a holiday tradition, almost run amuck

IMG_3346Tis the season…

I can’t remember exactly when baking gingerbread cookies became a December ritual for me. It didn’t start in my youth, since none of the cookies that came out of our family kitchen involved rolling pins or icing, that I recall. Honestly, now that I think about it, while we kids liked to make the standard Nestles tollhouse cookies from the recipe on the chocolate chip bag, my mother preferred cookies that came from the bakery in Camden: walnut shortbread with a dollop of chocolate, date-filled sandwiches, butterscotch treats. She bought those by the boxful, then hid them in the freezer on the front porch.   During my high school years, when fundraisers called for edible wares, I favored no-bake chocolate concoctions over actual baked goods. They were fudge for the faint of heart, with lots of peanut butter and oatmeal thrown in to hold the messy lumps together until they cooled off on sheets of wax paper. They sold like hotcakes at bake sales, despite not actually being baked.

 IMG_5120Why two copies you ask? Read on…

Like everyone I knew back then, I grew up in a kitchen that had a copy of Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking on the cookbook shelf. My mother’s copy was just like her mother’s, including instructions on best practices for skinning rabbits and squirrels. That 25th anniversary edition was kept close at hand for the calorie lists as much as for cooking instruction, I suspect. Probably more, since my mom’s culinary repertoire consisted nearly exclusively of meals she already knew how to make.

 IMG_4976Honestly, this has nothing to do with my cookie story.  Except to point out that the Lorna Doone was born and raised in My Fair City.

* * * * *

Fast forward to sometime after my beloved and I had moved out of our little condo to a home with more counter space, and that’s approximately when my gingerbread tradition began. I have a vague memory of testing various recipes during my most adventurous cooking era, post-college and pre-kids. Martha Stewart was just getting a foothold in our creative conscience, which likely amped up my desire to produce something a little more lovely than those no-bake fudgy oatmeal drops. Again, the vague memories…somehow it seems like it might have been a less-than-stellar Martha Stewart gingerbread recipe (not the first substandard recipe of hers I encountered, just saying) that propelled me to look elsewhere for more trustworthy instructions. So I delved into my own copy of The Joy of Cooking (a wedding gift from a college friend whose mother also had a copy, I’m guessing) and found Irma Rombauer’s classic gingerbread recipe. Once found, I never looked back.

IMG_5108Perfection.  Thank you, Irma Rombauer.

Never looked back, until yesterday, that is.

 IMG_5113This is where six pages have gone missing…

Alas and alack. Because right about here is where I should be posting a photo of my well-worn gingerbread recipe page, complete with my handwritten marginalia about using white sugar, not brown, and using Grandma’s (the brand, not my mother’s mother’s) molasses, the “robust” variety with the green label, not the regular yellow label version. But somewhere over the past summer of packing and moving and construction and relocation—yep, you guessed it, that critical recipe disappeared. Not the entire of my Joy of Cooking cookbook, curiously; just the chunk of pages from the “Cookies and Bars” section that had worked itself loose from the binding. That little packet of cookery info had come to a semi-permanent resting spot in my Plexiglas cookbook holder on the kitchen counter. Now, after turning all my cookbooks and folders of clipped recipes upside down and inside out, all I can find is the gap between pages 705 to 712, and no recollection around where I might have stashed pages 706 to 711. Which is to say, I couldn’t put my hands on my go-to, tried and true, best in all categories gingerbread recipe. Help!

IMG_5112Egads!  What will I fill those tins with, if I don’t have the recipe?

Embarrassing fact: I can’t remember the recipe, even though I’ve made at least 100 batches of Joy of Cooking gingerbread cookies. By which I mean I’ve made at least 200 batches, because I always double the recipe. Always a whole stick of butter, always 7 cups of flour. That much I know by heart. But standing in my kitchen, without a reliable notion around the exact quantities required for the remaining ingredients, left me with nothing but a big blank thought bubble hanging over my head. How much molasses and sugar? How many teaspoons of baking soda? Cloves? Cinnamon, ginger, salt? I could guess, but I wouldn’t be sure.

I was lost. And in no adventurous mood to try a couple iterations and see how they might turn out. I needed my stalwart recipe, and I needed it pronto.

So I started with Google, searching on Joy of Cooking, gingerbread men. Simple enough. But I kept not quite landing on the recipe I knew by heart, if only I had it in front of me. Little quirks abounded—wrong amount of butter, calls for brown sugar, not white, and eggs, at all—my gingerbread dough requires no eggs.   Curiously, for all that the world wide web offers, I couldn’t for the life of me turn up the page I needed.

So what next? Well, I did what you do if you live where I live. I walked into Harvard Square. Surely, surely, either the venerable Harvard Book Store (a delightful independent book seller not affiliated with the university) or the Harvard Coop (an ancient cooperative turned department store with a particularly excellent book section) would have a copy of Irma’s Joy. How could they not?

IMG_5122A bookstore that doubles as a speaker venue. What’s not to love?

First stop, since it’s a tad closer to home, was the cookbook section at Harvard Book Store. I figured the Rombauer classic would be in their category of texts to always have at least one copy of in stock, and I was not disappointed. Amused, a bit, that the latest printing is the 75th anniversary iteration, fifty years beyond my mother’s edition, and confident that my search had ended successfully. But just to be sure, I sat in my favorite little HBS reading nook to peruse Joy’s Cookies and Bars section.

