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Baked with ginger and other spices, molasses cookies go great with coffee or milk, and have a warm appeal during the winter months. A byproduct of sugar-making from sugar cane or sugar beets, molasses contains nutrients refined out of the finished sugar product. In Britain, where it is used frequently, it's known as treacle. Most countries that use molasses have found a way to incorporate it into baked treats.
Molasses cookies have been around in the US since colonial times, when sugar was expensive and molasses was the preferred sweetener. Molasses cookies are a popular way for contemporary cooks to use the old-fashioned syrup. Of the three grades of molasses, first and second are the sweetest, and blackstrap is the darkest and most concentrated. Cookies are usually made with the two lighter grades.
Gingerbread men are a traditional cookie made with molasses. Their first appearance was in the court of Elizabeth I of England. Very popular with children, gingerbread men can be decorated with icing, candies, or simply cut with cookie cutters in the shape of a little person. Gingerbread houses, cards, and even pets are common other shaped forms. These cookies were immortalized in a popular nursery rhyme, first published in St. Nicholas magazine in 1875.
Ginger snaps are crisp sugary molasses cookies that contain brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. These cookies are thought to have originated in medieval Germany when molasses and honey were the only sweeteners available, long before the advent of refined sugar. Numerous companies produce packaged varieties of ginger snaps, but true cookie aficionados will assert that only their favorite homemade recipe will do. Next to gingerbread men, they are probably the most familiar molasses cookie.
Pepparkakor, Swedish ginger snaps, are a more highly spiced version of molasses cookies, and some recipes include allspice and cardamom. The name translates to "pepper cookie," although they don't really contain pepper. Traditionally served at Christmas in Sweden, they are rolled out very thin and left round or cut into decorative shapes like people, animals, or hearts. They are often decorated with icing. Pepparkakor are also used as Christmas ornaments, with a hole punched in the top and a ribbon tied through.
Pfeffernüsse are German molasses cookies also eaten at Christmas. These tiny bite-sized "pepper nut" cookies are made with ground nuts and usually dusted liberally with confectioner's sugar. Some recipes actually do contain small amounts of white or black pepper, and either molasses or honey. They are soft when they first come out of the oven, but grow crisp and hard as they cool. Many people like to dunk them in a beverage before eating.
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