I was eight years old when I attempted to make spice cookies for the first time. I remember the day vividly. A snowy December day when my sister, brother, and I were all on vacation from school, stuck at home while our parents were at work. I started getting restless from watching Christmas movies all morning when I decided that I would bake. With no parental supervision, it was the perfect time to have the kitchen all to myself and get the mess cleaned before anyone returned home. With the kitchen left unguarded, I felt confident in trying a recipe from scratch.
But I was only a young girl. Still used to opening a box and adding eggs or oil and thinking I baked a masterpiece. Baking spice cookies was one of the times that I ventured away from the comforts of Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines and started from scratch. I dug through a drawer to pull out my mother’s recipe books. I sat on the floor, thumbing page after page trying to find a cookie recipe that interested me. Couldn’t do chocolate chip — I knew we didn’t have the chips. Oatmeal raisin was never my cookie of choice. But that’s when I came across spice cookies. That seemed interesting and different! I got up off the floor and started to get out the mixing bowl.
I stood in the kitchen with my apron and began mixing the butter and sugar in one bowl, flour and salt in another. Adding the spices. Mixing the best I could. Finally dropping the cookies onto a baking sheet to be baked until lightly golden brown. I felt like I was Julia Child. Just as my mother and I had watched her on the reruns of The French Chef, I was standing in this flour- and sugar-covered kitchen thinking that I was Julia in the midst of making a masterpiece. But that’s what I thought.
I was so excited to pull the cookies out of the oven. My brother and sister, both smelling the fragrant aroma drifting from the kitchen, came running down the stairs. The cookies didn’t look like much, just pale blobs, but I was still proud. “Try one,” I said confidently, “they’re spice cookies!” We all took one and bit right in. My dreams were shattered instantly; they tasted terrible.
“Ugh! These are gross!” My sister screamed as she dropped the rest of her cookie back on the plate. “Yeah, these are pretty disgusting,” my brother snickered. I couldn’t even defend myself. All the energy and ingredients I had poured into making those darn spice cookies, it was all a waste! I slammed the plate on the counter and went off to sulk in my room the rest of the day.
But the humiliation didn’t stop. Carelessly, I left the plate of cookies in the kitchen when I ran out of the kitchen in embarrassment. When my dad got home from work, he saw the plate of cookies and instinctively took one up. I was staring at him, wanting to grab the cookie out of his hand, but I was too slow. My father, in his elegant Boston accent, just frowned and said, “Oh my gahd! These cookies ah terrible!”
“They’re as dense as door stops!” My brother lovingly snickered. I learned from an early age that my family wasn’t big on subtleties. Crushed once again, but now, to a whole new low, I grabbed the plate and threw it in the trash before embarrassingly returning to my room once again.
In retrospect, the cookies were a bad idea from the start. The recipe was from an old church raffle cookbook (probably not the most tested and validated recipes). But after starting the batter, I noticed we were out of a lot of the ingredients the recipe called for so I started to improvise — which usually isn’t something one does while baking. We only had half the butter needed in the recipe, I probably didn’t accurately measure the flour, and the nutmeg, clove, and allspice were from jars that were older than I was at the time. I also remember mixing those cookies with all my strength — trying to be a show off — but in reality, over mixing them to the point of “door stops.” And the cookies probably were cooked a little past the point of lightly golden brown.
Believe me, to this day, the spice cookies still live on in infamy. Despite the vast improvement of my baking skills, spice cookies remains a joke in my family today, but now I can at least laugh along with them. After the spice cookie incident, I kept on baking. After spending some time sulking in my room, I remembered what Julia Child had taught me on her show. Even she made mistakes! Sure everyone knows her omelet flipping blunder, but I remember her baking a Queen of Sheba cake and remarking that if it comes out of the oven and cools, but you cut into to find it is still runny, just pop it back in and it’ll be good enough to serve guests — as she had done many times! I admired Julia for her mistakes, as well as her masterpieces. I think any cook worth his or her salt has made some mistakes down the road, but the important thing is to learn from them.
Since the infamous spice cookie incident, I’ve learned the important practice of mise en place — measuring and placing all your ingredients around you before beginning to cook. I’ve also learned that mixing a little extra does not necessarily make everything better. I now know all too well that spices can go bad and become lack-luster over time, and to use fresh ingredients whenever possible. And all these lessons have turned me into a better baker. I can make puff pastry from scratch or whip up a pie crust off the top of my head.
But in spite of my accomplishments, I realized that I had never revisited the spice cookie. So I recently decided to face my baking demons, and remake the infamous spice cookies. This recipe is a simple sugar cookie base with some cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and pepper added. I also added some freshly grated ginger into the dough to brighten these cookies. This dough is different than the drop cookies I attempted to make years ago, but I think it is for the better. The dough can be shaped into a log and cut into rounds or rolled out and cut into shapes. It can even be frozen for months to keep spice cookies on hand whenever the mood calls.
After 12 years of torment and shame, I think I can finally put spice cookies behind me. I finally redeemed myself from the spice cookie disaster, but more importantly, I never let it stop me in the first place.
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon ground pepper
1 stick butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and spices with a whisk until thoroughly mixed. In a separate bowl, cream together the butter and sugar using an electric mixer. Beat until light and fluffy.
Add the egg, milk, vanilla, and ginger and beat until combined. Add the flour in two additions, mixing on low until just combined. After the second addition, the batter should form a dough. Use your hands to form the dough into a smooth ball. Wrap the ball in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Dough can be formed into 1-inch balls and flattened, rolled into a log and cut into ¼-inch slices, or rolled and cut into shapes.
Bake at 350°F for 10-12 minutes or until cookies are lightly golden brown around the edges.
Yields 2 dozen cookies
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski