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”

Pounding ginger

I have been researching historical gingerbread lately, for a probable book project on nineteenth-century American cooking. The first part of the research involves cataloguing recipes. So far I have thirty-eight recipes for gingerbread published in the United States prior to 1832, all neatly stored in a database and assigned appropriate metadata. Don’t panic: I’m not going to tell you all about the metadata. I’m going to tell you about spices.

cracked ginger in a mortar and pestle

As a cultural historian I’m interested in the deeper meanings and broader implications of everything, and I know that often people eat what they eat and cook the way they cook because of tradition or philosophy or politics. But as a cook and a craftsman I know that sometimes people have more practical reasons for doing things that are almost impossible to discover unless you actually try to do them. I’m interested in not just inner feelings and amorphous notions but in the sounds and smells and tastes that were the fabric of life in other times and places, the constant movements and sensations without which culture is just a topic for anthropological discourse. It seems to me that if you want to research the history of food, you need to get in the kitchen.

So I started baking gingerbread. Continue reading “Pounding ginger”