Molasses crinkles are the ultimate lunchbox cookie

Rick Nelson
Star Tribune

These impressive, easy-to-make molasses crinkles are a perfect back-to-school treat.

One of the rules of my book club is that the host provides dessert, and one of the joys of my book club is that many of its members are excellent bakers.

Years ago, fellow book clubber and colleague Chris Hewitt was serving cookies, and one of them was a fantastic molasses crinkle. The texture really stuck out: slightly crisped-up on the outside, yet softly chewy on the inside. Another duality? It looked like an everyday cookie jar cookie, but tasted like so much more, exuding a rich molasses bite that tickled the nose before landing on the taste buds.

Molasses crinkles are a lifelong favorite of mine. They were a staple of my mother’s baking repertoire, and frequently ended up in the brown paper lunch sacks I carried every day to Palmer Lake Elementary School. Turns out, Chris shares a similar history.

“Everyone in our family loves them,” he said. “My sister and I have always called them ‘Molasses Shops,’ and we still do, which makes no sense. We thought the name on Mom’s recipe card said ‘shops,’ but it’s ‘snaps.’ Which is weird, because they don’t snap, they’re a soft cookie.”

Unlike me – I probably didn’t bake a single molasses crinkle during my 20s and 30s – Chris incorporated his mother’s recipe into his baking routine.

“I’ve always made them,” he said. “They’re so easy, and forgiving. You could throw all the ingredients in a bowl, hit the mixer button and they’d be fine. And they make your house smell so good. Even if you’re going to give them all away, they’re worth making.”

Chris being Chris, he generously shared the recipe. Over the intervening years I’ve prepared it so many times that I barely need to reference my splattered and wrinkled handwritten copy.

Since I’m incapable of leaving well enough alone, I’ve tweaked his mother’s formula to the point where I wonder if she’d recognize it. (I hope she approves). Her version calls for shortening (turns out, she originally used bacon fat), but I prefer cookies made with butter. I’ve replaced some of the granulated sugar with dark brown sugar to underline the molasses flavor. Instead of a whole egg I use just the yolk, and if the eggs are small, I’ll make it two yolks.

Rather than cinnamon, I’ve inserted hints of cardamom and allspice. Sometimes I play around with the spice levels, adding more ginger and/or cloves, or giving the pepper mill a few more cranks.

I prefer using a strongly flavored molasses, because they’re called molasses crinkles. For this reason I skip the familiar (and, let’s be honest, dull) Brer Rabbit brand, and pick up the full-bodied organic molasses from the Wholesome label, available at some supermarkets and most natural foods co-ops. The slightly larger Wholesome bottle is often twice the price of its more familiar competitor, so it’s a splurge. But the best baked goods start with the best ingredients.

I also purchase ground spices in the bulk aisle at the co-op; it’s cheaper, because you can buy what you need, and the flavor is generally more lively.

Sometimes, I refrigerate the dough overnight. This step helps relax the flour’s glutens and dials up the tenderness factor, although it also takes away from the lunchbox cookie genre’s no-fuss nature.

On a similar note, this is an excellent work-ahead cookie. Form the dough into balls, arrange them in a single layer, freeze them and then store in the freezer in an airtight container. When you’re ready to bake, allow the dough to thaw slightly, roll the dough balls in sugar and bake.

That sugar, by the way, is all the embellishment this cookie needs. I love how a rustic beauty develops as the tops form their namesake fissures, and the way the sugar twinkles against the copper-tinted dough.

However, I once created a dolled-up version with icing, and the results are worth noting.

The occasion was our department’s holiday cookie competition. True to form, I’d completely forgotten about it until the night before. Baking cookies was the last activity that I wanted to do; I’d recently wrapped up the Star Tribune’s annual holiday cookie contest and, to be honest, I was cookied out.

Turns out, staging a cookie contest for nearly 20 years creates expectations, including mandatory participation in the office baking competition. Oh, and your entry had better be good. If not, as they say in Texas, you’re all hat and no cattle.

I took a quick pantry inventory and realized that we had all the ingredients for Mrs. Hewitt’s Molasses Crinkles. Which was perfect, because my rock-bottom energy level was an ideal fit for this easy-to-prepare recipe.

I knew that, flavor- and texture-wise, I had a contender on my hands, but maybe a festive icing might make it irresistible to the judges’ panel. I turned to an easy formula from – where else? – “The Great Minnesota Cookie Book,” which features the winning recipes from the first 15 years of the Star Tribune Holiday Cookie Contest.

By the way, that icing recipe was a snap. Combine 11/2 cups of powdered sugar with 3 tablespoons of milk (or 3 tablespoons of melted and cooled butter), then whisk until smooth. For a yuletide touch, I stirred in some finely chopped crystallized ginger.

Yeah, I won. Thanks, Mrs. Hewitt.

Mrs. Hewitt’s Molasses Crinkles

Makes: About 3 dozen cookies.

21/4 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

11/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup plus 1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus extra for rolling dough

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup dark molasses

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cardamom, cloves, allspice, black pepper and salt, and reserve.

In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter until creamy, about 1 minute. Add granulated sugar and dark brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg yolk and vanilla extract and beat until thoroughly combined.

Reduce speed to low, add molasses and mix until thoroughly incorporated, scraping down sides and bottom of bowl and mixing thoroughly. Add flour mixture in thirds, mixing until just combined. Do not overmix.

Place about 3/4 cup granulated sugar into a wide, shallow bowl. Form dough into 1-inch balls, roll in granulated sugar and place 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets.

Bake until cookies are browned and slightly puffy, with cracks in the tops, about 11 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking (if using a convection oven, check on them at 9 minutes, and if still slightly wet in the cracks, bake an additional 30 seconds). Do not overbake.

Remove from oven, cool cookies on baking sheets for about 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.