Christmas cookies the kids can roll and the adults will eat

The winter solstice party was cancelled on account of winter weather, and the world failed to end after all, so we spent Friday evening at home decorating sugar cookies. My nine year-old art director had just received a new box of extremely fancy cookie decorations from her grandmother, and so each batch, two cookie sheets’ worth, took nearly an hour.

“You know, in my day, we only had the red sugar and the green sugar.”

(Pause for dramatic effect.)

“If we wanted white, we had to use salt!”

Daaaad.Continue reading “Christmas cookies the kids can roll and the adults will eat”

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. Continue reading “Sugar cookies with historical flavor”

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. Continue reading “A brief history of the sugar cookie”

Jumbals

In researching historical baking I’ve ignored some old standards — very old standards, I mean, not like oatmeal cookies — and now that I have a lull in the research I’m picking them off. This month it’s jumbles, or jumbals, if you prefer the old spelling, which were formerly like nothing that goes by that name today. Continue reading “Jumbals”

Enter the Belsnickel

The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own. Continue reading “Enter the Belsnickel”

Christmas cookies: Speculaas

Occasionally I get to bake cookies without a research agenda, to try something new just for fun. Since it’s St. Nicholas Day, Ivy and I baked speculaas cookies, which is what the Dutch traditionally bake for that festival. I’m not Dutch, I’ve never in my life celebrated St. Nicholas Day, and until today I’d never eaten speculaas. Ah, the joys of cultural tourism! No pressure at all, no expectations, no childhood memories to contend with. Just a damn cookie.

Still, you know, I couldn’t just find a recipe and bake it. I don’t think I’m capable of that anymore. And, anyway, if I did, what would I have to blog about? Continue reading “Christmas cookies: Speculaas”

Not nutritious. Not progressive. Not patriotic. Just peanut butter cookies.

Dishes have been invented, recipes written, foods sampled and praised through the millenia for reasons that have nothing to do with taste. Consider, for example, the peanut. Weird dirty little legume that it is, it sparked no great enthusiasm in the Europeans who found it in America and fed it to livestock and slaves. Africans in America were reminded of the ground nuts they knew and cooked them similarly, in soups and stews, but most Anglos would eat them only as snacks, in candy (such as the peanut brittle made by Afro-Caribbeans in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century and sold from carts) or roasted and salted, cracked open and shells discarded on the street or the floor of the theater, a peculiarly American custom that set visiting Europeans’ teeth on edge. For a hundred years white Americans wolfed them in informal public settings but wouldn’t dream of eating them at home as part of an actual meal; peanuts were the proverbial girl a guy would sleep with but never marry. Why? Who knows? Maybe because Africans ate them, maybe because they grew in the ground, maybe because nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans were singularly unadventurous eaters. Continue reading “Not nutritious. Not progressive. Not patriotic. Just peanut butter cookies.”

Peanut graham crackers, 1902

When I found a reference on the internet to the first recipe for peanut butter cookies, I had to try it. Not because I expected them to be good peanut butter cookies, or even peanut butter cookies at all, but because I was, to put it gently, skeptical. I’ve learned to be skeptical of most claims to primacy in food history. Too often they aren’t all that carefully researched — not only because there may be other sources to consider, but because the people who make these claims have not actually tried the recipe to see if it is what it looks like. (That’s at least as true of professional historians as of amateurs.)

These “peanut wafers,” it turns out, are not what they may look like. They’re not the first of anything. They’re not even cookies. They’re more like experimental Progressive-era health food. But they’re interesting, and — surprisingly enough — they’re actually quite good. Continue reading “Peanut graham crackers, 1902”