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By October 3, 2015 Read More →

Hermits

cookies3My grandmother, Doris Morse, was not an experimental cook. She knew how to lay out a table with a variety of traditional New England fare. One of the reasons I remember her cooking so vividly is that it remained consistent: her rolls, her mashed potatoes, her turkey stuffing – always the same, always worthy of seconds, and sometimes thirds. One reason for the reliability of her creations was that she always took out the 3″ x 5″ recipe card she had on file, even though she’d been making that recipe for decades and surely could have done it in her sleep.

Doris was born in 1902, and lived until 1986, which gave me 35 years of enjoying her cooking. Visiting her involved a couple of rituals. One was cranberry juice: my grandfather, Raymond Morse, was a cranberry farmer, and there was always a jug of cranberry juice in the mud room. Even though it bore the Ocean Spray label, in those days it was much less sweetened — most of us wouldn’t take it straight,  so my grandmother made “cranberry bracer”, a concoction with cranberry juice, orange juice, lemon juice, sugar, and a beaten egg. I was grossed out about the egg, but that’s what made it foamy, and  good (we were allowed only one small glass). The other thing that greeted us on almost every visit was hermits.  I have many fond memories of my grandparents, but I have to say my grandmother’s hermits dominate them all.

Doris and Raymond Morse, mid 1960's.

Doris and Raymond Morse, mid 1960’s.

One of the pleasant discoveries I made in the early days of courting my wife was that she is an excellent baker. Though my grandmother was beginning to decline, she could still produce a reliable batch of hermits, and she let Susan copyher recipe. Just a month after we got married my grandmother died, leaving Susan with the awesome responsibility of the tradition of hermit making. Much as I was wanting to maintain my newly-found  state of marital bliss, I could not conceal disappointment when I tasted Susan’s first batch. They weren’t bad (as I recall, we ate them all), but even Susan had to admit – they weren’t my grandmother’s hermits. Since Susan had copied the recipe from her card,  we could not accuse Gram of deliberately leaving something out, but we wondered if, contrary to her character, she had improvised the recipe over the years and just never written down the changes.

It actually took several years of experimenting, with Susan looking at different recipes and following her own instincts. Then one day she succeeded – producing hermits that fully honored the spirit of my grandmother.

Doris Morse lived her entire life within half a mile of where she was born, in West Wareham, Massachusetts. She was modest in demeanor, firm but non-judgmental in her convictions.  She was a woman of habit and tradition. I think she would be pleased to know how she is remembered, and she would even understand that sometimes in order to preserve tradition, we need to improvise.

Gordon Peery

Gram’s Original Recipe

3 cups of flour
1/2 cup butter
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup molasses
3 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground closes
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped raisins

Cream the butter and sugar together, and add the molasses and beaten eggs. Add to this 2 cups of flour mixed with the other dry ingredients. Slowly add more flour, keeping the dough as soft as possible, but still manageable, The entire third cup may not be needed. When the desired consistency is reached, stir in the raisins. Pat the dough by hand to about 12″ thick, and cut into shapes about 2″ x 4″. Bake at 350° for about 9 minutes. Cookies should be chewy.

cookies4

Susan’s Eventual Adaptation, based on a recipe in Richard Sax’s The Cookie Lover’s Cookie Book

1 cup butter, at room temperature
2-1/2 cups light  brown sugar
3 eggs
1/2 cup molasses
4 cups flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 cup raisins

Cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer until light. Add the eggs – one at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the molasses. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda. cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and salt together. Add to the butter mixture and stir just until blended. Stir in the crystallized ginger and the raisins. Using moistened fingers, shape the dough into 6 logs (two each on three cookie sheets) about an inch high and 1-1/2 inches wide, length depends on the baker. The dough will spread out as it bakes, so leave enough space. Bake in a preheated oven at 375°, one sheet at a time, for about 12 minutes, until the hermits are golden brown but still soft. (If  you overbake them they won’t be chewy.) Use a large spatula to remove the logs to wire racks to cool, then slice on the diagonal into bars about 2″ wide. Store in a tightly covered container.