Grandma Hopp’s Gingerbread Cookies

When Grandpa Hopp, my mother’s father, bought Grandma a new gas kitchen range, she was excited and happy to think of how much better it would be than the old wood stove it replaced.  In the summer especially, it would be a blessing not to have a hot stove in the kitchen on baking day.

That was the theory.  One hot summer day we discovered that Grandma had made Grandpa replace the gas range with the old wood stove.  “I just can’t bake good bread with that new stove,” she explained, and as long as Grandpa was able to cut, split and carry in wood for the stove, Grandma cooked and baked as she had for the previous 60 years.

She made wonderful bread made all the more wonderful because Grandpa would cut slices for him and me, lay on thick slices of Limburger cheese and onion, and tell me stories as we ate our snack.  Mom thought it was gross, but I loved it.

I have not eaten Limburger cheese in many years, but I really enjoy its milder cousins, Aged or Milwaukee Brick and Beer Kaese.  The aroma may turn you off, but once you bring yourself to try these cheeses, you may discover that your palate is more catholic than you imagined.

Thinking about Grandma Hopp’s baking reminded me of her gingerbread cookies.  She made them every year for Christmas.  They were thick, soft and delicious.  I don’t remember if she decorated them or not, but she had an old-fashioned gingerbread cookie cutter and I do recall how much fun it was to eat those cookies leg by leg and arm by arm.

I asked my sister Patsy if she had Grandma Hopp’s gingerbread cookie recipe.  She has never made them but she said she would look though my mother’s recipe boxes.  A few days later an envelope arrived with a photocopy of a recipe card titled “Grandma Hopp’s Christmas Gingerbread Cookies” and a request from Patsy to tell her how they turned out.

The recipe is a list of ingredients (including a question mark after “1/3 cup milk”) with instructions to “Roll out 1/4 in. thick, cut out, & bake on ungreased cookie sheet for 10 minutes.”  But I screwed up my courage, stirred up a batch and made some cookies that tasted pretty much like I remembered.  And it is still fun to eat them leg by leg and arm by arm.

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup shortening or lard
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup dark molasses
1/3 cup milk
5 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ginger
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp baking soda
white sugar for sprinkling

PROCEDURE:

Cream the shortening and sugar.  Blend in the molasses and milk and stir well.  Add the spices and soda to the flour and sift by cupfuls into the liquid ingredients.  Stir well after each addition until you have a stiff dough.  If necessary, add a little more milk to moisten all the dry ingredients.  You should end up with a stiff dough that you can form into a ball.  Refrigerate the dough for an hour or so to make it easier to roll out.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Flour a large breadboard.  Divide the dough in half and roll out to 1/4 inch thick.  Cut with a gingerbread man cutter.  If you are not planning to frost and decorate the cookies, sprinkle with a little white sugar.  Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 9-10 minutes in a 350 degree oven.  Let the cookies cool for a minute or two before transferring them to wax paper to finish cooling.  Store in a tightly sealed container.

NOTE:  I rolled some cookies out to about 1/4 inch thickness, and others to about 1/8 inch and they turned out okay too.  I rolled the trimmings into part of the unused dough each time.  Perhaps the cookies were a little tougher, but they were still good.

Grandma Rang’s Date Cookies

Families have different ways of celebrating Advent. When I was growing up, one way we celebrated was by getting a Christmas tree. Finding the tree was a man’s job, so each year Dad and I would head into the woods on the first or second Sunday of December. In the 1950’s, northern Wisconsin seemed to have more snow on the ground in December than it does today. We usually pushed through a foot or more of the white stuff, and one year when the snow was especially deep I remember having to walk in my father’s tracks as he broke trail.

Our labor was not always appreciated. We would look at thousands of spruce and balsam trees along a brook or near a swamp in a county forest near our home. Often the trees were laden with new snow that had to be shaken from the branches before we could pass judgment on a candidate. I am sure that we examined a hundred or more every year before we found the perfect tree. Then we would take it home so we could listen to complaints about bare spots and flat sides.

It was easier to take the criticism if we were eating one of Grandma Rang’s Date Cookies.  Baking those was one way my mother celebrated Advent, and they were Dad’s favorite cookie.

They are one of my favorites too.  About twenty years ago, the tradition of these cookies was enriched for me  by a wonderful lady, Hazel Olson, who gave me a cookie cutter that had belonged to her husband’s grandmother.  It is a tinned steel cutter with fluted sides, an inexpensive tool that was probably made sometime in the middle of the 19th century.  The handle is missing and the plating is worn off in a few places, but it works fine and feels good in my hand as I cut the rich dough.

Here is how to make them.

INGREDIENTS FOR DATE FILLING:

1 cup dates
1 cup cold water
1 cup light brown sugar
Dash of salt
2 T flour

PROCEDURE:

Chop the dates fine and put in a saucepan with the cold water, sugar and salt.  Heat to boiling and simmer until dates are tender, about 15 minutes.  Stir frequently.  Mix the flour in 1/4 cup cold water and stir into the dates.  Simmer another five minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and cool before using as filling.

INGREDIENTS FOR COOKIE DOUGH:
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
3/4 cup butter
3 large eggs
4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

PROCEDURE:

Measure the sugar into a large mixing bowl.  Add the soft butter and cream together.  Beat the eggs until lemon yellow and stir them into the sugar mixture.   Add the soda, baking powder and salt to the flour, and sift into the sugar mixture about 1 cup at a time, stirring thoroughly between additions.  The dough should be very stiff.  Add a little more flour if necessary.

Flour a large breadboard.  Take 1/3 of the dough, work it into a ball, place it on the breadboard, press it into a round pat about 1 inch thick, and turn it over, making certain that there is plenty of flour on the breadboard.  With a well-floured rolling pin, roll the dough to 1/8 inch thickness.

Cut with a 3 or 3 1/2 inch round cookie cutter.  Put the rounds on a well-greased cookie sheet and put about a heaping teaspoon of date filling in the middle of each.  Top with more rounds and seal the edges by pressing them with your fingers.  Try not to make the cookie edges too thin.
Bake in a 350 degree oven until the cookies are lightly browned, about 10-12 minutes.  Cool on wax paper.

NOTES:

My mother’s recipe says to use a scant teaspoon of soda, baking powder and salt.  You can replace the 3/4 cup butter with oleo or with about 1/2 cup shortening, but the cookies are not as good.  Use a spatula to handle the rounds, as they are very tender.  The trimmings can be worked into the next 1/3 of the dough without harm.

Although you can eat them as soon as they are cool, these cookies are best after they have been stored in a tight container in a cool room for two or three days.  They keep fine for as many weeks.