Birthday Inspiration

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It has been a busy week around my house— birthdays always do that here. We tend to make a big deal out of them. (Note to new parents: don’t start any traditions that you don’t want to carry on for many years to come.) It starts the night before the birthday when we sneak into the birthday child’s bedroom to fill it with balloons and to string streamers across the doorway. Then in the morning, we wake the child by singing Happy Birthday, and if she is lucky enough that her birthday falls on a weekend, we carry in a tray with the requested birthday breakfast. If it’s a school day, we hold off on breakfast-in-bed until the weekend. Of course there are cupcakes for school and definitely cake for dessert at our house. Over the years our children have also gotten in the habit of choosing their favorite meal for dinner (chicken pot pie with a layer of mashed potatoes under the crust was this year’s request). All in all, this ends up being a lot of work for me. Good thing I really like my kids!

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But the good news is that the easiest thing I did for my daughter’s birthday was the most spectacular looking— her cake. It was a simple two layer vanilla butter cake, each layer cut in half. I stacked them with sweetened whipped cream and berries, as requested. No fussing over frosting a cake and working out elaborate decorations. The berries are both decorative and delicious. This idea is endlessly versatile too. Flavor the cake, flavor the whipped cream, change up the berries used. You can have a different cake every time you make it. In this case, the simplicity of it really is good.

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The cupcakes for school required a little more effort but they were fun to do. I doubled my cake recipe to make both the 9″ cake and 24 cupcakes. My now 11-year-old did most of the decorating herself. They are here just for inspiration in case you are looking for a fun cupcake to make. We used vanilla wafers cookies (regular size) for the big frog eyes and very briefly dipped them in a mixture of green food coloring and water. Red hots for the eye centers and fruit leather cut into tongues. The rest was frosting. Easy!

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I created this cake recipe for Fine Cooking magazine many years ago and have been using it consistently since then. It is light enough to easily cut through (good for the cake above) and yet dense enough to work with a sturdier frosting like buttercream.

Vanilla Butter Cake

Makes two 9-inch cakes

2 3/4 cups (10 1/2 oz.) cake flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 3/4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
6 oz. (12 Tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
3/4 cup whole or low-fat milk, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
4 large eggs, room teperature

1. Coat cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and line bottoms with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. Sift the cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed to combine ingredients.

3. Add the butter pieces and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to break butter into small lumps. Add the milk and vanilla extract. Mix on medium speed to thoroughly blend the ingredients, about 1 minute. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing briefly on medium speed after each addition.

4. Divide the batter equally between the pans and spread it evenly in each pan. Bake until golden brown and tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

5. Let cool in the pans for about 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of each cake and then invert onto a rack. Peel off parchment paper and let cool completely.

Maple Syrup and Cake

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That’s right, maple syrup and cake have been new and noteworthy in my kitchen in the last couple of weeks. Not together, although a maple syrup frosting would be delicious on an apple or an apple-spice cake. Hmm. Also, it is wonderful on top of oatmeal (and pancakes of course) and I bet it’d be good drizzled over vanilla ice cream. And my daughter wants me to make maple syrup cookies. My brain is very busy coming up with ways to use the first batch of the amazingly tasty homemade maple syrup that my husband and family made last week. Though the weather turned frosty again this week, we did have about a week of above freezing temperatures and for the first time, we tapped our maple trees.

We have lived in our ordinary suburban neighborhood for over a decade and never tried making maple syrup. My husband, Lou, decided this was the year. On our modest plot of land, we have a lot of sugar and norway maple trees. I love these trees. They provide shade all summer (don’t even need to slather sunblock on my kids), vibrant colors and giant leaf piles in the fall, and now, as winter turns to spring, they provide the makings of maple syrup.

Here is a quick photo journal of our first run of sap.

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Drilling a hole into the maple.

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Getting the first taste of sap. Yes it is slightly sweet.

 

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Hammering a tap into the hole.

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Running lines into a collection bucket.

 

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Ready and waiting for the sap to flow.

