Some months ago, I offered some helpful history about the right dessert for the birth of a royal baby. This week I’ve been mulling the right dessert for a new job. Whose new job, you ask? Why, mine. I just became the assistant director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association.
I’m very excited about the position. The National History Center works “to make history an essential part of public conversations about current events and the shared futures of the United States and the wider world,” and I believe strongly in its mission. Naturally, I’m also a bit nervous – what if I botch things? – and am eager to make a good impression on my new colleagues. It occurred to me that I should bring a dessert to the office.
But what dessert? For obvious reasons, it has to have some historic resonance. As you (and now my father-in-law) know, even Rice Krispy Treats have historic significance, but, good as they are, they don’t relate to the history of the American Historical Association. The AHA got its start in 1884. Maybe I should look to a cookbook from that era for the right sweet to share.
As it happens, a notable cookbook, Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book, was published the same year that the AHA launched, and the two developments have much in common. The American Historical Association was founded during the period that saw the creation of research universities and the emergence of distinct disciplines from earlier, patrician-dominated traditions of leisurely study. The AHA, like other similar societies formed in the era, was established to set norms and standards for the pursuit of scholarship within the discipline. (The AHA continues to promote history and historical thinking, today with a broader view of the many places and ways historians work.)
Now what, you’re wondering, does the AHA’s early history have to do with a cookbook? As it happens, Mary Lincoln was no mere cookbook author, but the president of the Boston Cooking School, founded in 1879 to bring a more professional and scientific approach to cookery and domestic work. Popular with home cooks, Mrs. Lincoln’s various cookbooks also helped to shape the new field of home economics. Yes, you’ve got it, home economics as a field of study taught by professionally-trained teachers developed in the same era as the academic discipline of history and its professional society, the AHA.
So Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book is the right cookbook to bake from for my new office-mates. What’s the right recipe? I considered some of Mrs. Lincoln’s more elaborate desserts, but decided that calling in sick so I could make cake, jelly, and cream for a Gateau de Princess Louise might be the wrong move. I opted instead for something that’s simple, yet (I hope) a crowd pleaser – molasses spice cookies. Mrs. Lincoln’s are made with no granulated sugar, just molasses for the sweetener, and they are very good. Dear colleagues, I’ll see you in the kitchen tomorrow morning.
Anyone else want to make friends at work? Here’s the recipe.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Soft Molasses Cookies
With some additional helpful directions from yours truly.
1 cup molasses
1 tablespoonful ginger
1 teaspoonful baking soda
2 tablespoonfuls warm water or milk
½ c. (1 stick) butter, softened
Flour to mix soft (I used 1¾ cups. You might try 2 cups.)
Mix in the order given, dissolving the soda in the milk. (Those are Mrs. Lincoln’s directions on making the dough and, really, it’s that simple.)
Flatten the dough into two disks and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350° on a convection oven or 375° on a conventional oven.
Grease two cookie sheets.
Roll the dough into balls and roll the balls in sugar if you like. Place on the cookie sheets and press gently on each ball to flatten slightly.
Bake, rotating the trays about midway through baking, about 8-10 minutes, until the cookies aren’t puffed up any more and spring back when touched gently. Let cool on the trays for a couple minutes and then remove to a rack to cool fully.