Cheese Hermits

A savory cookie with a weird history.

Ad from the August 20, 1959 edition of the Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner
You hear a lot of odd things about hermit cookies, which aren’t, as a category, savory. When you encounter them today in a store, you’ll usually find something that looks sort of like a molasses-and-ginger spiced blondie with raisins and sometimes figs mixed in, either with or without icing.

There are pretenses to 18th century origins aboard ships and an association with New England, theorizing that the “hermit” name was meant to evoke traveling, because the cakes traveled well. Other sources think it’s the color of the cookies, mottled black and brown, that looks like a hermit’s robe (seems odd to me, given that describes about a quarter of the things that come out of the oven, but what do I know).

But the name didn’t attach until the mid-to-late 19th century, and at the time, it referred to a round cookie that had exotic spices and some kind of dried fruit, but could have a texture ranging from crisp to chewy to cake-like. While lots of cookies like this have existed throughout recorded history–crusaders brought back dried-fruit-and-spice preparations from the Holy Land in the 11th century–it’s not clear in what way hermits were intended to be distinguished from other raisin cookies.

And even if we knew all of that, it’s anybody’s guess what this has to do with the savory cheese-and-olive appetizers we have here. Look at these earlier iterations and tell me what you think.

Here’s a recipe for sweet hermits from Fannie Merritt Farmer’s 1896 The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book:


1/3 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
2 Tablespoons milk
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup raisins stoned and cut in small pieces
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon clove
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Cream the butter, add sugar gradually, then raisins, egg well beaten, and milk. Mix and sift dry ingredients and add to first mixture. Roll mixture a little thicker than for vanilla wafers.

For what it’s worth, the vanilla wafers recipe on the same page doesn’t say anything about thickness, so that instruction is only useful if you read it as “roll thicker than other cookies.” Which you should; they’re more like little cakes.

If the seasonings remind you of oatmeal cookies, that’s a variation too; here’s an example from the January 9, 1927 edition of the Mansfield (Ohio) News:

Hermits–One cup vegetable shortening, one cup granulated sugar, two eggs, one teaspoon cinnamon, one-half teaspoon soda–two-third teaspoon salt, five tablespoons sour milk, one box chopped raisins, two rolled oats, two and one-half cups flour.

Cream shortening–add sugar and beaten eggs, stir soda into milk and put into first mixture. Add oats and raisins which have been rolled in flour, then flour in which the salt and cinnamon have been sifted. The batter should be too stiff to drop and should be pushed off the spoon. Use a teaspoon and you will have about thirty little cakes. Bake in slow oven.

In the 1930s, a variation of sweet hermits emerged where the cookies would be baked in a loaf, then sliced into bars, sort of like a once-baked biscotti; they were sometimes advertised as fruit bars. (In the 1950s, recipes would suggest baking them in a tray and cutting bars from it, like brownies.)

Savory hermits never took this path and stayed roughly round; here’s a version of cheese hermits from the November 5, 1967 edition of The (Phoenix) Arizona Republic:

Cheese Hermits

1/2 pound sharp cheese, grated
1/2 pound margarine or butter
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Pinch red pepper

Almost melt cheese and margarine before working flour sifted with baking powder and salt. Add sauce and pepper. Shape into small ball sand bake 15 or 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

From the box of L.R. from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Cheese Hermits

1 jar Old English sharp cheese
1/2 stick oleo
3/4 cup flour, sifted [but see note below]
dash cayenne pepper
[pitted olives]

Mix with pastry blender, put olive in center and make ball of cheese dough around it.

Bake 15 minutes at 350 deg. or until brown. Makes around 30.

Recipe from the kitchen of Ruby Dillinger.

Yesterdish suggestion: I’d strongly urge you to use self-rising flour in this recipe. While it could hypothetically work as a very dense cracker sort of preparation, even 19th century hermits had some form of leavening.

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