If there were to be a national cookie election in the United States,most people would probably vote for the tollhouse, a/k/a chocolate chip cookie. The tollhouse cookie originated here, everyone loves it, and it was invented not all that long ago, by a known person. Another contender, though, is a much older cookie, "thought to be the first American bar cookie- possibly the ancestor of the brownie and blondie."* That cookie is the endearingly homey hermit-still popular today, especially in New England, in a number of interesting variations.
Those you see here were made from Judith Jones' Tenth Muse recipe, and are like a kind of half-biscotti- baked in loaves, and sliced, but not given a second biscotti-esque baking. A generally held view is that a hermit should be not too dry, but rather must be chewy in the middle, which would be consistent with this approach. J.J. did say that she rather likes them stale, with coffee. I would have to agree that aging improves them- the intense spiciness grows mellow and rich. As they are also yummy fresh and chewy, this gives them two lives, if they last long enough. Very comforting fall food, like gingerbread, but with crunch and chew. These are super with cider, or hot tea.
Though many of the old hermit recipes are done as bars, some are drop cookies. What they all seem to have in common are lots of christmas-y, minemeat-ish spices, butter, brown sugar, walnuts, raisins and molasses. Although a Nick Maligieri recipe on the Food Network website is molasses-free, and has coffee in it.
If you click on the book photo here, you will see two variants from my 1936's Fanny Farmer Cookbook, one of which frugally incorporates stale cake crumbs. I usually use the one on the left. Any general American or New England cookbook will have a hermit recipe or two. If you want to try the JJ method, make mounds of the dough about 10" X 3" on parchment lined cookie sheets, and then cut each mound into 9 cookies, while still warm after baking. Any hermit recipe is improved by toasting your walnuts before adding to the mixture.
I would be very interested to learn of your hermit recipes, as well as any hermit lore you may know. Richard Perry, in The Good Home Cookbook. says that, "It is thought that seamen took these sweet-spiced cookies with them on long voyages, because the raisins kept them soft." No one seems to know where the name "hermit" came from. The two most frequent speculations are: 1) They are brown, and hence look like monk's robes (yeah, so what cookie isn't brown?), and 2) Moravians were called "herrnhutter" in German or Dutch, and were known for spicy cookies. Supposedly "hermit" sounds like "herrnhutter." To me- not so much. Also, Moravian cookies are generally crispy, rather than chewy. Both of these theories strike yrs. truly as a tad weak? On the other hand, I have no alternate explanation to offer. Perhaps you do?
*Or so says The New England Cookbook, 350 Recipes From Land and Sea, Hearth and Home, quoting Eleanor Early, "New England historian." Ms. Early books, which I have not read, seem from their titles to be history of an anecdotal sort. They might be fun to check out.
And, for more historic hermit recipes (Some call for rolling out the cookies, "but not too thick, because of the raisins." You won't catch me rolling them-they need to be lumpy, IMO.), check out this collection.