the making of ginger pudge
Shortly before Lawrance and I opened Batch 22 Bakery, I worked on a ginger molasses cookie in a regular cookie size (~1.5 oz). For months, I searched endlessly for the elusive chewy ginger cookie. But what I failed to cherish was the absolutely perfect flavor I already had. Without proper documentation, I kept on testing new versions until too many variables had been tweaked, and even lost the great flavor I'd worked so hard on.
It's 3 years later and I'm still heartbroken over that lost recipe, but I was ready for a proper challenge. So let's dig into my vision for ginger pudge.
Initially, I hoped to create a cross between triple ginger + ginger molasses - a punch in the face of spiciness, ginger flavor, and sweet candied ginger, with the depth and sweetness of molasses.
Over many versions, my end-goal became balance between all the different elements. My ideal ginger molasses cookie should deliver ginger flavor upfront, a mild to medium heat to match a lovely blend of warm spices, with the deep flavor of molasses.
1. I typically do some recipe research to help inform my first version. For any recipe that includes spices, I like to know the common ranges used in popular recipes.
2. Segmented testing: Because of my history with ginger molasses, I know there's a lot of layers to the flavor - you have your spice mix, your additional sources of ginger, and molasses. If you test too many variables at once, it's hard to know which factor is responsible for which effect. So, I tested in segments: first the spice base, then the molasses, and lastly the other types of ginger. (In practice, I did the spice base, then the molasses, back to the spice base,... you get the idea - this flavor was tricky.)
I found 11 of the Internet's most searchable recipes (google front page) and made sure to include recipes from a reputable source like Claire Saffitz, New York Times, and Bon Appetit. (Note: my list isn't and didn't need to be ultra comprehensive at this stage; it merely represents common recipes.)
I made a chart of just the spice mixes:
(bon appetit 1: ginger molasses cookie; bon appetit 2: triple ginger cookie)
- Most recipes use a mix of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. We've used this mix too, and it's nice but very one-noted. Not complex/flavorful.
- Claire Saffitz' recipe omits cinnamon, but adds allspice and black pepper (black pepper works well in terms of sharp bittersweet flavor and heat- however you can tell it has an astringent note, so I would recommend reducing the amount but not leaving it out).
- Nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, and allspice were less commonly used.
Segment 1 of Testing: Spice Mix
In this phase, I tested with browned butter, a mix of brown & white sugar, and the spices. The goal was to get the spice mix about 95% there in terms of flavor (not looking for heat at this stage) and the amount of spice. Just close enough would suffice as molasses would add to the flavor profile, and I could fine-tune later.
After 3 versions, I took a quick break to learn more about spices - without more knowledge, I would be testing just the spice mix endlessly. I bought Dr. Stuart Farrimond's The Science of Spice and then did an isolated tasting of spices with whole milk yogurt (weird but it works). Here's a quote from the book that proves true: "Complexity increases with each extra spice, and so will pleasure -- research shows that the greater the range of flavors and mouth sensations in a dish, the tastier it will be."
Using 3 spices is simple and nice, but later on when I added more, there was delight, dimension, and well-rounded flavor. While I won't disclose our particular spice mix, I'll leave a chart below that was helpful to me in choosing and ruling out spices.
|sweet, warm, aromatic||high|
saigon cinnamon (note: this is most common. if unlabelled, it's probably this one)
sweet, peppery, astringent
|clove||sweet, astringent, camphorous (aromatic, medicinal)||med|
|allspice||warm, peppery, sweet||med|
|nutmeg||bittersweet, woody, warm||high|
|cardamom||eucalyptus, citrusy, floral||
|black pepper||hot, spicy, citrusy||high|
|white pepper||subtle fermented flavor; carries mostly back of mouth heat||high|
|makhir ginger||warm, sweet, hot (notes of treacle, lemongrass, hachiya persimmon)||
|freeze dried ginger||citrusy, woody||med|
|fresh ginger||hot, citrusy (notes of lemongrass); mostly carries spiciness, not flavor||high|
Segment 2 of Testing: Molasses
Molasses is a familiar challenge. As you know, liquid does not play nice in cookies. You can add a smidge of molasses for sweetness, but to achieve a strong molasses taste, you need at least a quarter cup (this seems to be an industry average; but from our own testing - it's true). This presents some problems: high moisture, added density, and spice to molasses ratio. As with fresh ginger, the amount of spices:molasses had to be adjusted carefully. Too little, and there's not enough flavor. Too much and you overwhelm the nuances of the spices.
