Come December each year, I think back to the Christmas traditions we’ve had with my grandparents. Even though our family gatherings were — and still are — pretty small (no more than 30 people), there’s a lot of laughter and noise, and of course, plenty to eat.
Grandma’s hamloaf, mom’s green bean casserole and my aunt’s cheesy potatoes are staples for Christmas lunch. Then we’d have leftover hamloaf sandwiches for dinner, since we all stayed at grandma and grandpa’s until late in the evening.
Desserts have always been a big deal in our family around the holidays. There were pies, homemade fudge, cut-out cookies iced and decorated with sprinkles, and most importantly, mule ear cookies.
A week or so before Christmas, my grandma would make mule ears. Ever heard of those? They’re just molasses cookies, but I didn’t know that as a little girl. I just knew them as “mule ears,” and thought that everyone else knew what they were, too. I found out from friends at school that no one else ate mule ears, or had even heard of them. They were busy eating the sugar cookies they had rolled out and cut with their grandmas. We did that too, but the mule ears were still the family favorite that everyone looked forward to.
You might wonder why anyone would want to eat a cookie named after an animal’s ears. But once the dough is cut and put on the sheet to bake, that’s what each cookie is shaped like. And did you know that the flower Wyethia is frequently called the mule’s ear? Each petal of the sunflower-like plant looks like the animal’s ear, too. There’s your trivia for today.
My guess is that the cookies were named after the mule’s ears, but I don’t know exactly. I’ve seen variations of the recipe online, but they all use the same basic ingredients. I don’t know if they’re specific to one region or not, either. My family hails from various towns in northeast Ohio and the recipe has traveled with us from Wooster to Columbiana County over the past few generations.
You can’t beat the sweet, heavy aroma of molasses as the cookies bake. It fills the kitchen and the rest of the house and lingers for hours afterward. It’s what Christmas smells like to me.
I’m a little old-fashioned, but in my opinion, the older the recipe, the better. My great-grandfather always made mule ears, so it’s a very special recipe to my grandma. My grandma’s mule ear recipe is handwritten on an old piece of paper that’s been folded and stored in her recipe book for years, but I’m sure she doesn’t even need to reference it anymore. A copy of the recipe composed on a typewriter was handed down to my mom, and now me.
Making mule ears
The recipe takes two days to make, but only about an hour or so overall of your time, not counting the overnight refrigeration.
Hint: If molasses isn’t a staple on your grocery list, look for it by the syrup at the grocery store. Same thing with shortening: you’ll find it by the oils.
In a large bowl, combine the shortening, brown sugar, white sugar and eggs. Cream with a hand mixer until all ingredients are blended and the dough looks smooth.
Add the molasses next, and the flour and spices. You can use a rubber spatula to combine these ingredients with the first set of ingredients, but if your bowl is big enough and you’re using a stand mixer, you can blend them with that. Once the dough is uniform in color and there aren’t stray amounts of flour or other dry ingredients, your dough is ready for the next step.
Remove dough from the bowl and form into a roll. Keep in mind that you want your cookies to be almost rectangular when you cut and bake them.
Wrap the dough in wax paper and put in your refrigerator overnight.
The next day, remove dough from the refrigerator. Cut the dough lengthwise, then slice each roll into pieces about ⅛-inch thick or so.
Roll each piece in white sugar and place on a cookie sheet. You should be able to fit about a dozen on a cookie sheet at a time, depending on how large each slice is.
Bake at 350 degrees F for 8-10 minutes. You may have to adjust the time depending on your oven. Once the cookies are completely baked, remove cookies from oven. Leave on cookie sheet for a few minutes so that they harden, they remove cookies with a spatula and place on a rack to finish cooling.
I hope you enjoy our generations-old mule ear cookie recipe as much as my family does.
Mule ear cookies
Yield: 4 dozen
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Bake Time: 8-10 minutes (per cookie sheet); 40 minutes overall
Total Time: 1 hour (plus overnight refrigeration)
1 cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar, plus additional white sugar to roll cookies in
2 large eggs
½ cup molasses
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking soda
4 teaspoons ginger
4 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
- Cream the shortening, sugars and eggs.
- Add the molasses, flour and spices.
- Shape the dough into rolls.
- Cover with wax paper and refrigerate overnight.
- Slice the dough thinly (about ⅛-inch thick); roll in white sugar
- Bake for 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees F.
If you make this recipe, tell us what you think in the comments below!