Hermit cookies have the strangest name of any cookie out there. The unusual name does not have a clear origin story, but the cookies always have a very similar recipe. Hermit cookies, and bar cookies for that matter, are made with molasses and flavored with a generous amount of spices – spices that do not usually include ginger, which really sets these apart from various gingerbreads and gives them a warm, old-fashioned flavor.
When I have a pantry full of molasses and the gingerbread baking season is over, these Hermit Bars are one of the recipes that I make to use it up. The original recipe comes from cookie baking legend Maida Heatter, whose recipe notes say that “The ladies on Cape Cod packed Hermits for their men who went to sea because the cookies kept well.” I don’t know that the story is true, but cookies made with molasses generally do keep well because molasses is hygroscopic and absorbs moisture from the air. That means that these soft, cakey bar cookies remain soft (and even get softer) even after storing them for a couple of days, unlike some other types of cookies.
Over the years, I’ve made some adaptations to the original recipe. The biggest one being that I use a mixture of oil and butter instead of only using butter. While it seems like butter might deliver a better flavor, the molasses is so flavorful that the butter really melts into the background. Adding vegetable oil adds even more moisture to the cookies, which can dry out easily in the oven if they are overbaked. The cookies, as I said, are soft and cakey. They are not too sweet, but have a rich molasses flavor and plenty of spice. The spice mixture that I used here includes cinnamon, cloves, allspice and mace. Mace is the outer hull of a nutmeg and it has a flavor that is similar, but slightly milder and sweeter. Mace is not as common of a baking spice as it once was and, if you don’t have it, you can simply substitute nutmeg in its place in this recipe. The bars are studded with raisins and walnuts, adding additional texture and complexity to the bar cookies. Since they’re not particularly sweet, I recommend finishing them off with a little bit of icing or dusting them with confectioners’ sugar before serving.
2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground mace or nutmeg
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup raisins (pref. golden)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped, toasted walnuts
Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease a 9×13-inch baking pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices.
In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light. Beat in vegetable oil, eggs and vanilla extract until well-combined. Blend in molasses.
Gradually add the flour mixture to the molasses mixture, stirring until almost all of the dry ingredients have been incorporated. Stir in raisins and walnuts and mix just until no streaks of flour remain visible. Pour into prepared pan.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the bars are set and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean or with only a few moist crumbs attached. Allow bars to cool in the pan before glazing them. Cut into squares to serve.
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 tbsp butter, melted and cooled
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
approx 3-4 tbsp milk
Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk until a thick, smooth glaze forms. If glaze is too thin, whisk in a few additional tablespoons of confectioners’ sugar.
Drizzle generously onto cooled bars.