Perfect Snickerdoodles: How to Make the Best Cinnamon Sugar Cookie on the Planet
Where Did the Name Come From?
How is it that this delightfully sweet-spicy, tender, puffy, chewy cookie was bestowed with such an odd-sounding name? The only thing of which we can be sure is that . . . we have no clue.
Some theorize that the name snickerdoodle is a bastardization of the German word schneckenudeln, which means "snail dumpling." That would be fine if we were talking about a cinnamon roll-ish breakfast pastry. Others say the word is simply one of many fanciful names created by New England cooks and bakers. They seem to delight in coming up with amusing names for the foods they eat (such as fluffernutter, hermits, joe froggers, stuffies, and whoopie pies).
In her best-selling book American Cookie, author Anne Byrn says that the cookie with the funny name was brought to the United States by Dutch-German immigrants. Their version was rich with butter, heavily spiced, and often included dried fruits and nuts.
Then, as today, the cookie was popular with the Mennonite and Amish, but its popularity spread like dough on a hot cookie sheet when a recipe was published in 1891. Mrs. Cornelia (Nellie) Campbell Bedford was a cooking teacher and food columnist for a New York newspaper. At the request of the Cleveland Baking Power Company, Nellie devised a sugar cookie dusted with cinnamon. Her version omitted the fruits and nuts and had a more subtle cinnamon flavor. Her newspaper published the recipe, and it quickly spread to other papers around the country, like this clipping from the Indiana Sentinel:
Notice that the original version was baked as a bar cookie. It wasn't until the 1930s that the cookie underwent a bit of remodeling and became a shape-and-bake rather than a bar.
Another modification was made to the recipe mid-20th century. Butter had fallen out of favor and was replaced by shortening. Snickerdoodles (and any other cookie) made with shortening instead of butter will whip up lighter and fluffier and result in a puffy cookie. If that is your goal, of course, you may use shortening. Some cooks opt for a 50/50 mix of butter and shortening, but I prefer to stick with tradition.
While we're on the subject, let's take a look at two of the ingredients you must use to make the best snickerdoodles.
Two Important Ingredients
No, that's not a pronouncement of what you will be if you eat too many cookies. Fat is a fundamental and so very misunderstood component in baking. My grandparents ate butter (I'm sure they churned their own), and they lived to their 90s. Then a generation (or more) of us were led to believe that animal fats (butter) are unhealthy and that margarine or shortening would be a good substitute. That philosophy changed again when we heard the words "trans-fatty acids."
The truth is that although butter is an animal-based product and therefore contains cholesterol, margarine, and shortening, which are both solid at room temperature, contain trans-fat. An expert panel from the USDA Institute of Medicine says that "there are no noted health benefits of shortening and as such, it is unfit for consumption."
Is that a good enough reason to use butter instead of shortening? Let's be honest—you don't eat cookies to get healthy. But the difference between butter and shortening can make a significant difference in the quality of your baked goods.
Advantages of butter:
- Makes cookies tender (prevents gluten from forming)
- Adds flavor—the milk proteins brown (aha, there's that Maillard reaction) and contribute a caramelized flavor
2. Cream of Tartar
What is this stuff? It’s a white powder, it looks like baking powder and it tastes horribly sour. Mr. Science would tell you that it’s potassium bitartrate (PB), a byproduct of the winemaking process. After wine is aged, there is a residue that remains on the surface of the wooden barrels. That is PB, also known as tartaric acid, or more familiarly, cream of tartar.
Once upon a time bakers might not have known the science behind the ingredients, but they knew that combining baking soda (an alkali) with cream of tartar (an acid) produced a chemical reaction that created carbon dioxide—the gas that inflates cakes and cookies.
You could use baking powder alone; it's a combination of acid and alkali and mimics the chemical reaction of long ago. But the ingredients of baking powder are different. Rather than cream of tartar, baking powder contains a lower-cost monocalcium phosphate. The oomph is there, but the taste isn’t quite the same. If you want the snickerdoodle of years ago, go to the grocery store and buy a little canister of cream of tartar. It’s in the spice aisle, between the cinnamon and the dill weed.
Original Snickerdoodle (or Close to It)
Lindsay has recreated the original snickerdoodle and her technique is perfect. She creams the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, thoroughly coats them in a mix of cinnamon and sugar, and bakes in a hot oven so that they set quickly.
Sam (Sugarspun Run) believes in "from scratch" baking. Nellie Campbell Bedford's bar cookies are rather flat-tasting and boring. Sam doubles the amount of butter and decreases the milk to just two tablespoons. Her version of the bar snickerdoodle is rich and sweet and proudly wears a bold topping of cinnamon and sugar.
Bree Hester is the founder of BakedBree.com and was named a Top 100 Food Blogger. She is a regular contributor to Simple As That. Her work has been featured on Oprah.com, Pinhole Press, Martha Stewart Weddings, Apartment Therapy, Parents.com, Yogalife, TODAY Food, Philadelphia Magazine, Babble, and The Huffington Post.
With that introduction (there's more, but I gave you the abridged version) there should be no doubt in your mind that anything that comes out of her kitchen will be spectacular. I would never have dreamed of adding chocolate to the "already perfect" snickerdoodle, but Bree did, and we are the better for it. The only other thing you need to add to her chocolate snickerdoodles is a tall glass of cold milk.
Snickerdoodle Whoopie Pies
If you are not from or living in New England, or familiar with the Amish community, you might not know what a whoopie pie is, but you are about to be introduced to one. Whoopie pies are part cake and part sandwich cookie. The originals were made from chocolate cake batter and sandwiched together with marshmallow fluff. Imagine what would happen if a devil's food cake fell in love with an Oreo cookie and they had a baby. That's a whoopie pie.
Tanya took the concept of the whoopie and changed the flavoring to create a tender, buttery, cinnamon-spicy cookie filled with browned butter frosting. Her snickerdoodle whoopie pie will make you give up your diet.
At the request of a friend, I have added one more recipe to the mix. Here is a gluten-free snickerdoodle that relies on almond flour.
© 2019 Linda Lum