For the next two weeks leading up to election Day, ModernDomestic will be reviewing our eight favorite presidential cookie recipes, and picking the best of the bunch. Check out yesterday’s entry for the introduction to the bake off. Tomorrow Teresa Heinz Kerry’s Pumpkin Spice Cookies square off against Laura Bush’s Chocolate Chunk Cookies.
No Presidential Bake-Off would be complete without traveling back to yesteryear to see how our original First Ladies stacked up cookie-wise. After all, in those days recipes weren’t ubiquitous items found on the back of every cereal box and bag of flour, which makes these recipes all the more interesting.
So today we have recipes from two classic presidential wives: Martha Washington, stalwart and beloved wife of founding father George Washington, and Mary Todd Lincoln, paranoid and unpopular wife of our very own Honest Abe. Who will win, Martha Washington’s Shrewsbury cakes, or Mary Todd Lincoln’s Gingerbread Men? Let the battle begin.
Well, actually, before the battle begins, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I found the Mary Todd Lincoln recipe in this Independent article. It was only after making the cookies that I found out that it was an “approximation” of her actual recipe, which has been lost to history. How exactly the Independent came up with the “approximation” I will never know. Still, I wasn’t going to waste an entire batch of gingerbread men, or, in this case, gingerbread circles and stars. And I figure that they had to modernize the Martha Washington recipe as well, so perhaps they’re still equally matched? You can come to your own conclusions. Recipes follow at the end of the entry.
Martha Washington’s Shrewsbury Cakes
All in all, these were very basic cookies, hailing from a simpler time, when sugar was a luxury and we didn’t expect cookies to be loaded with every kind of chocolate, candy and high-fructose-corn-syrup-flavored filling available. No, the Shrewsbury cakes were honest and plain butter cookies, enriched with egg yolks and sweetened with sugar. When baked, they were very crisp and only slightly tender on the inside. I made them using dried cranberries, but I think if I made them again I would use currants, as the sharp tang of the cranberries didn’t quite mesh with the butteriness of the cookies.
All in all, these were a fine cookie, and would go well with a cup of tea. But I found them rather boring. The flavor became monotonous after a couple bites, and all I could think about was how glad I was that I was going to a party later that night, so I could pawn the cookies off on my friend’s guests. I also think that texture is a big deal for me; I like my cookies to be soft and chewy, and I thought these were too hard.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s Gingerbread Men
I didn’t realize that Abraham Lincoln loved gingerbread until I started researching his wife’s cookie recipe, but after tasting these cookies I can certainly understand why. Perhaps her baking made up for her less-than-steller (jealous, temperamental, kind of crazy) personality? I baked these up to soothe wonktheplank during game seven of the Red Sox-Rays series, and we almost ate the entire batch in a fit of nerves (and, ultimately, deep disappointment).
The dough was a bit sticky and required quite a bit of flour to roll out (note, I used stars and circle cookie cutters for these cookies, mostly because my gingerbread man cookie cutter is minuscule). Still, I loved the finished result—the gingerbread was spicy and sweet, and the molasses added a depth and complexity to the flavors. The cookies themselves were crisp at the edges, but slightly chewy and yielding on the inside. The next time, I think I would use frosting to decorate the cookies and add some more visual interest, but other than that, I was a big fan.
The Winner: Mary Todd Lincoln’s Gingerbread Men
Perhaps this comes down to personal taste, but I really loved the Gingerbread Men, and I found the Shrewsbury cakes thoroughly underwhelming. Mary Todd Lincoln’s approximated recipe was a great, basic gingerbread cookie, with a good balance of flavors and a wonderful texture. The Shrewsbury cakes were bland and monotonous, and while they probably would have been great with a cup of tea, they just didn’t stand on their own as a cookie.
Martha Washington’s Shrewsbury Cakes
I got this recipe here.
1/2 cup soft butter (one stick)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg beaten
2 tablespoons milk
2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
1 cup dried fruit (cherries, apricots, or currants), chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter with sugar, then add vanilla, salt, egg, and milk. Blend well. Add flour. Mix in dried fruit. Chill dough for about one hour. Use a small cookie scoop to form small rounds. Place the rounds on a greased cookie sheet and bake for about 12 minutes. Cool on a rack. Recipe yields three dozen cakes.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s Gingerbread Cookies
I got the recipe from here.
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 egg yolk
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp allspice
Preheat oven to 350C. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in molasses and egg yolk. In another bowl, sift together, flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and spices. Gradually beat the flour mixture into the butter egg mixture. Cover and chill dough for at least one hour. On a lightly floured board roll the dough to a 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into gingerbread men or other desired shapes. Place cookies about two inches apart on an ungreased sheet and bake for 8-10 until firm. Cool. Makes three dozen gingerbread men.