Regional Baking: New England's Hermit Bars
The West Coast has sourdough bread. The South has sweet potato pie. It seems that every region of the country has baked goods that originated there or are associated with the region. Today, we're going to make a classic from New England - hermit bars. Hermit bars are a raisin and spice cookie that is irresistibly moist and chewy and improves in flavor as it keeps.
Research that I have done does not definitively state that hermits originated in New England. However, recipes for hermits first appeared in cookbooks published in New England. Hermits are also said to have been a popular item on merchant ships sailing out of Cape Cod in pursuit of the world spice trade because of their superior keeping quality. Hermits include molasses which I associate with New England baking.
I use King Arthur Flour's recipe for hermit bars. If you go to KAF's web site, there are several hermit recipes. I use the recipe with a publication date of August 18, 2014. However, this recipe only calls for cinnamon and ground allspice. I prefer a spicier cookie so I add 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves and 1/8 teaspoon of a surprise ingredient.
Here are the ingredients that you will need to make these hermit bars: granulated sugar, solid vegetable shortening, unsalted butter, molasses, salt, ground allspice, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, baking soda, eggs, cake flour, water, raisins and crystallized ginger. I add crystallized ginger in with the raisins. I just love the hot, chewy spiciness that this ginger adds to the finished cookie.
Okay, I know what you're asking - where is the surprise ingredient? Are you ready? Here it is ...
Ground black pepper! Surprise! You can't taste the pepper but it really adds depth to the other spices in the cookie. Okay; let's get cracking on these cookies.
First, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. You also want to get your pan ready. You will need to grease a 10 x 15 jelly roll pan.
Cream together the sugar, shortening and butter. This mixture should be fluffy, not chunky. When these ingredients are properly mixed, beat in the molasses, salt, spices and baking soda. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl and then beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating until each egg is fully incorporated.
Next comes the flour. You will notice the recipe calls for 5 cups of cake flour. That is not a misprint. This is quite a firm dough. If you don't have cake flour, you can certainly use all purpose flour. But, the lower protein level in cake flour (just over 9% in KAF's unbleached cake flour compared to 11.7% in KAF's AP flour) will enhance the moist and chewy texture of these bars. Add in half of the flour and mix until it is incorporated. Mix in the water and then mix in the remainder of the flour. After the dough is fully mixed, stir in the raisins and the crystallized ginger.
Scoop the dough into the prepared jelly roll pan. Then, using your fingers, press the dough evenly to the rim of the pan. The dough will be get sticky as you work with it. You can reduce the stickiness by periodically wetting your fingers as you work the dough to fill the pan.
The recipe calls for baking these bars 18 to 20 minutes. However, you should start to check the bars after about 16 minutes of baking. The glory of these bars is in their ultra moist texture. If you bake them too long, they will still taste good but the texture will be more cakey. What you are looking for as the bars bake is light browning around the edges and puffing of the dough. The top of the puffed dough should look kind of shiny. When you see that, you want to take the bars out of the oven, even if they have not been in the oven for 18 minutes. My bars baked for 17 minutes when they reached the shiny puffy stage. The finished, cooled bars were perfectly moist and chewy, exactly what you want.
After the bars have cooled completely, make a glaze of confectioner's sugar and milk. Brush or drizzle the glaze on the bars. I then scatter about 1/2 cup of crystallized ginger on top of the bars. Did I mention that I love this stuff?
And there you have it - hermit bars. Yum! Let me mention one other thing about these bars. The flavor and texture improve the longer the bars are allowed to mature. So, if you can, you should make these bars a couple of days before you intend to serve them. Store them air tight. Don't worry, they won't go stale. I promise, when you serve the hermit bars, they will blow the socks off your guests!