I’ve always been a bookish sort of girl… what some might refer to as a “geek” or a “nerd.” Growing up, if given the choice between a trip to the mall or the library, I’d have always chosen the library. No contest. The shelves of the library held unlimited promise—adventure, suspense, romance, mystery—whatever kind of mood I was in, there was a book to match it. It was a blissful feeling, knowing that I could experience the world without ever leaving my small hometown. By the time I was 16, I’d read my way through the young adult section of my local library, and I’d made quite a dent in the adult fiction section as well. I read for pleasure, and also to learn. My favorite genre was historical fiction; I liked being transported to another time and place, experiencing a life that was very foreign from my own. This is why, like so many young readers, I fell in love with the Little House book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder, Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Little House books are autobiographical. They’re based on the adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose childhood was spent on the American frontier as part of a pioneer family. The Ingalls family rode from state to state in a covered wagon, settling first in the Wisconsin woods, then the prairies of Kansas, then the Minnesota plain, and finally the Dakota Territory. They suffered hardships most of us can only imagine—severe droughts, food shortages, illness, a grasshopper plague, freezing blizzards—yet the strength and love of their family helped them persevere.
Some of you might know Laura Ingalls Wilder from the TV show “Little House on the Prairie,” where they used her books as the inspiration for a family TV series. I never watched the show much, but the books were a big part of my childhood. I read the series many times, starting with “Little House in the Big Woods,” where four year-old Laura and her family lived in a log cabin in Wisconsin, and ending with her marriage to Almanzo Wilder in “The First Four Years.”
The Little House book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
One of the things I remember most about the books is Laura’s vivid, sensory descriptions of the foods they ate. Food was a major focus of pioneer life; living off the land and feeding a frontier family through farming and hunting was a tremendously difficult challenge. Laura’s colorful descriptions of the foods she ate growing up seemed to live on the page.
Laura, her husband Almanzo, and their daughter Rose eventually settled in Mansfield, Missouri in 1894. Laura fell in love with a neglected 40-acre piece of land about a mile outside of Mansfield. The farm, according to the cookbook, is “a crazy quilt of gullies, knobs, slopes, and slants.” Almanzo paid $100 for the land, and Laura named it Rocky Ridge Farm. The farm house still stands, unchanged, as a memorial to Laura and her books. It was here that Laura first wrote the Little House books longhand, the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper.
Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri. Photo courtesy of the National Register of Historic Places.
Laura was born on February 7, 1867. To celebrate the occasion of her birthday, I tracked down a copy of the now out-of-print book, “The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook.” Unlike other Little House cookbooks that have been published, these recipes come from Laura herself. They were found in her personal cookbook, which is actually a scrapbook of recipes and clippings assembled by Laura during the 1930’s and 40’s. This particular recipe, Molasses Cookies, is described as a “hearty, old-fashioned cookie jar cookie.” It’s a delightful recipe that produces soft, delicately spiced, beautifully flavored cookies. I was pleasantly surprised at how delicious they turned out… they’re not quite like any cookie I’ve ever tasted. The hint of orange is unexpected and lovely.
For generations, readers have been captivated by Laura’s firsthand accounts of pioneer living. The Little House books are cherished as a rare glimpse into America’s frontier past. The stories are heartwarming and unforgettable. If you have young children or grandchildren who enjoy reading, introduce them to this book series– they’re sure to fall in love with Laura and her adventures. I treasure the books, just like I treasure this Molasses Cookies recipe… it is part of our family’s kitchen heritage now, as I hope it will be a part of yours.
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- 1 cup unsweetened grated or flaked coconut (fresh or dried)
- 1/3 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 egg, room temperature
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1 1/2 cups rolled oats
- 1 cup flour
- 1/2 tsp allspice
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp orange extract or grated orange zest (or sub 1 tsp vanilla)
You will also need
- 2 standard cookie sheets
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F and grease two cookie sheets with unsalted butter. If you're using fresh grated coconut, grate it into a bowl and reserve. If using dried coconut, pour the coconut into a small bowl and cover with cold water. Let the coconut soak to rehydrate while you're working with the other ingredients.
- In a medium mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together. You can cream them by hand (the way Laura would have) or with an electric mixer.
- Beat in the egg.
- Beat in the molasses.
- Drain the water from the coconut and squeeze dry (if you used fresh coconut, skip this step).
- In a large mixing bowl, stir together the dry ingredients. Add the wet ingredients to the dry along with the orange extract/zest and the coconut. Stir together till a batter forms. Note: If you're not a fan of orange flavoring, sub 1 tsp of vanilla for the orange.
- Drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls onto the greased cookie sheet. The cookies spread quite a bit, so make sure you leave enough space between them. I was able to fit 12 cookies per sheet.
- Place the cookie sheets in the oven, one on the top rack and one below. Let them bake for 8 minutes. Switch the sheets, lower to upper and upper to lower, and let them bake for 7-10 minutes longer. Cookies are done when an impression made by lightly touching the center of the cookie does not remain. Begin checking at 7 minutes, and test them frequently until they are done-- don't overbake, or the cookies will dry out.
- Remove the cookies from the sheets and cool them on a wire rack. Serve. Store them in a sealed container like a plastic zipper bag or sealed Tupperware; this will help them stay fresh.