roll it out, and bake it whenever you’re craving cookies.
Since the original recipe did not call for any eggs, I decided to go all the way and make it vegan. However, if you are not worried about the cholesterol or dairy, feel free to substitute an equal quantity of butter for the vegan butter I used.
Another modification I made in the recipe, is the seasoning. While the original recipe called for caraway and ginger, I chose to use the seasoning from my favourite ginger cookie recipe, which is a mixture of cinnamon, ginger and ground cloves. Feel free to adjust the spices to your taste. Mrs. Cornelius did not give any measurements for the spices used. So, you can also dial the seasoning up or down according to your personal taste.
Finally, I opted to finish my cookies with a sprinkle of finishing salt. There was no salt in the original recipe, and it’s my experience that the perceived saltiness of molasses can vary widely. You may want to bake a batch of cookies and taste them before deciding whether or not you want to finish yours with salt, as I have.
Most of all, I hope your family enjoys this historic New York ginger snap recipe every bit as much as mine does. Bon appétit!