Every time we would visit Sacramento during my childhood we would visit Muzio Bakery for the best Italian bread, and Philipps Bakery on Folsom Boulevard in East Sacramento for the best baked goods. Walking into the small bakery in a brick storefront was exciting and a little scary. You knew that between you and the baked goods were angry bakery staff (women) who seemed to resent all baked goods, but especially you, the customer, as they placed your selected sweets in pink cardboard bakery boxes. My Dad was the master at selecting the best, and he always got four varieties of cookies: sugar, vanilla and chocolate piped cookies, and spice cookies. The bakery never had any names listed for the items and you ordered by weight.
I was probably 18 before I had the courage to place my own order. It was greeted with a growl, a grimace, and a heave of disgust. This was the price you had to pay for some of the best cookies you would ever have in your life, the bakery version of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi.
On our subsequent trips to the neighborhood, the bakery changed formats: Its name changed to New Philipps Bakery, and less items were for sale. It finally closed down and reopened, rumored to be taken over by the granddaughter-in-law of the original owners, as a newer Philipps Bakery, which seemed to only make fancy wedding cakes. It closed its doors over a decade ago, and it became a paint store. Now it might be a yoga studio or a cutesy bistro. The cookies are alas, gone forever.
But not quite. Like all great taste memories, a dedicated baker can search for clues, templates, and hints and cobble together a facsimile of a favorite recipe. That was my motivation for recreating the spice cookies and the sugar cookies from Phillips Bakery. I’m still working on the chocolate and vanilla cookies. To wit, recipe #1 (Hermits) was formed from three recipes, practice, errors, and finally, success. It took more years than I would like to admit, but the spicy, crunchy, chewy cookie is now back, although Phillips bakery is long gone.
Recipe: Hermits in the style of Philipps Bakery
Hermits are an old New England name and recipe for crunchy spice cookies made for sailors on long voyages. The spices kept the cookie preserved, and the dry texture encouraged a long storage life in a dark chest, hence the name hermits. This is my version, a little chewy, a little crunchy, and chock-full of nuts, spices, and luscious dried fruit We’ve never had them last long enough to find out if they keep well for a fortnight, let alone a trip around the world on a clipper ship. This makes a double batch so you can share with family, neighbors, and friends.
4 c all purpose flour
1 tsp. soda
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cloves
2 C dark brown sugar
2 sticks butter
2/3 cup molasses
2 tsp. lemon zest
2 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup dark raisins
½ cup golden raisins
1 cup dried fruit bits
(Note: Sun-Maid sells this, a combination of finely diced raisins, apricots, dried apples, peaches, and cranberries. It’s rather irreplaceable in this recipe and hard to find in stores now so I order it directly from Sun-Maid’s website).
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup chopped walnuts
Whisk flour with salt, spices, and leavening. Cream butter for two minutes, add sugar and mix until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well. Add molasses, zest, and vanilla. Add flour mixture to butter mixture gradually, blend in dried fruit and nuts until all is well mixed.
On two greased cookie sheets, divide dough into two long strips, evening out and patting down with hands dipped in ice water (dough is sticky). Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Let cool five minutes, divide into slices, using a bench scraper to divide dough width-wise into 2 ½ inch slices. Separate slightly. Return to oven, lowered to 250 degrees and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove from oven, cool five minutes. When cookies are still warm blend together confectioner’s sugar, vanilla, and half and half to make a glaze, just thick enough to be stirred with a whisk. Use a pastry brush to brush on warm cookies. The cornstarch in confectioner’s sugar will be activated by the warm cookies and provide a shiny, tasty, and simple glaze reminiscent of that on store-bought iced oatmeal cookies.