Sugar cookies with historical flavor

I actually don’t dislike sugar cookies, despite tweaking them yesterday. They’re fun and they’re traditional, which is good enough in December. But they’re limited in two ways — one structural, one avoidable. The first is that if you add enough butter to make them rich and really tasty, they’re an awful pain to roll — you certainly can’t let your kids do it. And even if you can roll them, too much butter will make them spread in the oven so that your angels look a little pudgy and Santa downright blobbish. You can have fabulous butter flavor and texture, or you can have pretty things your kids can roll. Most recipes compromise.

The second problem is that we flavor them only and exclusively with vanilla. Now, I like vanilla — don’t bite my head off — but it’s so overused in American baking that we don’t even notice it unless, say, we steep a real bean in milk to make custard and scrape in the flecks to draw attention. I didn’t mind or even notice the ubiquity of vanilla until I started baking cakes and cookies from the time before vanilla extract was widely available, and then I realized, for example, that it doesn’t actually bring anything to peanut butter cookies; nutmeg is better.

Now, sugar cookies have always had wonderful cousins that avoid one or both of these problems. The Belsnickel cookies I wrote about last year are made with enough butter that they don’t need any flavoring at all, though I couldn’t help adding cardamom to the sprinkling sugar. But they’re real work to roll neatly — the dough must be really cold — and I wouldn’t try cutting them into anything other than rounds. (No, that’s not true: I did try, once; I wouldn’t try again.)

You could also bake butter-and-sugar cookies into more of a wafer. Here, for example, is a recipe from Abby Fisher, an African-American cook from Alabama who moved to San Francisco after the Civil War and wrote a cookbook:

Sweet Wafers. One teacup each of butter and sugar creamed together, one grated orange, four eggs, one tablespoonful of cinnamon. Add three pints of flour and make up stiff. Then roll out on a board and cut them out about the size of a biscuit, and roll again till thin as paper, and bake in a quick oven. Watch close while baking. You can roll them round on a fork handle while they are warm, if you like.1

I haven’t baked these (yet), but something rolled literally paper thin is not a sugar cookie as we know it. Reduce the eggs, and you’d have a dough that could be more easily rolled and better keep its shape in the oven; you’d get something like jumbals or like Shrewsbury cakes, lightly flavored, biscuity little things popular a couple of centuries ago. But biscuity isn’t what anybody today expects from a sugar cookie, either. Jumbals and Shrewsburies are wonderful; they just aren’t sugar cookies.

But we can take a cue from the flavor of those old recipes, which nearly always involved some combination of spices, citrus, brandy, and distilled flower waters. Nothing says you have to flavor sugar cookies with vanilla, after all, and certainly not only with vanilla! Here, then, is a list of some historical flavor profiles you could use to kick up your sugar cookies, all adapted from recipes for cakes and cookies written sometime between 1750 and 1850. None of them will overwhelm the butter flavor; out of respect for tradition, I’m trying to keep it subtle. Add these flavors to your usual recipe — unless otherwise noted, either with the vanilla or without.

Quantities listed are for a recipe calling for two cups of flour, but consider them an estimate.

  • Mace, half a teaspoon. This was a traditional seasoning for pound cakes. Mace is the outer husk of the nutmeg; the flavor is similar but more subtle, complex, and a bit lemony.
  • The grated zest of an orange and half a teaspoon of cardamom or cinnamon. (Cardamom, I say, but cinnamon is far more historically plausible.)
  • Orange flower water, maybe a teaspoon, and omit the vanilla.
  • A teaspoon of cardamom and half a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg. Again, cardamom was very rarely used in England and Anglo-America, but I love the stuff. With vanilla, this is how I flavor my sugar cookies at Christmas.
  • Rose water and cinnamon. Try a teaspoon of rose water and a half teaspoon of cinnamon, and omit the vanilla. Too much cinnamon (or cinnamon on its own) and I’d think snickerdoodles.
  • Brandy and mace, with or without some grated orange zest. You need a tablespoon of brandy to get its flavor, so whether or not you omit the vanilla, either cut back the milk just a bit or be prepared to add extra flour in rolling. Half a teaspoon of mace should do it.
  • The grated zest of a lemon and, say, a pinch of cloves. Only a pinch — be very careful with the cloves. Or you could try anise, though you’d probably have to grind the seeds yourself. (Or use an ahistorical splash of Pernod?) I haven’t tried these, so bake them at your own risk, but they sound interesting if deeply unconventional. Either way this is what magazine writers like to call a “grown-up flavor.” But I’m getting a little too clever now, so it’s time to leave off.

If you try any of these, let me know how you like them. And if you have unadventurous kids, the mace is probably safe, and so is nutmeg and cardamom. Mine would wolf down any of these. But on that front, as they say, your results may vary.

  1. Abby Fisher, What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking (San Francisco, 1879), p. 72.