Sidebar: did the spice mix truly matter that much, even when we were going to cover it up with molasses? Absolutely. We continually fine-tuned our spice mix until the final version. Ultimately the spices are the main determinant of flavor, even if not all of their nuances get past the molasses.
Segment 2.5: Optimizing Flavor, A Rabbit Hole
After version 10, I began optimizing for flavor and heat. We had a well-rounded flavor profile, a medium amount of heat, and a very clean aftertaste. There were a couple versions between v10 and v20 that could have been released, but what we had was a nicely spiced cookie, not a distinctly ginger cookie. The ginger flavor (not heat) seemed to be perceived on the tastebuds a little later.
Here's what I tried to bring the ginger flavor forward:
1. more ground ginger - it helped but not sufficiently
2. buying new organic ground ginger - no effect
3. more fresh ginger - this only made it spicier
4. adding in fresh ginger in different ways (added straight to butter or cooked in butter first), - ginger cooked in butter did work! It brought the ginger flavor and heat forward. If this was the only method that worked, I would have reduced the amount of fresh ginger.
5. freshly ground spices - sadly, this did nothing. sugar, butter, flour, etc. masked the nuances of fresh spices.
6. cooking the spices in the browned butter - it barely enhanced the flavor of the spices (read: could get the same effect from just adding more of our spice mix); but didn't bring the ginger flavor to the forefront.
7. freeze-dried ginger - disappointing, really. not much flavor or heat.
8. makhir ginger - game-changer!! This is a wildly strong, heirloom ginger variety grown in Northeastern India. It brought the ginger flavor to the forefront, with caramel-y sweet and unique notes that followed. Sourced from Diaspora.
9. chinese ginger - didn't end up trying this but we did source one from The Spice House.
Yes, *bangs head on wall*.
I was going to try ginger root extract in liquid form too if none of the dry formats worked, but preferred to stick with a ground ginger due to the already-high liquid content. I really didn't expect bringing ginger to the forefront to be the main problem, so if you DM'ed me with a suggestion, thank you so much!
Segment 3 of Testing: Adding More Ginger
In one of the earlier versions, I added in fresh and candied ginger. This part was the most straightforward. Fresh ginger for that "spicy" front-of-mouth heat, and candied ginger for a sweetness with textural interest. We ended up keeping fresh ginger for the heat, but thought the candied ginger was a mediocre addition.
Flavor & Texture
This cookie is a lot of things. Texture-wise, we've got crunchy turbinado sugar, crispy edges, candied ginger, and according to a customer - "a melty center". All the contrast is really fun! Flavor-wise, we have a complex spice blend in a great ratio with the bold flavor of molasses, a mild heat/spiciness that hits you in the front of mouth, and a lingering warmth. You'll go back to taste the nuances of the spices :)
What to Look for
If you want to take a stab at understanding how we developed this cookie, I encourage you to think about several things while eating the cookie:
1. level of front-of-mouth heat
2. when you perceive the ginger flavor (& what flavor notes does it have?)
2. amount of spices/flavor
3. the lingering warmth in the back-of-mouth
Reception of a Spicy Cookie
I ran a small poll (n=13) on a version of ginger molasses pudge, in which only 25% of tasters wanted more more spiciness (heat). I also read Pancake Princess's Gingerbread Bakeoff, in which her testers primarily don't prefer a spicy cookie.
In some cases like ube dulcey pudge, I listen to the data. But I find ginger molasses to be a niche flavor with varying preferences and perceptions of heat and spice. After testing so many versions, I wondered, "do people really prefer mild spice, or are they just looking for balance?" We tested a few versions that had more of our spice mix (read: more potent flavor) that warranted higher spiciness, but those versions turned out heavy-handed with weird aftertaste.
What I've made is a little milder on the heat, but I aimed for good balance that most people can enjoy. Let me know what you think. It's been a pleasure sharing the testing process with you.