The Vintage Cookie

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Vintage Cookie Project

Come. Pour yourself a cup of tea, a mug of coffee, or a big glass of milk and join me on a visit to the past, with cookies.

In this blog I will chronicle my trip through the history of cookies, with recipes -- an invitation to explore, to learn, and to enjoy some of the sweetest bits of history.

Why cookies? Well, first, because I like them. Second, because I can reasonably expect to be able to make cookies on a regular basis. A formal 6-course Victorian dinner does not fit my current lifestyle very well -- but I can mix up a batch of "jumbles" or gingerbread before the four-year-old gets out of preschool. But third, and perhaps most important, I like the thread that cookies weave through history. There are fancy cookies, cookies baked mostly by professional bakers in large cities -- but many cookies, perhaps most, were developed by housewives and baked at home. Since the founding of America, American women have treasured cookies and cookie recipes, and have shared both with their family and friends.

What is a cookie? A small, flat cake -- generally including flour, sugar, eggs and some form of shortening. The cookie may also include a wide array of other ingredients for flavor or texture - nuts, chocolate, oatmeal, spices and flavorings of every description. The anonymous author of the wikipedia article on cookies posits a "general theory of cookies," as opposed to cakes. While cakes, whether baked small or large, use water or some water-based liquid as the "medium for cohesion," the cookie has largely abandoned H2O in favor of oils and fats. Oils and fats, of course, are lovely things. They carry flavor much better than water, they create a marvelous texture, at once crisp and moist, and, as they don't evaporate, cookies remain fresh and lovely much longer than cake.

Cookies are old, but they do not come into their own until the nineteenth century. Several forces seem, to me, to have been important, including the development of easily available chemical leavening, such as baking soda and baking powder, the decreasing cost of sugar, the spread of technology for easier, quicker baking, the increasing availability of once exotic ingredients like coconut and vanilla, at least near major cities, and publication of both cookbooks and of periodicals written for housewives, which introduced new recipes. At the end of the nineteenth century the rise of Domestic Science as an academic course of study, and the rise of competitive baking for County and State agricultural fairs, may also have played a role in establishing home baked goods, including cookies, as an important female accomplishment. In the twentieth century recipes developed and disseminated by the manufacturers of ingredients have introduced some of our most important cookies, including the chocolate chip cookie. The original recipe is still printed on the back of every bag of Nestle "Toll House" chocolate chips sold.

So dust off your cookie cutters and let's get baking.

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