Molasses Spice Bars

I deal in historic recipes, but food can have any number of kinds of history: development over centuries, fusion with new cultures, family tradition. Some recipes have personal history: these molasses bars belong to this last group.

The recipe itself is from The Silver Palate Cookbook – published in 1982, and not vintage by any stretch. It was, however, part of my first teenage flirtations with baking, and not a year has gone by since that I haven’t made it at least once. These bars are pretty foolproof (I often recommend them to friends trying their hand at baking for the first time); the ease with which I began whipping them up for theater bake sales and friends’ parties helped me begin, around age fifteen, to develop confidence in my abilities in the kitchen. Repeated requests for them helped solidify my identity as “The Baker” in my group of friends. I was lucky to be part of an awesome, tight-knit circle in high school; I’m still in touch with many of these friends…and I still get regular molasses cookie requests. These cookies don’t have any crazy ingredients – just the usual ginger, cloves, and cinnamon – yet they’re curiously addictive.

Bakers obviously don’t spring into existence fully-formed, Athena-style, ready to cream butter and sugar at birth; and not every household had a copy of The Silver Palate in the 90s (though it sometimes seemed like it here in the Northeast). I leapt into cookie-making without the apprehension many of my less culinary peers have of food because I’d spent my whole life hanging around my mom’s kitchen, pestering her, helping to make jam thumbprint cookies, and asking questions. She helped me get started (and tolerated my attempt, at age 13, to make this reine de saba for her birthday), long before the predictability of this cookie recipe helped me switch into high gear. So, a little bit early…Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

But wait…some of you who are familiar with The Silver Palate might be scratching your heads right now and thinking, “Wait, I know that book has molasses cookies, but I never saw any bars…” And you’d be right: the original recipe yields big, flat, buttery cookies. These cookies almost inevitably run together, though, because they’re made with melted not creamed butter and in baking they spread faster than my tush will when I start desk jobbing it next year. At a certain point (I think post-college), I thought, what the heck, why try to separate them in the first place, and I made bars. I’ve never looked back: the edges of the cookies made from this recipe sometimes dry out, where bars keep everything moist, tender, and delicious.

Now, for those I’ve been urging for years to try this recipe out, here’s how you do it. Start by melting butter, and adding sugar and molasses.

Stir this up for a couple of minutes with a fork until the butter is fully incorporated, take it off the stove, and add one egg.

The egg gets mixed in and while the molasses cools, you put together dry ingredients. This entails mixing the flour, spices, and baking soda together in a big mixing bowl; it’s best to use a whisk to break up flour clumps.

Next, add the molasses mix to the flour-spice mix and blend it up until you don’t see any more flour.

The batter will be niiice and thick. Glop it onto a pan covered with foil or parchment.

Then spread it out evenly across the pan.

While it’s baking, make sure to lick the bowl. Raw eggs be damned – this is the best part. And remember: raw batter calories don’t count.

Watch the cookies carefully – they cook fast toward the end. When they’re darker brown around the edges and starting to look solid (instead of smooth and melty) in the middle, they’re done. Voila!

Now you try!  And, if you have a minute, take a sec to vote for Cookbook Archaeology in the “Best Cook-Through” category of the Saveur Food Blog Awards before the polls close May 12!

Molasses Spice Bars (Makes 24)
1 c. sugar
12 tbsp. unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1/4 c. molasses
1 large egg
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a 10×15 cookie sheet with either aluminum foil or parchment paper.
2. Cut the butter into 1-inch cubes, melt it in a medium saucepan over a low flame, and add sugar and molasses. Mix vigorously with a fork until the butter is fully incorporated and no longer pools on top. Remove the pan from the heat, crack in the egg, and immediately mix it in (before the egg can get cooked by the heat of the butter and sugar). Set this mixture aside to cool.
3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the flour, spices, salt, and baking soda together. Add the molasses mixture, and stir it into the flour just until it’s incorporated and flour lumps stop popping up.
4. Pour the resulting batter into the prepared pan and smooth it out evenly with a spatula.
5. Bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until cookie at the edges of the pan starts to brown and the center starts to look less smooth and melted.
6. Cool before cutting and serving. These bars can keep for up to 5-7 days in an airtight container.