IMG_5082Sorry, lousy photo taken on the sly.  Trust me, there’s no good news here.

Ahem. What’s this? The diamond jubilee Joy of Cooking edition gingerbread recipe starts out thusly: “In a medium (2-quart) saucepan, melt 1 cup (two sticks! Plus my exclamation point) butter or margarine.”

Oh, hell. They’d changed the recipe! Rombauer et al. had deep-sixed their original and gone with a new version, apparently the brainchild of a cookbook author and baking teacher whose name I shall not mention. She lost me at “melt.” Then she lost me again at “or margarine.”

Seriously. What serious baker thinks butter and margarine are interchangeable?

I would have gone into a serious funk right about then, had I not remembered that the Harvard Book Store has a robust used book section in its cavernous basement. This would surely be a place where I could put my hands on the version I needed, no melting or butter substitutes allowed. So down to the lower level I headed, fingers crossed.

IMG_5119Oh happy day!  The recipe I needed, in paperback, no less, further reducing my financial outlay.  A second-hand steal in my book.  So to speak.

And so, here I am, back in business. And inclined to commit those quantities of dry goods to memory, just in case. That, and perhaps copy them down and paste them into one of my new kitchen cabinets.

IMG_5121Who knows? Maybe after I’m done making gingerbread cookies,  I’ll skin a squirrel.


10 comments on “a holiday tradition, almost run amuck

  1. Melanie says:

    Inspired baking…..

  2. Kristen says:

    I was biting my nails there (I love the way you tell a story)! So glad you found it. WHEW! I had a similar situation this year with the apple crisp recipe I’ve used for the better part of 15 years now that I’d clipped from the newspaper. It was from Tougas Family Farm and I SHOULD know it by heart by now, but alas, no. And then it went missing this year. Good news is that someone, bless their hearts, had compiled all of the farm’s recipes and there is a pdf document online. And I totally agree with you: margarine instead of butter? Absolutely a nonstarter. So glad you’ll have the gingerbread men dancing again this year in your kitchen.

  3. Jillian says:

    First: that duckling cookie is to-die-for cuteness.

    Second: I definitely have a printed copy of the gingerbread recipe you typed out and emailed to me 9 years ago. I could’ve helped!

  4. holly* says:

    I do love how you tell a story .. and like Jillian I could’ve helped .. remember you can “Phone a sister” when panic sets in .. any time day or night .. so glad you found and hold in your creative hands the magic that is the correct version which includes only butter [what were they thinking?] xox – h*

  5. juliezickefoose says:

    HA HA HA HA HA HA!!! I loved this post. Almost as much as we loved the gingerbread lobsters, duckies and stars (the only ones the kids let boring old me have). If you could only be a fly on our wall when that box comes. What a great tale, so well told. I was hanging by my nails. Even though I read from the newer posts, and knew you’d eventually found your missing chunk o’ pages.
    My paperback Joy has so long since lost its cover and half its index; has been mouse-chewed; is bright orange-yellow with the acid in the paper. And I cradle its rotting hulk and look up the same old recipes time after time. I’ll never replace it.

  6. Bruce Mohn says:

    What is the publish date of the 25th anniversary edition? Been searching and need to narrow my parameters. Thanks! Great post!

    • khmacomber says:

      Sometime in the early 60s maybe? But honestly, I think the recipe stayed the same for many many reissues. The copy I got as a wedding gift (back in the dark ages, admittedly) had multiple printings between 1975 and 1983. I suspect it’s just the current hardcover 75th version that has gone rogue with its gingerbread recipe. That said, I do intend to try out that new version–who knows, might be even better! Just couldn’t chance it when my gingerbread cookie recipients were anxiously expecting their annual stash.

      Hope this is helpful.

  7. Kim Beard says:

    Hello – friend of Julie Z’s here – browsing thru your posts (something I should have done a long time ago, I know – not like it’s the first time she’s directed me here…) and this one sent me to my increasingly ragged copy of Joy of Cooking to look at the gingerbread man recipe. The ragged one, the one I use all the time (I actually have two copies), dates from the late 60s and it seems to have the *right* recipe. The other copy – which entered our house after being found thrown out somewhere? Or was inherited from a now deceased family member’s kitchen? How can I not know this? – turns out, to my surprise, to be older – maybe 15 years older. Same gingerbread recipe, though. Clearly I need to actually MAKE these gingerbread cookies. And remember that I should use the white sugar… and Grandma’s Molasses.

    • khmacomber says:

      Thanks for checking in! One curious new fact, since I wrote that post–I could not find the “robust” version of Grandma’s molasses (with the green label) anywhere this past gingerbread season. Which is a bummer, because it was darker without being too thick and black-strappy. What I did to make up for that snag was to use Grandma’s regular (yellow label) molasses, with a dollop of an organic molasses that has a little more oomph. Probably more than you want to know, just didn’t want you to give up if you couldn’t find the right stuff. Enjoy!

      • Kim Beard says:

        I don’t know if I’ve ever even SEEN the robust version. If I commit to making the cookies I will not be deterred by the molasses… 😉

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