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First boil using our fire pit and a turkey fryer. It took all day and into the night.

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As we get closer to syrup the boiling moves inside.

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The next morning, pancakes were flipped and syrup was doled out. YUM!

I understand the weather will again warm up some time in March and we hope to get more sap and more syrup. I want to treat it more like an ingredient and less like gold. More to come on maple syrup recipes….

Last week I also made a first birthday cake for a family celebrating in a big way. I love to make cakes for people. I want everyone to know that a cake really can be delicious and beautiful at the same time. Sadly, that has not been my experience when partaking in many store bought and even bakery bought cakes.

This cake, as requested, had many elements to it that came together wonderfully: vanilla and chocolate butter cakes with pastry cream and berries as filling. Homemade Italian meringue buttercream to cover the cake and fondant decorations to make it look like a party cake.

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Thanks for joining me on a picture walk of the last couple of weeks in my kitchen. I have lots of recipes to blog about so stay-tuned for more.

Gingersnaps— A Winter Antidote

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Gingersnaps are sweet and spicy with just enough warmth to make them a perfect winter cookie.

I make these gingersnaps every year at the holidays. This year I noticed how popular they were both for the adult and the kid set. I made a mental note to make them again soon— because why wait another year for a yummy cookie! Last week I made them for Valentine’s Day and may have started a new tradition. I typically gravitate towards a chocolate dessert for this February holiday, but the kids already receive so many chocolate treats that I decided to pull out my gingersnap recipe. It was a big hit, again. We each enjoyed a couple for dessert (along with a few candies) and then we brought the remaining 50 or so cookies on a visit with cousins. They were gobbled up within a day.

This recipe originated with my Aunt Trish who sent me a recipe for Ginger Sugar Cookies. At the time, I was on a search for a good gingersnap recipe— one that was both crisp and chewy and had just the right hint of spices. I made a few adjustments to the recipe my aunt sent me and came up with the one below. I love the results and hope you do too. Try it. I bet those you feed will be glad you did.

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After chilling the dough, I use a teaspoon to measure out enough dough for a 1/2″ ball.

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Roll each ball of dough in granulated sugar.

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Flatten the dough ball with the bottom of a glass.

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Bake and enjoy.

Gingersnaps

Makes 5-6 dozen

8 Tbsp. (1/2 cup) margarine
4 Tbsp. (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 large egg
2 cups (10 1/2 oz) all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1  1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1  1/2 tsp. salt

1. Melt margarine and butter. Let cool slightly. In bowl of an electric mixer, put the sugars and molasses. Add the melted margarine/butter and egg and beat until well combined. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, spices and salt. Whisk to combine. Add to butter mixture and beat until just combined. Chill dough for at least a couple of hours or overnight.

3. Preheat oven to 375°F.  Roll dough into 1/2″ balls. Roll each ball in granulated sugar and place about 2″ apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (or greased). Using the bottom of a glass, flatten each ball of dough. If dough sticks to glass, dip the glass in granulated sugar before pressing down on cookie.

4. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until cookies are crackled looking and barely browned.

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Overnight Waffles

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Overnight waffles are totally doable on a weekday morning. They are also special enough for a weekend brunch or a holiday (hint, hint… Valentine’s Day).

Breakfast might be my favorite meal of the day. I like a hearty meal with some protein in it. When I was pregnant with my first child, I discovered that protein in the morning made me feel better all day long. I have more energy and less lows. So most mornings I try to prepare a breakfast that has a good amount of protein, usually from eggs and dairy. And waffles are an especially comforting way to accomplish that goal. But to make the batter and cook enough to feed my family on a busy weekday morning is daunting. Then, several years back, I came across a recipe for make-ahead waffle batter in Shirley Corriher’s book, Cookwise. After a few tweaks (I cut back on the butter and substituted skim for whole milk), I have a recipe I can manage on a weekday morning.  I also doubled the original recipe because I like to put leftover waffles in my freezer so my kids can help themselves.

