For Proust it was “les petite madeleines.” For me, hermits are the sweet treats that evoke intensely happy memories of times gone by. The hermits I crave came not from my mother’s kitchen, however, but from bakeries near the shore.
Hermits are most commonly bar cookies baked in a cake pan, like brownies, and cut into squares. Packed with chopped nuts and raisins, hermits are redolent of the molasses and pungent spices that flavor them.
These cookies keep extraordinarily well. Hermits have a long history in New England, dating back to the days of the clipper ships when they were packed in tins to accompany sailors as they traveled to distant lands. Many claim their flavor improves with age.
In recent years, however, they have fallen out of favor. Corner bakeries stopped making them, and even commercial cookie baker Archway dropped hermits from their line.
Over the past long winter, as I dreamed of warm days at the beach, I scoured my cookbooks and searched the web for the recipe that seemed most like the beloved cookie I remembered. I settled on the recipe found in my Fannie Farmer Cookbook (1984 edition), first published in 1896.
Most of the ingredients were familiar, but the recipe called for mace, the dried covering of the nutmeg. While I could not find mace in the baking section of any supermarket, I was able to get it at Penzey’s.
One cool, rainy day earlier this month I thought I was all set to give the recipe a try, but I hadn’t read it carefully. There was one other mystery ingredient — cream of tartar. This I was able to find at the local store, but I found myself wondering what exactly this white powder was and why it was essential to this recipe.
Here is what I learned from Wikipedia: “Potassium bitartrate, also known as potassium hydrogen tartrate, with formula KC4H5O6, is a byproduct of winemaking. In cooking it is known as cream of tartar. It is the potassium acid salt of tartaric acid (a carboxylic acid).” It has a number of uses; in my hermit recipe it serves as the acid to activate the baking soda, causing the cookies to rise. [This is an old recipe.]
With the advent of modern baking powder, cream of tartar has been pretty much replaced as a leavening agent, but it remains valuable for a long list of uses from stabilizing egg whites and whipped cream to cleaning metals.
But back to the Hermits. With cream of tartar on hand, here is the recipe I used:
(36 Squares or about 60 Cookies)
- 1/4 cup raisins or currants [I used raisins.]
- 1/4 cup chopped nuts [I used walnuts.]
- 2 cups flour [I substituted whole wheat for 1 cup.]
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup molasses [I used Blackstrap.]
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon mace
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- Preheat the oven to 350° F.
- Grease a 9 x 13inch cake pan or some cookie sheets.
- Toss the dried fruit and nuts in 1/4 cup of the flour; set aside.
- Cream the butter; then add the sugar and beat well.
- Add the salt, eggs, and molasses and beat well.
- Mix together the remaining 1-3/4 cups flour with the remaining dry ingredients, and beat thoroughly.
- Stir in the raisins and nuts.
- Spread in the pan or drop by teaspoonfuls onto the cookie sheets.
- Bake only until the top is firm and the center chewy, about 15-20 minutes for the squares, 8-10 minutes for the cookies. [A cake tester inserted into my bars at 15 minutes came out clean.]
|A panful of perfect Hermits|
The hermits turned out just as I hoped (and remembered). I couldn’t eat just one… The remainders are in a tightly closed tin. I hope to test the theory that they will get even better with age, but I don’t imagine my experiment will last as long as a sea voyage.
|Lone hermit on a plate.|
I will let you know how it goes.
Hermits should still be a “sometimes treat,” but as cookies go, they are far better for you than most. Blackstrap Molasses, nuts, and raisins are high in fiber and have significant food value. And, If you swap out half the white flour for whole wheat as I did, you will add even more fiber and cut the glycemic index of your cookies, making them even better.
One more thing, a bit of Hermit trivia. You might be wondering, “Where did this cookie get its name?” There appears to be no definitive answer, but the Old Farmer’s Almanac offers several theories. My favorite one is: “Very likely the old recipe for the hermit cookies goes back to the 12th or 13th century religious hermitages, where these basic ingredients would have been in common usage at bakers’ tables. The terms for those confines — ‘hermite’ from the Old French or ‘heremita,’ from the medieval Latin — may have been assigned to this treat by the residents.”
Happy baking. Happy eating. Happy Summer. Happy Meatless Monday.
On Mondays I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”