08 November 2009

Early American cookies

For our first historical recipe, we figured we’d do something pretty basic—cookies.

Cookie-like substances have been around a long time, but cookies as we know them today are a North American development. (The main distinguishing mark of cookies as an independent branch of sweets is the creaming of butter and sugar, which was applied to these sorts of items in the eighteenth century. Interestingly, many modern cookies have abandoned that step, moving the development of cookie styles ahead another notch by abandoning their main distinguishing characteristic. But i digress.)

We figured that we wanted to use a very early cookie recipe, so we pulled together a selection of possibilities. Sadra Marie chose the earliest of these, from Amelia Simmons’s 1796 cookbook American Cookery, the first known cookbook written by an American for an American audience. (By the way, only four copies of the original edition are known to still exist. There’s a good idea for a birthday present for me…)

Simmons’s cookie recipe, as reproduced (and slightly modernized, by replacing pearlash with baking powder, since you can’t easily get pearlash nowadays) in Esther B. Aresty’s The Delectable Past is as follows:

  • ½ cup butter or margarine (we used butter, of course, and it was unsalted, also of course)
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 2 cups bread flour (we used all-purpose flour, since we were out of bread flour)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder (we ditzed and used baking soda—so sue us)
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • ⅓ cup sour cream mixed with 2 tablespoons milk

I’m guessing that the sour cream-milk mixture was another modernization by Aresty, probably as a stand-in for clabber.

Cream the butter until soft; add the sugar gradually and cream until fluffy.


Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt, add the coriander.

Coriander was really widely used in early American cooking, but nowadays it’s pretty rare. This is a pity–it’s a pretty amazing-tasting spice.

Add the dry mixture alternately with the sour cream and milk, beating after each addition.

The dough will be quite firm and may be handled and baked at once.

Pinch off pieces the size of a hazelnut. Roll in balls, flatten out in circles on a greased cookie sheet.

We messed up here a bit here—the recipe says to make balls the size of hazelnuts, and we went with something somewhere between hazelnuts and walnuts. Wrong—when the recipe says hazelnuts, it means hazelnuts. It didn’t mess with the flavor, but these cookies spread immensely, as it turns out. Also, pressing them flat with a glass worked really well, but we discovered that we needed to spray the bottom of it with oil every cookie or two, because if we didn’t the cookie stuck stubbornly to the bottom of the glass. You have been warned.

Bake in a preheated oven (375°F) for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the edges begin to brown.

We put the cookies in for 12 minutes. After 12 minutes, the cookies one one side of the sheet were just barely starting to brown around the edges, but the ones on the other side hadn’t started to yet, so we turned the cookie sheet 180 degrees and baked for another minute. After that they all looked good.

So here are your before and after baking pictures:

We didn’t get a picture of the cookies right when they came out of the oven, which was a shame–they were puffy right at that point, but they’d collapsed into what you see in the picture within about a half minute or so.

The recipe instructions didn’t give any hint how to cool them, so we let them sit on the baking sheet until they were firm enough to be moved–just a couple minutes–and then moved them to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Cookies may be sprinkled with colored sugar, cinnamon and sugar, or chopped nuts before baking. For variety, reduce the coriander by half, and add 1½ teaspoons anise flavor. Makes about 75 2–inch cookies.

We didn’t try the anise flavor variation, though i, at least, think it would be interesting. We also didn’t go with cinnamon and sugar (i think the added cinnamon flavor would be a bit much, really) or nuts, but as you can see from the pictures we sprinkled half of this batch of cookies lightly with colored sugar. It didn’t change the flavor or texture of the cookies, but of course we didn’t douse them with the stuff, either.

And now for the important part: How’d they taste?

Well, this is a really basic cookie recipe, and let’s face it, it’s tough to mess up basic cookies. These have a nice balance, though—they’re nicely buttery without being overly oily, and the coriander gives them a really nice flavor, particularly noteworthy given the absence of vanilla in the list of ingredients. (Hriana thought they tasted like lemon, which is another pleasant effect of the coriander.)

The texture was what you want to see in a thin cookie—crunchy around the edges, chewy in the center. I liked the texture a lot, but i’m not a fan of cakiness at all. If, for whatever reason, you like your cookies to feel like little cakes, this isn’t going to be your thing.

Getting back to taste, there was near-universal approval of the flavor, though i felt like i detected a very little bit of an extra baking soda flavor. When i mentioned that, Jeanne said there’d been baking soda in it to go with the dairy, and i said that it might have needed a bit of cream of tartar to completely neutralize the soda.

Well, then we start typing the recipe in for the blog and we realize that we’d used baking soda but should have used baking powder—so immediately my tasting extra baking soda made sense. Presumably, using baking powder would eliminate or reduce this problem, but since the flavor profile of this cookie is so simple i have to wonder if the high-temperature acid in modern baking powders would create its own taste issues. I’d like to try this recipe again, adding ½ teaspoon cream of tartar (and maybe dropping the baking soda to ½ teaspoon, i’m not sure).

Going in a different direction—and this is always important when kids are around and want to help—it’s a pretty simple recipe to make. There’s no rolling, no waiting around for things to solidify in the refrigerator, no stuffing the dough into a cookie press and then avoiding cutting yourself as you try to put the insanely sharp-edged plate into the press—the only difficulty is that it takes a couple minutes longer to alternate wet and dry ingredients than it would to just dump everything into a bowl and stir, and that’s a pretty minor difficulty.

So on the whole, this recipe gets a positive evaluation:

Taste of the finished product: Four enthusiastic positive ratings, one positive rating with reservations (the baking soda thing), and one cranky two-year-old who decided it was more fun to try to get attention by running back and forth from one end of the living room to the other while screaming maniacally.

Taste of the dough: No raw eggs, so we could test this one, and it gets six enthusiastic thumbs up votes.

Texture of the finished product: Everyone here seemed to like it, except of course for the maniac two-year-old, who abstained from voting.

Ease and fun: Four kids who had fun and want to do it again, one parent who thought it was pretty easy to do even with four kids helping (and occasionally “helping”), and one parent who had to sit through meetings instead of helping put everything together (not that I’m bitter, you understand). It took about 40 minutes, all told, to get everything together and mix everything up (which includes time spent moving stuff out of the smallest kids’ reach, repeatedly), 13 minutes baking time, and about 5 minutes from coming out of the oven until they were cooling on the rack. (We didn’t time how long it took them to cool, but we live in Alaska and it’s November—3 minutes, maybe?)


Did we like it? Yes.

Would we make it again? Yes.

Overall grade: Win.

No comments:

Post a Comment