In August, my mom sent me this text: “5 years ago you were in Paris.”
“No,” I was quick to correct, I didn’t leave for Paris until September 2008. Not August.
This correction was more than the snit in me seizing on my mom’s mistake. I was not yet mentally prepared for that anniversary. Four years and eleven months away from Paris I could handle. Five years, no. Any length of time not in Paris is too long, but five years is five years. But here we are, more than a month after my mom sent that text, and there’s no denying that September 2008 was a milestone ago. I guess I’m ready to accept that fact, but only because my memories of that glittering month are so vivid that I can dial them up and relive gougère after pomme frite after kir royale as if I were there just a couple of weeks ago.
I spent that September in Paris just because I could. I had left a job in August and didn’t have to start the next job until October, so I dreamt up the best possible way to spend September. I rented an apartment in the Marais, a section of the city I’d admired during my college-aged trips to Paris, and I spent four weeks indulging in the city’s brasseries, pâtisseries, and chocolatiers. I might have hit a museum or two. I mapped out each day with precision, building most days around lunch. Traveling alone, I wasn’t comfortable dining out for dinner, but I had no problem treating myself to a three course mid-day meal. After lunch, I’d wander to some notable site near the restaurant to get a little non-food culture, and on my way home I’d maybe stop at a bakery for a snack. (As I write this, I’m getting increasingly jealous of myself. And hungry.)
The trip was as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be. It was a long time to be on my own, but Jessica came for a long weekend visit, as did my cousin and her husband, and I loved being able to share the experience with them. I owe the success of the trip to three friendly tour guides, none of whom I ever met. By chance, Gourmet published its Paris issue shortly before my departure. I read that magazine dozens of times and let Ruth Reichl tell me which bistros were worthy of my attention. She was always right. Clotilde Dusoulier also reliably pointed me to many of the city’s finest bakeries (and introduced me to tendresse aux pommes, for which I am forever grateful). But perhaps the voice I trusted most, and turned to again and again, was David Lebovitz. His blog not only pointed me to Breizh Café, a crêperie near my apartment that became my favorite spot in the city, but it helped me find an apartment, remember how to use le métro, research unintimidating cooking classes, and discover a wine tasting class I took three times (once on my own, once with my cousin and her husband, and once with Jessica—the latter being a champagne tasting on the Seine). Lebovitz is an American pastry chef who worked at Chez Panisse for more than a decade and now lives in Paris, where he writes dessert cookbooks, blogs, gives tours, and generously shares his spot-on insights and tips on how to best enjoy Paris.
When I returned from Paris all of those five years ago, I was eager to try one of Lebovitz’s recipes. His taste in Paris was impeccable, so I was confident that his recipes would be right up my alley. Scrolling through the long list of sweets on his website, I chose ginger snaps. Simple, fall-ish, and easy to share. Sure enough, they were a cinch to prepare and hands down the best snaps I’d ever had. They’re fragrant and crunchy like they should be, but what makes them unique is how buttery they are. I find it pretty easy to turn down grocery store ginger snaps because of their oily aftertaste. These cookies, by contrast, leave behind a spicy richness that makes it impossible not to dig into the tin for just one, two, or three more. Once you crack through the coarse candy coating, the cookies dissolve into what can only be described as sugar and spice and everything nice.
The next time I go to Paris, it will be quite a different trip—for starters, I’ll have Ed by my side and I know there are dozens of new places for us to try—but there is no question that I will return to Lebovitz for guidance on how to explore my favorite city. In the meantime, I’ll just keep turning to him for cookies.
A couple of notes about these: if you love a snap with extra heat, use freshly ground black pepper instead of the powdery kind (if you’re more interested in a sweeter, milder cookie, use regular black pepper. I love these either way.). I added ground cardamom to these, but it is completely optional. This recipe makes a ton of cookies, so unless you’re using them for a party, I recommend keeping one log of dough in the freezer so you can slice and bake cookies as your heart desires all season.
2 cups all purpose flour
1.5 teaspoons baking soda
0.5 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1.5 teaspoons ground ginger
0.5 teaspoon ground black pepper (use freshly ground if you want a lot of heat)
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)
11 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
0.5 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup molasses (NOT blackstrap)
1 large egg, at room temperature
Turbinado or other coarse sugar for decorating (you could also use regular ground sugar or skip the decorating)
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, and cardamom (if using).
2. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter until it’s soft and fluffy. Pour in the sugar and continue beating until the mixture is smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape the sides of the bowl.
3. With the mixer on low, stir in the vanilla, molasses, and egg.
4. Still mixing slowly, add the flour and spices and mix until the dough is smooth.
5. Split the dough into two even portions and place on a lightly-floured surface. Roll each portion into a log with a diameter of 1 to 2 inches. The narrower your log, the smaller your cookies will be.
6. Wrap each log in plastic wrap and roll them a bit more, if needed, to get the logs fairly cylindrical and smooth. Refrigerate or freeze until firm.
7. To bake, preheat the oven to 350° F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
8. Remove and unwrap the dough from the freezer or fridge. Using a sharp knife, slice 1/4-inch rounds. Press one side of each round into a plate of coarse sugar, brushing off any excess. Place cookies on the baking sheet with the sugar-coated side facing up. Leave a couple of inches between the cookies.
9. Bake for 10-14 minutes (if you bake two sheets at once, rotate them halfway through the baking time) until deep brown. The cookies puff and flatten during the baking process. Pull the cookies out on the early side if you prefer soft snaps; longer for crispy ones.
10. Cool the cookies for 2 minutes on the cookie sheet, then transfer cookies to a rack to cool completely.
These taste best the day they’re baked, but are still mighty delicious for a couple days after.