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A Christmas cookie geography

December 24, 2009

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Mark Kurlansky’s Food of a Younger Land, and thinking about what it reveals of America’s regional food traditions, but this year I thought I’d go about my Christmas baking differently: rather than baking the usual line-up of sugar cookies and gingerbread cut-outs and whatever else happened to inspire me, I thought I’d allow my Christmas cookies to lead people on a geographical adventure through the Old World and the New, each cookie evoking a different country or region. Brief descriptions of the cookies’ backgrounds will, I hope, add an interesting touch to my traditional cookie parcels–or at any rate be exactly what family and friends are coming to expect from me and my food-in-history antics.

OLD WORLD–Europe

Pignoli (Italy):

These cookies from the South of Italy, subtly but beautifully ornamented, present a marriage of two nuts: a chewy almond paste cookie is studded with pine nuts that brown ever so slightly in the oven, creating a lovely palette of soft browns and cream whites. The flavors are also impeccably balanced: the buttery, toasty pine nut flavor comes through first in a burst, followed by the sweet mellowness of almond paste, which lingers deliciously.

Pfeffernüsse (Germany):

Just as decorative as pignoli, looking like so many snowballs, these cookies are a long-standing Christmas tradition in Germany. Under their snowy coating of powdered sugar, they are dark and dense, redolent of molasses and an array of spices that includes the black pepper that gave them their name, which means “pepper nuts.”

Madeleines (France):

The youngest and most geographically specific of our little confections, this small cake, baked in a mold shaped like an elegant elongated shell, originated at Commercy in the Lorraine region in the 1700s. A woman named Madeleine may or may not have served the cakes to Louis XV, giving them their name; the writer Proust certainly immortalized them as symbols of sensory recollection in his In Search of Lost Time.

NEW WORLD–North America

The American cookies hail from different parts of the country, but also represent three different sources of sweetness.

Maple Syrup Taffy (Vermont, North East):

The pride of Vermont, maple syrup, that flowing golden goodness, comes from boiling down the initially colorless sap of maple trees. A Vermont “sugaring off” involved several days of cheek-reddening comings and goings between snowy woods and boiling syrup vats. Maple sap drizzled in snow hardened into instant candy, and pickles were eaten to cut the sweetness. Though labor-intensive, maple syrup was cheap and abundant. In the colonies, using maple sugar also had political overtones: boycotting British goods was generally attractive, and especially in this case after the 1764 Sugar Act; and maple syrup was not tied to slave labor in the way Caribbean-grown cane sugar was.

Molasses Spice Cookies (New England):

Along with their cousins gingerbread and gingersnaps, these typical New England cookies are part of a confection clan centered on molasses — and in this they’re similar to many traditional New England foods, like baked beans and brown bread, that feature the thick, bold-flavored sweetener. Gingerbread, originally made from bread crumbs and honey, developed in the 17th century into the flour and molasses based form we know. According to food writer Anita Chu (whose recipe I used, along with her recipes for madeleines, pfeffernusse, and pignoli, all from the truly excellent Field Guide to Cookies), what makes these cookies particularly American is their chewiness, which departs from, for example, the gingersnaps of Scandanavian countries.

Persimmon Cookies (South):

Persimmon cookies are sweetened with sugar, but the fruit itself has a 14% sugar content by weight, which places it in the neighborhood of our sweetest suspects: mangoes (14%), figs (15%), grapes (16%), and bananas (18%) — and of course dates (60%) [See Harold McGee On Food and Cooking]. Persimmons’ natural sweetness and pumpkin-y depth of flavor transform what is essentially a basic spice cookie into a distinctive Southern treat. Although our common varieties are Japanese, there exists a persimmon variety native to the South, and in the Southern states and Appalachian region, these persimmons were also made into beer, and their seeds ground to make a kind of coffee (see Kurlansky).

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2010 6:23 pm

    Delicious. I love how you find the culture and history behind every food you post.

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