C Is for Cookie

Who invented the cookie? The answer involves the luxuries of the Persian Empire, cookery books, and Dutch funerals.

Properly defined, a cookie is “a small flat or slightly raised cake.” Cookies can be made by cutting shapes from rolled dough (like sugar cookies), dropping dough from a spoon (like chocolate chip cookies), cutting dough into pieces after baking (like brownies), or several other techniques. A typical cookie is made with flour, butter, and sugar, though ingredients vary for different kinds of cookies. Small, simple cakes made with flour have existed since the beginning of baking history, but they were typically not sweet and could not truly be considered cookies.

Our favorite little cakes originated in seventh-century Persia. As one of the first areas to cultivate sugar, a necessary ingredient in cookies, the Persian empire enjoyed a variety of sweet cakes and pastries. Cookies were originally an experiment with a small amount of dough to test the oven temperature before making a larger cake.

Sugar—and cookies—spread throughout Europe by way of the Muslim conquest of Spain, the Crusades, and the spice trade. Cooking techniques and ingredients from the Persian Empire became popular in Northern Europe.

By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, cookies were common in all classes of society in Europe and were not just a luxury for the rich—filled wafers were sold on the streets of Paris, royal cuisine featured the sweet treats, and “cookery books” for the middle class touted recipes for “Fine Cakes.” These cookery books were essential in preserving and transmitting cookie recipes to future generations.

An early recipe for “Fine Cakes” was recorded in The Good Huswife’s Jewell, a cookbook originally published in 1585.
Image from Thomas Dawson, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To make fine Cakes.
Take fine flowre and good Samaske water you must haue no other liquour but that, then take sweet butter, two or three yolkes of egges and a good quantity of Suger, and a fewe cloues, and mace, as your Cookes mouth shall serue him, and a lyttle saffron, and a little Gods good about a sponfull if you put in too much they shall arise, cutte them in squares lyke vnto trenchers, and pricke them well, and let your ouen be well swept and lay them vppon papers and so set them into the ouen, do not burne them if they be three or foure dayes olde they bee the better.

Cookies have taken on many different forms over the centuries. Jumbles were hard cookies made with nuts, sweetener, anise, and caraway seeds, and made great food for long journeys. Crispy, twice-baked cookies were known as biscuits or biscotti. Tea cookies, also called teacakes or butter cookies, were rich and buttery shortbread cookies, less sweet than many American cookies today.

A plate of shortbread cookies.

Dutch immigrants brought tea cookies to New Amsterdam in the 1620s. Their introduction of cookies to the United States has left its mark—the English word cookie comes from the Dutch koekje, a diminutive of koek, which means “cake.” In 1703, the Dutch served koeckjes at a funeral in New York.

Cookies that involve creaming butter and sugar together emerged around the eighteenth century, around the same time that baking powder was introduced as a chemical leavening agent. Though cookies were still special treats, affordable sugar and flour allowed more people to start baking cookies more often, and cookie recipes abounded.

Chocolate chip cookie dough

In the twentieth century, the invention of modern ovens with thermostats yielded ever more cookie recipes: snickerdoodles and butter drop cookies and sand tarts. Homemakers—homebakers, one could say—made up new recipes based on what they had on hand at the time. Raisin cookies were introduced when sugar was scarce during World War II, for example, and peanut butter cookies developed along with the introduction of peanut butter in government-sponsored school lunch programs.

The cookie, in all its forms and shapes, has become a staple of dessert in Europe, the United States, and beyond. What’s your favorite type of cookie?

Sources

“Cookie Research: History, Techniques, and Fun Facts,” December 12, 2019, Badges for All, https://badgesforall.org/2019/12/11/cookie-research-history-techniques-and-fun-facts/.

“Cookies,” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, March 17, 2020, accessed November 3, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/cookie-food.

“History of Cookies,” What’s Cooking America, accessed November 3, 2020, https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/CookieHistory.htm.

Kitchen Crew, “The History of Cookies,” October 1, 2018, Just a Pinch, https://www.justapinch.com/blog/articles/read/209514/the-history-of-cookies/.

Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “cookie,” accessed November 3, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cookie.

“The History of Cookies,” updated October 2008, The Nibble, https://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/cookies/cookies2/cookie-history.asp.

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