Exploring Sugar Cookies: Evolution of a Sweet Treat
Cookies are made of butter...and love.— Anon.
Once Upon a Time...
There were sugar and flour and butter and eggs which gave us biscuits, cakes, and other sweet treats, but there were no sugar cookies.
What was missing?
True sugar cookies require a leavening agent—a baking substance that, when mixed with liquids and bolstered by the heat of the oven, creates bubbles. Bubbles magically transform dough from flat and hardened to soft and pillowy—everything that a splendid sugar cookie should be.
But I’m jumping ahead too quickly. Let’s get back to the world before the creation of those magical leavening agents named baking soda and baking powder—the world before sugar cookies.
There Were Jumbals
What are jumbals? Reference to “jumbals” can be found in English cookbooks. They were baked goods, thick and unleavened, and I’m pretty sure they were hard as rocks. On a positive note, they could be stored without fear of spoiling for a year or more. Perfect for a nibble on long journeys. They were also typically formed into twisted knot shapes, probably so that they could be more easily broken and shared.
The flavors and varieties of jumbals were almost endless—some contained dried fruits and nuts, others were flavored with brandies, rosewater, or (sometimes bold) spices. But it was the New York Dutch who introduced a new and innovative ingredient. They used an alkaline substance, pearlash, to invigorate their baked goods and create the crisp yet chewy texture that we associate with the cookies we know and love today.
However, according to rootedcook.com:
The first alkali leavener, pearlash, came into use at the end of the eighteenth century in the area around New York City, and the first published recipe for “cookies,” which appeared there in 1796, called for it. We take baking soda and baking powder for granted, but without them you can’t attain the crisp-chewy texture that we associate with sugar cookies today. Eighteenth-century cakes were baked hard like biscuits or were soft and cakey with eggs or, occasionally, twice-baked and crisp, but they didn’t have the chewy quality of a good cookie.
Unfortunately, the Dutch didn’t attain that quality either.
Chemical leavening allowed cooks to leave out the eggs entirely, use only a little butter, and base the cookie on flour, sugar, and milk, which made them cheap. They were cheap, and they were fairly dry.
And they were flavored very lightly, which also made them cheap in a day when spice was still expensive.
One of the earliest recipes that survives calls only for coriander seed, which seems a bit odd to modern palates. Others used caraway, which seems even odder but was more common at the time.
Hard, cheap, unflavored cookies had one good use, though: they could be molded or cut into shapes and hung on Christmas trees, after that tradition made its way to England and then to America.
In fact, if you want to roll cookies easily and cut them precisely, a rich, buttery dough is all wrong: you want something a little tougher.
Except as “Christmas cookeys,” though, they didn’t catch on quickly.
They made better ornaments than desserts, frankly; spicy gingerbread made better eating.
1825 Receipt (Recipe) for Sugar Biscuits
Just in case you think this is an exaggeration, here is an 1825 recipe for what I am sure were very long-lasting sugar cookies:
- Three pounds of flour, sifted.
- One pound of butter.
- A pound and a half of powdered sugar.
- Half a pint of milk.
- Two tablespoons full of brandy.
- A small tea-spoonful of pearl-ash dissolved in water.
- Four table-spoonfuls of carraway seeds.
- Cut the butter into the flour. Add the sugar and carraway seeds. Pour in the brandy, and then the milk. Lastly, put in the pearl-ash. Stir all well with a knife, and mix it thoroughly, till it becomes a lump of dough.
- Flour your paste-board and lay the dough on it. Knead it very well. Divide it into eight or ten pieces, and knead each piece separately. Then put them all together, and knead them very well in one lump. Cut the dough in half, and roll it out into sheets, about half an inch thick. Beat the sheets of dough very hard, on both sides, with the rolling-pin. Cut them out into round cakes with the edge of a tumbler.
- Butter iron pans, and lay the cakes in them. Bake them of a very pale brown. If done too much they will lose their taste. These cakes kept in a stone jar, closely covered from the air, will continue perfectly good for several months.
Oh Dear! Where Do We Go From Here?
So the ancestor of our beloved sugar cookie was no better than an ornament to be hung on a Christmas tree? How depressing!
But, technological advances (iron cookstoves and imitation vanilla flavoring) combined with a bit of American ingenuity finally brought us closer to the cookies we recognize today. By the late 1800s mothers were providing cookies and milk to their children for an afternoon snack—with the addition of peanuts or some oatmeal said cookies could be dubbed a nutritious supper (so that harried parents could rush their little darlings into bed prior to a dinner party).
In 1930 Irma Rombauer’s book The Joy of Cooking was published; within those pages was a recipe that finally resembles the cookie that we now leave for Santa on Christmas Eve.
There are two distinct types of sugar cookies. One is pillowy and soft, frequently sold in bakeries and dubbed “lofthouse cookie.”
Ashley, author, creator, and photographer behind Centercutcook.com developed a copy-cat recipe that is truly spot-on. It looks and tastes exactly like those amazing puffy cookies in the bakery. If that is the cookie you seek, look no further.
But I Prefer the "Other" Sugar Cookie
I mentioned two distinct types of sugar cookies. Lofthouse are wonderful, but at Christmas-time my I-love-to-decorate side emerges. Decorated sugar cookies require a flat surface; I like to think of it as a blank canvas.
You roll out the perfect dough on a lightly floured surface, and then use your favorite cookie cutter(s) for the inspiration. I like snowflakes.
But What Is the Perfect Dough for a Rolled Sugar Cookie?
Lindsay has a serious sweet tooth; she created the blog Lifeloveandsugar.com and this wonderful vanilla sugar cookie that (1) does not require chilling and (2) does not spread. (I should also point out that, unlike the ornament cookies of 100+ years ago, they taste wonderful).
And Then, There Are Chocolate Sugar Cookies
For Marian, the art of creating confections, developing tutorials, and sharing her experience with others is a labor of love. Her blog Sweetopia.net is fun to explore and a joy to read. Her photographs and descriptions are done so well I feel as though she is standing right next to me when I make her chocolate sugar cookies. Yes, chocolate sugar cookies!
Of course, these wonderful cookies can be made even more wonderful with a bit (or more) of icing.
Perfect Royal Icing
Sweetsugarbelle is a cookie artist. Her blog features some of the most imaginative and beautiful cookies I have ever seen; they're almost too sweet to eat. She has developed the perfect proportions needed to achieve royal icing that can be piped, spread, or used to flood-fill a cookie. (Don't know what flood-filling is? Think of those perfect cookies in the bakery that are topped with a layer of icing that is as smooth as glass—those are flood-filled cookies.)
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Linda Lum