I Wish I’d Asked

Megan Johnson Randall in her Vermont kitchen.

As I grow older, my hair gets frizzier, and there’s many a morning when I like to pull it back and up into a cheap facelift. As I anchor it with a few bobby pins and a claw clip, I often think of Grandma Randall. She had smooth silver hair, not at all frizzy, and she’d sweep it up in one deft twist which poufed naturally in front into a slight pompadour. As a young girl, I admired her gesture of careless elegance, and marveled that the twist stayed put all day long.

Grandma was from Louisville, Kentucky, a southerner and a farm girl who did most things with a certain dash. She was also cranky and fundamentalist. You avoided getting into a long conversation with her; you might end up, as I did once, being forced by guilt into memorizing the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

Maybe Grandma’s critical nature prevented us from prodding her for more stories, or maybe we took it for granted, as children will, that we already knew all there was to learn about her life, but I regret not asking more, now that there’s no one left to witness or explain. I’m left with her pretty old hands on the silver twist of her hair, the wonderful peach cobbler she threw together one hot summer day when too many peaches ripened at once, her slightly bow legs she said were from horseback riding, and those delicious molasses cookies she made from memory.

Oh those cookies! How many times have my sisters and I said to one another, “I wish we had Grandma’s molasses cookie recipe!” But I never saw Grandma work from a recipe. Her molasses cookies were as big as my palm and a half-inch thick, soft and cakey, an aromatic dark brown. Did she use the sorghum she sometimes brought us from down south? I wish I’d taken the time to learn how she made them, to show my love that way. As I twist up my hair, I think of the small things we leave behind us, and the importance of witness. As the Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word.” Words save memories; be sure to leave some behind. Be sure to collect them. Especially now while we’re all stuck inside with so little social interaction with those we love, get them to make a video of each other making the treasured brisket recipe, the family favorite O’Henry bars, mom’s inimitable pie crust. Tell us about your results.

And while memory plays tricks and makes many things impossibly delicious, here’s a challenge for you. Can you replicate Grandma Randall’s large, very dark, cakey molasses cookies? Maybe it’s regional?

What follows are two not quite it molasses cookie recipes. One is from The Silver Palate Cookbook. They’re addictive, but too flat and too chewy to be Grandma’s. The second is an old standby from Joy of Cooking, too small, too light colored, just not Gram’s. Neither can replicate Grandma’s recipe, put together by handfuls instead of using a measuring cup, by guess and by golly, from her long practice of 80 plus years. Got another offering?

Contributing writer Megan Johnson Randall is a retired English teacher who holds a master’s degree in creative writing.

Molasses Cookies

The Silver Palate Cookbook By Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins

24 large, flat cookies

12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) butter

1 cup granulated sugar

¼ cup molasses

1 egg

1 ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½  teaspoon ground cloves (I adjust to ¼ teaspoon as cloves can be overpowering)

1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger (I adjust to 2 heaping teaspoons)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  2. Melt butter, add sugar and molasses, and mix thoroughly. Lightly beat egg and add to butter mixture; blend well.
  3. Sift flour with spices, salt and baking soda, and add to first mixture; mix. Batter will be wet.
  4. Lay a sheet of foil on a cookie sheet. Drop tablespoons of cookie batter on foil, leaving 3 inches between cookies. These will spread during baking.
  5. Bake until cookies start to darken, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven while still soft. Carefully slide foil off baking sheet. Let cookies cool on foil.

Old-Fashioned Molasses Cookies*

The Joy of Cooking By Irma S. Rombauer & Marion Rombauer Becker

About 40 2-inch cookies

  • Beat until soft: ½ cup butter or shortening
  • Add gradually and blend until light and creamy: ½ cup sugar
  • Beat in: 1 egg ; ½ cup molasses
  • Have ready: ½ cup buttermilk
  • Sift together: 2 ½ cups sifted cake flour ; 1 teaspoon baking soda ; 1 teaspoon each cinnamon and ginger ; ¼ teaspoon cloves
  • Add sifted ingredients in 3 parts to the sugar mixture, alternately with the buttermilk. Beat the batter until smooth after each addition. Add: ½ cup chopped raisins

Drop the batter from a teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake 8 to 12 minutes.   

*Please note that this recipe is a perfect illustration of Rombauer’s injunction to always read the recipe through before beginning. But never fear: no buttermilk? Cake flour? See her invaluable chapter on Substitutions.

3 thoughts on “I Wish I’d Asked

  1. This brought back such wonderful memories when I was newly married. I went to visit my Granny and wanted her recipe for Dios Torte- a Hungarian walnut cake she made often and I loved it! She had no written recipe but would make it from memory every time. I asked her to make it and I would write it down. She began measuring , 3 spoonfuls using ‘the big silver spoon’ and 2 cupfuls of the ‘old porcelain teacup’, I quickly realized that wouldn’t work .I had her measure the way she always did and dump the ingredients in a bowl and then I would take it out and measure it with measuring cups and spoons so I knew exactly how much was needed. My Granny died that same year and I have never been so grateful to have taken the time to write down her exact recipe. I have made the Dios Torte many times through the years and my family is always surprised and pleased how much it tastes just like our Granny’s. When my sister Pat was at the end of her life(but still enjoying and truly savoring the smells and tastes of food)I made her the Dios Torte. I still can remember the morning I brought it into her bedroom and told her I made a treat for after lunch. I made her close her eyes and she could smell it . She opened her eyes and with a smile on her face announced that we were having it NOW- go make some coffee she ordered . Thanks you Meghan for such a warm memory.

  2. I love seeing you in your kitchen. I will give the cookies a try. Maybe not this week. I am working on eating a cake right now.

  3. My friend Dottie has been making ginger snaps since before our kids were born. She and her cookies have been part of our Christmas celebrations for over 30 years. Even though we now live hundreds of miles apart, she still sends us a batch every Christmas and they are devoured immediately. Truly the best cookie ever.
    3/4 cup butter
    1 cup sugar
    1 egg
    4 Tbsp molasses
    2 cups flour
    2 tsp baking soda
    1 tsp cinnamon
    1 tsp clove
    1 tsp ginger
    Do the usual creaming of butter, mixing wet ingredients and then add dry. Refrigerate 2 hours. Roll 1 tsp size balls in sugar. Bake 2” apart at 350 for 10-12 minutes.

    Best cookie ever- truly

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