These overnight waffles are similar to the popular Brussels waffles found in Belgium. They are light, crisp, deep-pocketed and, unlike most American waffle batters, they use yeast for leavening. This is significant because it helps produce that light texture and it also lets us make the batter the night before. Step one is mixing up all the ingredients except the eggs and baking soda in a large bowl.

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After sitting overnight the batter will look like this:

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Now finish off the batter by mixing in the eggs and baking soda before pouring it into a hot waffle iron.

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I like my waffles crisp on the outside and soft and tender on the inside so I cook mine until just golden. Top your waffles with syrup, fruit or powdered sugar. If you have any berries in your freezer, you can even make a quick fruit topping by boiling berries and sugar together until syrupy. What a wonderful way to start your day.

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Make-Ahead Waffles

Makes about 16 waffles

Adapted from Cookwise

4 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
2 cups warm milk (I use skim but whole is good too)
12 Tbsp. butter, melted
2 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. salt
4 cups (19 oz) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1/2 tsp. baking soda

1. Sprinkle the yeast on warm water in a very large bowl and let stand for 5 minutes. Add the warm milk, melted butter, sugar, salt and flour and beat together until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand overnight. If your home is 70°F or lower, leave at room temperature. Warmer than 70°F, refrigerate overnight.

2. Next morning, preheat your waffle iron. Then beat the eggs and baking soda into the batter. Pour into your waffle iron, filling each waffle section to the top. My waffle iron uses about 1/2 cup per section.

Real Hot Chocolate

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I grew up drinking hot chocolate made by adding powdered chocolate milk mix into warm milk— better than the powdered cocoa mix added to hot water but not perfect. Now these many years later, I have finally made what I consider true hot chocolate— the kind that is thick and rich, like drinking a melted chocolate bar. I am compelled to make believers out of you.

With all the snow we’ve had lately, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to make hot chocolate. I first made it with my preschool class. I pulled a recipe that looked good from Food52. It called for whole milk, semisweet chocolate, cocoa powder and sugar and it was delicious. So good, in fact, that for the first time this year every child tried it. If that wasn’t amazing enough, they all liked it, even lining up for seconds.

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Then I made it at home using dark chocolate instead of semisweet chips and substituted skim for whole milk. Though I liked it, my kids didn’t like the bitter flavor that the dark chocolate imparted. I tried again using semisweet chips but stuck with the skim milk because that is what we always have on hand at our house. This one was a winner. And, honestly, it is not a lot more work than warming milk. So this is the recipe I will stick with to warm us up after a fun day playing in the snow.

Try it. You’ll be glad you did.

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Start with half your milk, chocolate and cocoa powder in a saucepan. Warm this up, stirring and melting your chocolate.

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Then add your sugar and a little salt. I added the full 8 Tbsp. sugar but I suggest trying 6 Tbsp. to start and then adding more to taste. Stir to dissolve the sugar and then add the rest of your milk.

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Warm and enjoy. I prefer a spoonful of whipped cream in my hot chocolate but since I was all out of cream today, mini marshmallows it was. Yum!

Real Hot Chocolate

Makes about 4 mugfuls

Adapted from Food52

5 oz semisweet chocolate chips
5 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
5 cups skim milk (or whole milk for an even richer version)
6-8 Tbsp. sugar (to taste)
1/2 tsp. salt

1. In a saucepan, mix the chocolate, cocoa powder and half the milk. Warm and stir over medium-low heat. Stir often until chocolate is melted.

2. Add the sugar and salt and stir to dissolve. Then add the remaining milk and taste for sugar. Heat the rest of the way through. Pour into mugs and top with marshmallows or whipped cream, if desired.

Roasted Acorn Squash

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I wouldn’t say my kids are bad vegetable eaters; they are ordinary vegetable eaters. So when I can get them to try (and hopefully finish) a vegetable out of their normal repertoire, I am thrilled. And that is what happened with the acorn squash I made the other night. My trick: I added a sweet topping… and let my kids add a little more at the table. The natural sweetness of the squash is enhanced by a little honey or maple syrup. I personally prefer honey.

