Sunday, September 22, 2013

Felicity's Spice Cakes with Lemon Glaze

Easily one of the best from scratch cookies I've ever made!

This weekend was my hometown's town fair. It's been a tradition for over a hundred and fifty years, and it's basically the biggest event that goes on all year. Town fairs have been a tradition that goes back pretty much to the dawn of civilization in one form or another, but considering they're almost always a big deal for small towns like mine, I felt like I had to do something in honor of it being fair weekend.

These cakes (what we know as cookies!) turned out to be the best possible way to bring a little bit of festivity and history into the weekend, and are definitely going to be added into the regular rotation.
Now, some people are probably wondering why I chose to feature Felicity again, considering this will be her third recipe on the blog and Kirsten, Rebecca and Emily only have one each. The simple answer is that my town tends to put a very heavy emphasis on our colonial and revolutionary history, and Felicity not only has a town fair themed outfit, but also has a book that takes place at Williamsburg's equivalent to my town's fair in the short story Felicity Takes a Dare.
Which does not feature her town fair outfit because the story technically came first, which is a shame because it's one of my favorites.

The fair Felicity attends takes place during Publick Times, which is when Virginia's highest court was in session in Williamsburg. This meant that people from all over the colony would come to catch up on local news, do business, purchase goods and have fun for as long as the court was in session. This was generally held in April or October and lasted for a fair bit longer than our three day September weekend, but people still come here to play games and see shows and buy things, so it's really not entirely different as long as you ignore the fact that we're by no means a political hub and never have been.

I wanted to create something that would be similar to the types of food Felicity and her siblings would have been able to snack on during their visit, and while it mentions that Nan picks out some gingerbread, the story doesn't specifically state what William and Felicity picked, except that Felicity chose some cakes. For most modern readers, this probably sounds like she picked out something like petit fours or cupcakes, but in reality really means she probably selected something like a cookie. The term cookie wasn't widely used at all in the 18th century, and thus cake came to be a blanket term for what we know as cookies and cakes. The question now was to decide what kind of cookie I was going to make, and the answer came from a cookbook that came into our possession a few years ago.

Two years ago I went to Philadelphia with my parents and brother over President's Day weekend and we ate at the City Tavern, an institution that prides itself on serving authentic versions of the dishes it prepared for people like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams almost two hundred years ago. In these days, my brother (at age thirteen) was still entertaining the idea of becoming a chef, and decided he wanted to buy a copy of their cookbook. I'm really glad he did because there's a lot of good stuff in here, and the recipe for Spice Cookies caught my eye this time.

My dad loves spice cookies and molasses cookies, and since this recipe included both, it seemed like we couldn't really go wrong with it! Spice cookies were very popular during this period, and it's unusual to find authentic recipes that don't call for some sort of spice being added into it, as it made a simple treat turn into something that seemed more exotic. This recipe isn't wholly authentic, but was adapted from authentic recipes and is supposed to "[recall] the crisp Shrewsbury cakes and numerous varieties of gingerbread... that filled the kitchens and shelves of many colonial American homes and bake shops." [1]

We thought (keyword obviously being "thought") that we had all the ingredients we needed, so we dug right in to getting the dough started.

Next came separating the egg yolks and getting the vanilla and molasses ready. This was where we hit the only real speed bump: while we thought we had enough molasses in the jar, it turned out that a lot of it had congealed and crystallized to the bottom of the jar, and no amount of microwaving or stabbing it with a butter knife was going to make it unstick.

 Perfect egg yolks, not so perfect 1/2 cup of molasses.

Fortunately, we were able to turn to the internet for advice, which recommended we use brown sugar to supplement, which we always have in the house. After that, everything was pretty much smooth sailing.

The one thing that got a little complicated was that the recipe said to leave the cookies in the oven for fifteen to twenty minutes to cook fully, but the first batch was crispy and brown around the edges after about thirteen minutes. They weren't burned, and it didn't affect the flavor much at all, but I still pulled out the next two trays a little earlier to make sure they didn't overcook.

Next came the glaze, which was absurdly easy to make and incredibly tasty. A cup of powdered sugar, a tablespoon (or a little more if necessary) of lemon juice and you're good to go.

I was a little worried I'd maybe made it too early and it wouldn't spread easily on the cookies (which it didn't, really, which is sort of another story), but when it felt like it was starting to seize up too much, I just dribbled in some extra lemon juice to get it moving around again, and it made more than enough to cover each of the cookies. It was still a little too stiff to make any pretty patterns and once it touched the just out of the oven cookies, it melted and ran all over the place, so the result was some pretty homely cookies, but it didn't affect the taste at all, so I don't really mind.

 And it definitely didn't discourage snitching!

These cookies were amazing. Admittedly, I am not as picky an eater of cookies as I am of other foods - I've even gone as far as listing my religion on Facebook as "Cookievangelist", and often like to joke that Cookie Monster might as well be my spirit animal - but I'm really not exaggerating when I say that these were exceptional cookies. I kept having to catch myself from snitching the dough when I was scooping out the next batch, and everyone else reports the same thing - it's hard to just let these sit around the house when you know you could be devouring them yourself.

They tend to get crispy around the edges, but not in an unpleasant way, and the inner part is always soft and fluffy. The cookie itself tastes great without the icing, but the icing really just finishes it off nicely and makes it pretty much unlike any other cookie I've ever had before. The cookie is savory enough with the spices and molasses that the sweet, slightly lemony flavor of the icing is a really perfect compliment. I was also happy to discover that I could still taste the molasses in the cookie, even though we were only able to get about a quarter of a cup of molasses into the dough.

Also, your entire house will smell like Christmas while you're baking them.

 Which is never, ever a bad thing.

I would 100% recommend this recipe, investing in the cookbook and visiting the tavern yourself if you like history and happen to be in Philadelphia. The cookies were super easy to make and totally worth the effort. They were a big enough hit that I've already been informed that apparently I'm in charge of making Christmas cookies this year!

Felicity and I brought some over to the fair to share some samples with some of my friends from the museum I interned with, and it looks like I'll be sharing the recipe with them, too. Considering how much of a hit they've been, I wouldn't be surprised if they've all been eaten by the end of the night!

1. Walter Staib with Paul Bauer. The City Tavern Cookbook: Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine. (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2009), 296.


  1. These look delicious! I've had an itch to make most of your recipes.

    1. Out of all the ones I've done so far, I would definitely recommend these or the skillet cookie the most highly, although the soup was also pretty incredible for something I thought was going to be a total disaster. If you do try any, let me know how they turn out!

  2. Several years ago - many moons, before moving to Tennessee was even a thought in my head - I took a trip out that way to go to the NASCAR race at what was then Dover Downs (tells you how long ago it was that NASCAR still called it Dover Downs!) Since we were flying in and out of Philadelphia, the day we were to leave we left Dover and just went around to the historical sites in Philadelphia, and we too ate at the City Tavern! The food was so good, but I'm kicking myself for not picking up the cookbook as well, cause these cookies look delicious! I really like your blog!

    1. Thank you! I'm pretty sure you can get a copy on Amazon if you're really interested, and I'd definitely recommend it. Some of the recipes seem a little intense and are kind of weird portion sizes? I wanted to make a braised sausage recipe they had in there but it allegedly only served six, but the sauce was enough for like 30 servings or something like that, and it was just like why, how, this makes no sense! But apart from that, it has a lot of really tasty sounding things, and includes a lot of the stuff that was on the menu when we ate there, so I would definitely recommend it if you're looking for a new cookbook to try out!