Classic Moravian Christmas Cookies

published Dec 3, 2021
Moravian Christmas Cookies Recipe

Infused with molasses and spices, these crispy cookies are a foolproof holiday staple.

Makes80 (2 1/2-inch) cookies

Prep1 hour

Cook30 minutes to 45 minutes

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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Prop Styling: JoJo Li

This recipe is from our Cookie Time Machine — a trip through the most iconic cookies of the past 10 decades, paired with 10 fresh twists for now. Click here to see the most important cookies of the 1920s through today — and gaze forward with our Cookie of the Future!

Moravian Christmas cookies might not have been on every cookie plate in America in the 1970s, but the thin spice cookie speaks to many thing that were going on during the decade.

Many of the social and political movements that had gotten started in the late 1960s came to the fore in the 1970s. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and of his brother, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, along with Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 changed the nation. And while we had put a man on the moon, the 1970s brought environmental and economic crises to the forefront of the American mind. The first Earth Day took place in 1970, and from 1973 to 1974 the Oil Crisis made Americans rethink their enormous automobiles.

Some folks reacted to the crises with disco and drugs. Others went a more traditional route. A back-to-the-land movement emerged in reaction to industrial pollution, corporate-controlled foodways, and the materialism of American life. Although most Americans didn’t abandon their jobs for a farming commune, there was renewed interest in the crafts and foodways of the past. The Bicentennial of the American Revolution was fast approaching in 1976, and with it came renewed interest in the American past. 

Little House on the Prairie dominated the TV airwaves; Gunne Sax prairie dresses were all the rage; folk music, popularized in the 1960s, went even deeper in the 1970s as the Alan Lomax Smithsonian Folkways recordings, European folk music and dance, and country music were becoming increasingly popular. Food was no exception — bicentennial cookbooks were everywhere. Edna Lewis’ Taste of Country Cooking recalled her rural Virginia upbringing and was published in conjunction with the Bicentennial in 1976. Pennsylvania Dutch and Shaker foodways experienced a revival, as did historical cookbooks of all kinds. Cast iron skillets were suddenly in high demand, and after two decades of TV dinners and Cool Whip, people were realizing that Grandma’s way of cooking was in danger of disappearing. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Prop Styling: JoJo Li

When it came to Christmas, Americans turned to the decommercialized traditions of America’s past, including Victoriana, but also Moravian Christmas. The Moravian Church is the oldest Protestant church in the world, originating in Bohemia in what is now the present-day Czech Republic in the 1450s (Martin Luther didn’t post his 95 Theses until 1517). By the 18th century, Moravian missionaries were all over the world, including in British New York by the 1730s. Their habit of ministering to Indigenous Mohicans gave rise to rumors that they were really Jesuits trying to win allies in the French and Indian War. This led to their expulsion from New York, so they formed a new mission in 1741, founding on Christmas Eve the settlement of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. By the 19th century the prosperous town became a city, and Moravian Christmas traditions, including the Moravian star, Moravian sugar cake, and Moravian Christmas cookies, became symbols of Bethlehem, PA. In the 20th century, the town became a tourist destination.

With the revival interest around historic foodways in the 1970s, Moravian Christmas Cookies started popping up everywhere. The simple, crisp cookies flavored with molasses and spices seemed a good antidote to the hectic commercialization of the Christmas season. They showed up in magazines and in cookbooks. Barbara Myers’ Christmas Cookies & Candies, published in 1979, features nary a shortcut cookie or candy nor a name brand in sight. These Moravian cookies make an appearance in the rolled cookie section. 

The Modern Twist

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Prop Styling: JoJo Li

For a modern take on Moravian Christmas Cookies, check out Moravian Spiced Linzer Cookies.

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Moravian Christmas Cookies Recipe

Infused with molasses and spices, these crispy cookies are a foolproof holiday staple.

Prep time 1 hour

Cook time 30 minutes to 45 minutes

Makes 80 (2 1/2-inch) cookies

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 4 cups

    all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    ground cinnamon

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    ground cloves

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    ground ginger

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 cup

    plus 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar

  • 1 cup

    cold shortening, plus more for greasing

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    distilled white vinegar

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    baking soda

  • 1 cup

    light or mild molasses (not blackstrap)

Instructions

  1. Place 4 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Add 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar and stir to combine.

  2. Add 1 cup cold shortening and work it into the dry ingredients with your fingertips until combined. Place 1/2 teaspoon vinegar and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda in a small bowl and stir to combine. Add the vinegar mixture and 1 cup light molasses and beat with an electric hand mixer on medium speed (or in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment) until thoroughly combined and the dough forms large clumps.

  3. Divide the dough into 4 portions and form each portion into a disk. Wrap each disk lightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour or up to overnight.

  4. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350ºF. Lightly grease a baking sheet with shortening or line with parchment paper.

  5. Unwrap 1 disk and place on a lightly floured work surface (keep the remaining disks refrigerated). Roll out very, very thin (between 1/8 and 1/16th inch thick). Cut into shapes with cookie cutters and transfer the cookies with a flat spatula onto the baking sheet. They can be very close together, as they don’t spread much.

  6. Bake until the cookies turn an even brown color (not browned around the edges), 10 to 11 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely. Roll out and cut the second portion of dough while the first sheet is baking and place on a second baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining portions of dough. You can also gather all the dough scraps and re-roll to make more cookies. Let the baking sheets cool completely and re-grease between each batch if reusing.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 7 days.

Recipe adapted from Christmas Cookies & Candies by Barbara Myers, published in 1979.