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I find simple works best when preparing vegetables for my family and this recipe is nothing if not simple. Perhaps you’ve made your own version before. If so, I’d love to hear how you prepared yours.

Roasted Acorn Squash

Makes 8 servings

2 acorn squash
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
kosher salt and pepper
honey or maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350F.

1. Cut a small amount off bottom and stem end of squash so it can sit flat in roasting pan. Slice squash in half and remove seeds.

2. Spread each half with about 1/2 Tbsp. of butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Prick flesh with a fork. Put in roasting pan and roast for 30-40 minutes or until flesh is soft and brown on top.

3. Drizzle with either honey or maple syrup and serve.

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Squares

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Chocolate-Peanut Butter Squares

I have a friend who loves peanut butter. I’d say I like peanut butter–with chocolate, or on bread with some homemade jam or bananas or apples. But my friend loves peanut butter in many, many forms. So in December when I started thinking about a little gift for her, I thought I’d bake something, of course, and that something would have to have peanut butter in it. But I am a bit selfish when it comes to my baking. I don’t like to bake something unless I want to eat it too. And the only way I eat peanut butter in dessert is if it is paired with chocolate. So this led me to Chocolate-Peanut Butter Squares. They are little morsels of goodness and so easy to make I had to share.

I did say that I had these gift-giving intentions back in December. Well, I was pulled way off course in December and here I am in the second week of January still trying to catch up. Luckily, I have an understanding friend and I think these homemade treats might be even more appreciated now that the steady flow of Christmas cookies has died down. I know my kids appreciated them. They walked in the door, took a sniff and immediately asked what I had made. They begged for taste tests and heartily approved of the results. (Just heard from my friend that she had to hide a few squares so her kids didn’t eat them all.)

This recipe was passed on years ago from another friend, Suzie. I have tweaked it a bit, but the basics have remained the same. It is a simple, no-bake recipe. It takes a little muscle to coax together the sugars, butter and peanut butter. Getting the squares out of the pan takes a little effort too. You’ll need to slide a small off-set cake spatula under the squares to release the peanut butter from the pan. Other than that, this recipe is very easy and well worth the half-hour it’ll take you.

Here are the steps in pictures:

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Chocolate-Peanut Butter Squares

Makes about 48 small squares  IMG_0090

7 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped or morsels
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/3 cups powdered sugar
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup + 2 Tbsp. creamy peanut butter

1. Melt chocolates and 1 Tbsp. butter over double boiler until smooth.

2. In large bowl, stir sugars and salt together. Cut butter into dry ingredients. Add peanut butter and mix until sandy.

3. Press peanut butter mixture into bottom of a greased 9″ pan. Spread melted chocolate over peanut butter. Chill to set.

4. Use a sharp knife to slice into squares. Run a small, flexible cake spatula under the squares before lifting out of the pan. I cut and lifted out 2 rows at a time. Share and enjoy!

Upside-Down Cakes

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Cranberry-Streusel Upside-Down Cake/ photo courtesy of Fine Cooking magazine

For some delicious winter cakes I created, check out the most recent issue of Fine Cooking magazine. It is on newsstands now or you can find my recipes for Cranberry Streusel Upside-Down Cake, Orange-Almond Upside-Down Cake and
Tropical Upside-Down Cake
through the Fine Cooking website.

I had a lot of fun creating these recipes, mostly because there was a lot of tasting going on. Hope you have as much fun as I did baking and eating.

Sugar Cookies

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It’s been a tradition since I was a child to make and decorate sugar cookies. I still remember my mother making cookie dough and calling me and my four sisters in, one at a time, to roll out our dough and cut out sugar cookies. After everyone had cut out cookies, we gathered around the kitchen table to decorate them. I carry that tradition on with my own children.

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They roll and cut and decorate. I taught them to fit as many cookie cutters as possible on the rolled out dough before pressing them in. That way they reduce the number of times they re-roll the dough. The more you roll, the tougher your cookies get.

