The Girl Scout cookie boxes arrived, I opened them, inhaled that sharp mint and chocolate aroma and dove right in. It’s the same story each year, but I’ve come to realize that nothing will ever taste as good as that first Thin Mint from 1970-something. I remember thinking at the time it was the best cookie ever made - chocolatey, minty, crispy. I continue to buy the boxes each year, hoping that the cheap waxy chocolate against my teeth will take me back to those days of peasant tops, bell bottoms and tri-color Keds, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The cookie that does pull me back to my Tennessee childhood is the soft ginger cookie, a chewy disc, crackly with sugar, fragrant with cloves, cinnamon and the eponymous ginger, anointed with a puddle of raspberry jam in the epicenter. If Girl Scouts sold these ginger cookies, not only could they send millions of girls to camp, they could build a retirement village with the proceeds.
I first tasted soft ginger cookies at Becker's Bakery in Nashville, Tennessee, the Bakery of My Childhood. I still remember the wood floors, glass display cases and fake wedding cake. While my brothers and I plastered our sticky hands on the glass cases and shouted out the names of the treats, Mom would purchase pastel butter cookies, spritzes in green, yellow and pink. We each picked out a waving gingerbread man, one arm up and one arm down, sprinkled with red sugar. And no fewer than two dozen ginger cookies would come home with us.
It's grandiose, I know, but whenever I smell ginger, cinnamon and cloves baking, I'm in a different town, in a bakery with my mom and brothers. Is it overstating things too much if I say this is Proustian? Perhaps no literary food reference is appropriated as much as Marcel Proust's contemplation of the madeleine in "Remembrance of Things Past." Considering that "Remembrance" is seven volumes long, I have doubts that so many cookbook writers have truly read the book. I won't pretend that I've read it, either (I keep a copy of the first volume, "Swann's Way," beside my bed, currently it’s underneath a John Dunning mystery.).
Becker's Bakery is still in Nashville, although the store I remember near Brentwood is now closed. When I travel home, I stop by the bakery for a dozen or two. I've tried a few ginger cookie recipes searching for one to equal Becker's, and this is the closest. It’s based on a recipe in California Culinary Academy Cookies, copyright 1987. The recipe calls for ground pecans, which I don't think are in Becker's version, but make for a tasty cookie. The texture is not quite as soft as the original, either, and I find that they are better after sitting for a day. These cookies are lovely on a winter afternoon, when you can sit with a cup of chamomile tea and curl up with a book, Proust perhaps, in a chair by a warming fire. Enjoy that moment until the Girl Scout knocks at your door.
2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup ground pecans
1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup unsulphured molasses (like Grandma’s brand)
1/2 cup granulated sugar for coating the unbaked cookies
About 1/4 cup seedless raspberry jam (I use Polaner’s)
1. In a bowl, stir together flour, pecans, soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon and cloves; set aside. Preheat oven to 350.
2. In mixer bowl, combine butter and brown sugar; beat until well blended. Beat in egg, then molasses. Gradually add flour mixture, beating until blended.
3. Spread granulated sugar in a shallow pan. Drop cookie dough by heaping tablespoons into sugar. Roll cookies to coat well, shaping them into balls as you roll.
4. Place about two inches apart on parchment lined cookie sheets. With your thumb, make a small depression in the center of each cookie. Fill each thumbprint with about a 1/4 teaspoon jelly. I find that a baby feeding spoon, the narrow kind with the long handle, is just perfect for scooping the jelly and placing it on the cookie.
5. Bake the cookies until they are brown and feel firm when touched lightly, about 15 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool. Yield: 30 cookies.