As Molly said a few weeks ago, sometimes recipes are so good they need no long-winded, story-laced introduction. These cookies are like that. You should just go and make them right now. But for the sake of propriety, or normalcy, or expectations, I’ll just explain how these – perhaps the best cookies I’ve ever made – certainly the best cookies I’ve tinkered with my own recipe for – came about.
Perhaps months ago, a friend mentioned molasses spice cookies on Facebook (incidentally, and perhaps obnoxiously, have you acquainted yourself with the blackberry eating Facebook page? Come on by, if you’d like), and suddenly I had to have them. So I poked around, checking one recipe and another, and finally, as I often do, turned to Smitten Kitchen to see what Deb’s take on the issue looked like.
I mixed up a batch of Deb’s recipe, subbing out white sugar for all brown, adding some espresso powder for a bit of kick and rolling the cookies in coarse, crunchy turbinado sugar rather than standard granulated. And then in between bouts of shoving them into our faces, I sent a stack to a few friends, who proclaimed them some of the best cookies they’d eaten.
For normal people, I’d wager this assessment of “best ever” would be enough to declare the recipe finished. But I’ve never been entirely normal. Yes, these cookies were good. They were soft and spicy and warm, and the crunchy sugar on the outside was a perfect contrast. They crinkled into little cracks on top and would have made ideal “bread” for a sandwich of ginger ice cream. But I wasn’t done. I upped the quantity of espresso powder so you could really taste a hint of it against the molasses. I added orange zest for perfumed freshness and black pepper for an additional and different kind of zing.
And then I thought about texture. For years, my dad has been searching for the perfect chewy chocolate chip cookie (more on this achievement in the future, I suspect…), and remains unsatisfied with recipes that churn out cakey or fluffy domes of dough. The first batch of these molasses wunderkind were like that – lovely spice and flavor, but a bit on the soft side for me. Some of this softness was my choice of sweetener; using all brown sugar is always going to leave you with a softer product than white sugar. So will honey. Both are hydrophilic, which simply means they attract moisture and thus stay flexible and soft, even after a few days (case in point: my friends who received theirs via post had no complaints about stale cookies!). But some of this textural challenge is also related to flour.
Let’s talk about flour for a moment, if you’ll permit me. “All-purpose flour” is one of the most misleading claims in the baking universe. Flour – at least wheat flour – does what it does thanks to gluten, which are the little strands of protein that form snaky, chewy chains that result in the stretchy but still pillowy texture of bread. The higher protein content your flour has, the more gluten it has and the more developed those chains will be. The issue is, all-purpose flour is going to have a different protein content depending on the company whose flour you buy, the particular type of wheat used, and, to some extent, the year’s harvest itself. So if you’ve ever made a batch of cookies that turned out perfectly the first time and then somehow, subtly different in texture the next time, you might have used a different batch of flour with a higher or lower protein content.
So how does this relate to the chewiness I was after? Here, as should surprise no one (at least no one who knows me), I turned to Alton Brown. If higher protein flour results in chewier cookies, why not sub in the flour made specifically for gluten development? Bread flour. And that was it. Replacing just a ¼ cup of the all-purpose flour from the original recipe with bread flour produced a cookie that still crackled on top and felt appealing between our teeth, but held up with a bit more resistance, demanding an extra chew or two. The perfect chewy cookie. We planned to bring a batch of these to my family when we went to visit them last week, but as we each took yet another from the bag mid-drive, we realized there were only three left from the whole endeavor – enough for my family to each taste just one.
Espresso Molasses Spice Cookies
adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who got them from the Cooks Illustrated Best Recipe Cookbook
makes 18-20 large cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup bread flour (this makes the cookies a bit chewier. If you don’t care or you don’t have bread flour, use 2 ¼ cups all-purpose. The cookies will be a touch softer, but still amazing)
2 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
¾ tsp cloves
1 TB instant espresso powder
¼ tsp black pepper
12 TB room temperature butter (1 ½ sticks)
2 tsp orange zest
1 cup brown sugar, packed (I used golden brown; I’m sure dark would be delicious as well)
1 tsp vanilla
1/3 cup unsulphured molasses
1/3 turbinado or other coarse sugar, for rolling
- Position your oven racks in the top third of the oven, preheat to 375F, and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- In a medium bowl, whisk flours, baking soda, salt, and spices through the black pepper. This will leave you with a beautifully flecked mixture.
- In a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), cream the butter with the orange zest and the brown sugar for about 2 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Slosh in the vanilla, the egg, and the molasses, and mix well. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again so everyone is included.
- Add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture and beat until all signs of flour are evenly mixed into a thick,sludgy dough. Again, scrape down the sides of the bowl to ensure full incorporation.
- Pour the 1/3 cup coarse sugar onto a plate or a shallow bowl.
- Scoop 2 TB (1/8 cup) portions of cookie dough, roll them in your hands briefly to make a ball, and coat the ball in the coarse sugar on all sides by pushing it lightly around the plate or shallow bowl.
- When each ball of dough is coated in coarse sugar, set it on your prepared cookie sheets. Cookies should be spaced an inch or two apart; I wouldn’t do more than 6 per sheet, as they are large and do spread a bit.
- Bake each sheet 11-13 minutes, or until cookies are puffed and set at the edges. The middles will still be soft, but don’t despair. They will continue to cook as they cool.
- Cool cookies on their sheet for 2-3 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely before consuming, if possible.
- You’ll hardly need to know this, I suspect, once you put one in your mouth, but enclosed in a zip-top bag these will stay fresh for up to a week.