 

IMG_2186When they were really young, my kids threw a whole lot of sprinkles on their cookies. Now that they are a little older, they put a whole lot of sprinkles on their cookies in a planned, artistic manner. You could frost these cookies too, but I prefer to set out a variety of sprinkles, dragees, crushed peppermint, and red hots or other small candies. My children egg wash their cookies to help the sprinkles stick. Then into the oven and done.

 

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A friend passed on this recipe for Sugar Cookies. It is a William Sonoma recipe and I have successfully been using it for about 10 years now. The cookies are perfectly sweetened and since I enjoy eating them minus the sprinkles, I always have my kids leave a few bare. Happy decorating.

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Sugar Cookies

Makes about about forty 3″ cookies

1 cup butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar (6oz)
1 large egg, room temperature
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (13 1/2 oz)
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

1. Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla.

2. Sift flour, baking powder and salt. (I often skip this step and whisk ingredients together. Works just fine.)

3. Add flour to butter mixture in 2 batches and mix just until combined. Divide dough in half, flatten into disks and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for about 1 hour. (I usually make the dough one day and bake the next.)

4. Preheat oven to 325F. Roll dough between 1/8″ and 1/4″ thickness. Cut out cookies. Bake until barely golden, about 10 minutes.

Gingerbread Cookies with Preschoolers

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One of the best parts of my job as assistant 4’s teacher at the Community Cooperative Nursery School is baking and cooking with the children. We make something each week. Our focus is more on the process than the product, which means we look at, smell, touch and taste the ingredients. Depending on the recipe, I teach the children to measure, mix, crack an egg, flip a pancake, knead dough, roll out cookies.  We always end up with a product most children (and adults) enjoy eating.

Over the last couple of weeks we have been reading, comparing, and predicting endings to a variety of gingerbread cookie stories. Our head teacher, Dana Gorman, is very creative. You can check out how she added this to our curriculum in a fun way at her blog, Playfully Learning. With all the focus on gingerbread stories, baking gingerbread cookies was a natural fit.

We made the dough one day and decorated and baked the cookies the next day. I usually work with between 4 and 6 children at a time. We clear the chairs because kitchen chefs don’t sit to do their work either. We made 2 batches of the dough giving all the children an opportunity to help.

We started by creaming the butter and sugar using what I like to call, Preschool Power. No electric mixers here. Then we added the dark molasses. The children help one another by holding the bowl for the child mixing. We pick a number and everyone gets to move the wooden spoon that many times around the bowl before passing the bowl on to the next child.

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Next the children measured dry ingredients. By this point in the year, they are expert levelers. Then we mixed together the wet and dry ingredients and wrapped the finished dough in plastic wrap.

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On day two, each child got to roll and decorate his or her own cookie. This dough is quite malleable and easy to squish back together. Roll the dough thickly, at least 1/4″ thick, because the children like to press decorations into the cookie. I teach the children to push gently down on the dough as they roll in one direction. I watch the rolling carefully. The children will sprinkle on flour if the dough sticks and I help them rotate the dough for even rolling. You can use a bench scraper or a metal spatula to lift the cut-out cookie from the table to the sheet pan. I tell the children “the cookies need a helping hand” to get on the tray. Then the children used the set out decorations to decorate independently. They were so proud of their creations.

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Here is the recipe we used with a disclaimer: I pulled this off the internet a few years back (I’d give credit if I remembered where it came from). The dough works because it is so malleable but it is not the best tasting cookie. Maybe next year I’ll have a better recipe to share. But if the process of making these cookies is more important than the product, use this one. Every child ate a cookie. Just like in many stories we read, a few crumbs were all that was left.

Gingerbread Cookies
Makes about 20

1/4 cup softened butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. dry ginger
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup water

1. Heat oven to 350F. Blend butter and sugar. Beat in molasses.

2. Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl.

3. Add dry ingredients to butter mixture in 3 additions, alternating with water. Mix until combined. Add more water a little at a time if still too crumbly.

4. Chill. Roll and cut out cookies.