I recently read about an exercise and it had me intrigued: “Using any material on any surface, make or draw or render a four-foot-tall totem pole of your life. Include anything you want: words, letters, maps, photos, objects, signs. This should take no longer than a week. Now show it to someone who does not know you well. Tell them only, ‘This is a totem pole of my life till now.’ That’s all. It doesn’t matter if they like it. Ask them to tell you what it means about your life. No clues. Listen to what they tell you.”
I thought about it for a bit and decided a molasses cookie was an apt emblem of my childhood.
When I bake molasses cookies I am transported; I’m a child on a chair at the kitchen counter helping my mother make a batch. I smell them baking and there I am walking through the back door of our home on Janice Street, the scent of cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg all around me and she is pulling a sheet of molasses cookies out of the oven.
In the early nineties I discovered a cookie recipe not unlike the one my mother used and it came from an unlikely source - a medieval nun named Hildegarde of Bingen. Like the cookies my mother baked hers were spiced with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg.
Hildegarde recommends you eat her spice cookies at least once a day to help lift melancholia, open your heart and bring you a sense of cheerfulness and joy. In particular, she credits nutmeg for the cookies’ positive effects. She writes,
“Nutmeg has great heat and good moderation in its powers. If a person eats nutmeg, it will open up your heart, make your judgment free from obstruction and give you a good disposition. Take some nutmeg and an equal weight of cinnamon and a bit of cloves, and pulverize them. Then make small cakes with this and fine whole wheat flour and water. Eat them often. It will calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open your heart and impaired senses, and make your mind cheerful. It purifies your senses and diminishes all harmful humors in you. It gives good liquid to your blood and makes you strong.”
If I had one wish for all of you as we approach a New Year it would be this: take good care of yourself.
Accompanying that wish is a molasses cookie recipe - an updated version, inspired by my mother and a 12th century mystic.
May the warm spicy goodness of these cookies help banish any gloom and elevate your mood in the days and months ahead.
Spicy Molasses Cookies
1/4 cup coconut oil or butter
1/4 cup coconut sugar
1/4 cup cane sugar
I egg, slightly beaten
1/4 cup black strap molasses
1 cup spelt flour or all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tbsp fresh ginger, finely chopped or grated OR 1 tsp dried ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg, freshly ground if possible
extra sugar for rolling in (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Cream the oil, coconut sugar and cane sugar until creamy. If using freshly grated ginger, add it here.
Add the beaten egg and molasses, and mix until combined well.
Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl.
Combine wet and dry.
Place the cookie dough in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or until the dough is easy to handle.
Roll equal sized portions of the dough into 1-inch balls.
Roll each ball in sugar to coat.
Place on the cookie sheet and flatten each ball with your hand or the bottom of a glass.
Bake for 10 minutes, until cookies begin to crack on top.
Remove and let cool.
Store in an airtight container.
I baked this batch a little on the long side so they have a nice crunch without being too crunchy. If you want more chew than crunch, consider removing them from the oven just before they are finished baking and let them rest on the hot sheet for a couple more minutes.
If you don’t have any coconut sugar you can substitute regular sugar.