A brief history of the sugar cookie

Traditions have a way of growing sadly stale over the years, don’t they? The spirit that once animated them slowly dies, leaving only the dry outer husk of empty actions. Ah, but sometimes we can revive them by looking to the past, by finding the old spirit and sloughing off the dead forms. Sometimes we find that the original form of a tradition not only meant more at the time, but can mean more to us today. Sometimes the past is like a little hope chest, a little… er… hopeful thing. Or other.

This is not one of those times.

No, friends, today we’re going to talk about sugar cookies. They’re sweet, they’re bland, they don’t (if we’re honest with ourselves) really taste all that good, but we make them look pretty by the standards of a six-year-old and call it Christmas. And we can’t have Christmas without them, certainly not if we have children. Christmas is, after all, that special time of year we set aside for consuming various foods that time would otherwise have forgot, like gingerbread and fruitcake, foods that used to be wonderful, exciting, inventive but now range from dull to dreadful. We lack the interest to make them well, but we can’t bear to let them go. Surely sugar cookies, too, were better in Ye Olden Tymes?

They were not. In fact, they’re better now than they ever were before. Here’s why.

A couple hundred years ago, Europeans and Americans had all sorts of wonderful little sweet baked treats to be eaten out of hand, treats we would call cookies but which they called cakes: gingerbread, jumbals, Shrewsbury cakes, and endless other variations on the basic combination of flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and spice. Some were soft; some were hard like biscuits. Some had lots of spice; all had at least a little — cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, ginger, allspice, occasionally anise or pepper, even caraway or coriander. Some added brandy, sweet wine, or rose water or were studded with orange peel or candied citron. Any of those little cakes might be called the ancestor of the sugar cookie, but none really was. Sugar cookies, after all, are plain. They evolved not only from that pack of eighteenth-century small cakes, but, strangely enough, in opposition to them.

The likeliest ancestor was actually the creation of Dutch settlers in New York, a little thing they called a koekje — pronounced “cookie” — which meant simply “small cake.” They weren’t terribly unlike most English cakes, but the New York Dutch made use of an important innovation: they used chemical leavening. 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 let cooks leave out the eggs entirely, use only a little butter, and base the cookie on flour, sugar, and milk, which made them cheap. The cookies were then baked hard for long keeping; in fact they were said to be better after they had aged in the cellar for six months. They were cheap, 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.

But the cookie was to get a new life, because all of the wonderful little cakes of the eighteenth century were trampled under the march of progress in the nineteenth. First, as chemical leavening, cheap pans, and iron cookstoves made it easier to bake big frosted layer cakes, the old little cakes seemed less impressive, and fashionable women stopped serving them to guests. Second, the Victorians believed that spice could overly excite the digestive system and likely other sorts of appetites as well; especially for growing children, spice was deemed not only unhealthy but potentially immoral. For family teas and children’s treats, then, women still needed something they could bake easily and cheaply, without a lot of fuss, and something very plain. Cookies fit the bill perfectly. By the 1870s, plain cookies were common weekday fare in middle-class homes, and with a glass of milk they made perfect snacks for children — or even a quick and (by the standards of the day) nutrious supper so the tots could be packed off to bed before a dinner party. If Mother wanted to make her babies’ cookies even more nutritious, she might add chopped peanuts or oatmeal. (Hence peanut cookies and oatmeal cookies began as health food. And here you thought they were dessert!)

What Mother did not add was flavoring. Possibly a hint of nutmeg, which could be quickly grated, or a squeeze of lemon, but that was all. Even when vanilla extract became widely available in the 1880s, cooks rarely added it to “cookies,” which seem to have been plain by definition and by design. The name “sugar cookies” seems to have caught on at the end of the nineteenth century, possibly to distinguish them from newfangled things like peanut cookies and oatmeal cookies. The name recalled “sugar cakes,” which had traditionally been those without any spice. They were sweet and vaguely pleasant, nothing more — made, as they had always been, with milk, baking powder, and usually a minimum of baking powder.

It was industry and the rise of processed food that prompted the addition of vanilla. Almost as soon as vanilla extract became a pantry staple, artificial vanilla flavor hit the market. Vanilla had been prized for centuries, and nearly everyone loved it, and now that the fake stuff was cheap, industrial bakers started adding it to practically everything — first “vanilla wafers” sold in barrels, then boxed cookies of all kinds. By the 1920s it was becoming ubiquitous — and so a flavoring that only decades before had been terribly expensive and difficult to use became “plain vanilla.” In the original 1930 Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer flavored her “plain cookies” with vanilla extract.

Rombauer’s cookies look, finally, like our sugar cookies. But Rombauer called for only two tablespoons of butter and a single egg to three cups of flour; they were still meant to be cheap and sweet, nothing more.

Cookies were becoming more acceptable adult food, though, for several reasons — the marketing campaigns of companies like Nabisco, the more relaxed culture after 1920 and a revival of interest in actually enjoying food, and probably the decline of baking skills; cookies are easier to bake than layer cakes. By the 1950s, grown-up interest would improve cookies. (Let’s face it, if parents had to eat all the crap they feed their kids to shut them up, they’d chuck half of it in the trash.) Betty Crocker’s 1948 Picture Cooky Book, at least, treated a rolled sugar cookie as something you might actually want to eat, adding more fat than milk.

Unfortunately, by the 1950s, industrial vegetable shortening had become the fat of choice in cookie baking. You can get away with vegetable shortening in a cookie with flavor, but if you’re using cheap or artificial vanilla extract, butter is the only flavor most sugar cookies have! And when Betty Crocker made her sugar cookies with butter she called them… yes… “butter cookies.” Not sugar cookies any longer. And decorated them with almond halves, to make it clear how fancy they were.

Not until the 1980s did butter really start to make its comeback. Which means that, oddly enough, if you want a really good recipe for the allegedly old-fashioned, traditional sugar cookie, you’re better off just finding one published in about the last twenty years. (You shouldn’t have any trouble finding one. When I last checked, Google Books called up more than 50,000 recipes for sugar cookies published since 1980.)

Unless you’re going to decorate it, and then, of course, probably nobody cares what it tastes like. What about that artificially colored sugar, anyway? It’s called sanding sugar, but “sanding sugar” was originally what nasty grocers did to save money — by literally putting sand in the sugar barrel. By 1910 that old custom had fallen by the wayside, thanks to sealed packages and companies eager to preserve the integrity of their brands. New industrial techniques in the 1930s allowed manufacturers to crate coarse, evenly textured crystals for decorating purposes — a process described in trade journals on “food engineering.” (Yum.) Why that was called “sanding sugar” I don’t know, except that everyone had happily forgotten the earlier use of the term. By 1940, its use in decorating seems to have been common, and cookbooks and magazines displayed vivid photographs of cookies lavishly decorated with colored sugar.

What we’d recognize as a decorated Christmas sugar cookie, then, didn’t really exist until the 1930s and 1940s, and even then it wasn’t usually all that good. If it was, until pretty recently, it was probably called something else. The only really traditional thing about the sugar cookie is that they’re cheap, they’re sweet, and they look better than they taste. Much as I usually prefer the opposite, maybe it’s ok just this once.

We all know Santa doesn’t eat the damn things anyway.

All that said: there were some really wonderful lightly-flavored, butter-and-sugar cookies made in Ye Olden Tymes, but they’ve always been called something else — offshoots from the main stem, you might say. In my next post, I’ll look at what we can learn from them.