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sugar cookies: not so simple after all

March 7, 2010

I long thought of sugar cookies as impossibly simple, almost to the point of being uninteresting. When I was young, I wondered how they could be my grandfather’s favorite, when there were such things as oatmeal-raisin gems or pistachio macaroons to be had. But the sugar cookie’s simplicity belies a complexity of origin that is far from uninteresting: it spans three continents and four times as many centuries.

Our English cookie comes from the Dutch koekje, meaning small cake. By the 1700s, the word, turned to cookie or cookey, had made its way across the Atlantic to America, where it shows up for the first time in Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796), touted as the first “American” cookbook, published in the United States expressly for American cooks.

Simmons’s recipe for “Cookies” calls for sugar, pearlash (an antecedent to baking powder), flour, and butter. The baker is instructed to “make roles half an inch thick and cut to the shape you please.” Her only other “cookie” recipe, labeled “another Christmas Cookey,” is almost identical.

This sounds very much like what we would now call a sugar cookie, and so it seems that for the early American housewife, “cookie” meant sugar cookie, and we are justified in considering this familiar treat quintessentially American.

But there’s a twist: the recipe sounds like what we would call a sugar cookie . . . save for the “two large spoons of finely powdered coriander seed” mixed into the dough.

This inclusion of coriander seed betrays the sugar cookie’s more complex origins.

Simmons’s label may come from the Dutch, but the genre itself—the spiced sugar cookie—traces its roots back to medieval Arab cuisine, particularly Persian sweets, introduced to Europe via the Moors of Spain.

In the 7th century, the Persians improved the sugar refining process by adding lime, and were thus able to produce a white cone or loaf that, when chiseled, yielded the sweetener that was quickly replacing honey in the west.

They were also the first to distill rosewater on a large scale, and this flavoring became a staple in medieval Europe, where sweets (and even savory dishes) flavored with rosewater and dotted with caraway, coriander, or anise seeds were common.

By the late 16th century, the English were making spiced (often knot-shaped) butter/sugar cookies called jumbals or jumbles, which reflected the medieval rosewater and spice combination.

But how did we get from the English jumble to Simmons’s recipe—and ultimately to the sugar cookies I made for my grandfather, flavored only with vanilla?

Looking for clues in early American cookbooks, I noticed two trends: (1) the fusion of jumbles with simpler “small cakes” recipes; and (2) the general simplification of spices and flavorings, as caraway, anise, nutmeg, rosewater and the like parted ways and made solo appearances in more decorous quantities.

We see the set-up for this transformation in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery. Dubbed Martha Washington’s because it was in her keeping from 1749 to 1799, the book is actually an older collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean recipes brought over from England.

The collection includes a jumbal recipe, rich with whole eggs, egg yolks, and cream, and medieval in its profusion of flavors: it calls for a staggering amount of rosewater, and “as much annyseeds or caraway seeds as you shall think fit” and even “a little muske & ambergreece.”

But the book also includes recipes for “sugar cakes”; and while the jumbals may be awash in rosewater and bursting with spices, the three recipes for “sugar cakes” more closely resemble Simmons’s understated “cookie”: one calls only for cinnamon; and of the other two (both spice-less), one requests a modest “spoonful” of rosewater, and the other, butter simply “washt in rose water.”

The restraint and simplification in “sugar cakes” flavoring only continued over time in American cookbooks. Soon jumbles became almost indistinguishable from their more mild-mannered cousins, and by the 20th century they had all but disappeared by name. Meanwhile, “cookies” continued to look more and more like our modern sugar cookie.

A few examples:

In the Williamsburg Art of Cookery, another compilation of old recipes, jumbal recipes attributed to Mrs. Smith (1742) and the Morton family of Charlotte county Virginia (prior to 1839) call only for mace or cinnamon, respectively. The recipe for “Cookies of 1812” is flavored mostly with vanilla and already looking very sugar-cookie-like.

In an 1891 cookbook compiled by the Ladies of Plymouth Church in Des Moines, Iowa, one of the four jumble recipes features “caraway seed, lemon or nutmeg,” but the others sound very much like the more numerous plain “Cookie” recipes on subsequent pages, again looking quite sugar-cookie-like.

Still, none of these are labeled “sugar cookie” yet.

It’s only in The American Woman’s Cook Book (1938), edited by then director of the Culinary Arts Institute, that I finally found what, at least on my shelves, is the earliest true Sugar Cookie recipe.

And, lo and behold!—the recipe included a pleasant little surprise.  Listed in the recipe variations, alongside “LEMON” and “CHOCOLATE,” is the following: “CARAWAY—Sprinkle cookies with caraway seeds.” Like a historical code I could finally decipher, this little admission of the cookie’s origin brought me full circle.

An epilogue:

As a nod to all this historical adventuring, I made sugar cookies with anise seeds—and topped them with a dollop of lemon curd, because I couldn’t help it. I don’t know if my grandfather would have approved; but they were delicious. And I simply can’t think of sugar cookies the same way anymore.

* Many thanks to my friend Avis B., who so generously passed some of her wonderful cookbook collection on to me

* For more related history, see Kate Colquhoun’s Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking, Karen Hess’s notes on Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, and Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food


2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2010 4:34 pm

    Your cookbook collection must be fantastic. I love the depth of your posts, the exploration into history as well as gastronomical delights.

  2. Amy permalink
    March 30, 2010 5:44 pm

    Fascinating article and very timely for me as I am writing a short paper on sugar cookie recipes and how they have evolved for culinary school. Thank you for the insight on the spices and that the sugar cookie recipes evolved from the sugar cake recipe rather than the jumble recipes. I wanted to share with you a resource called The Historic American Cookbook Project which is a digital library of old cookbooks. It is sponsored by The Michigan State University Library and the MSU Museum and can be found at The reason I’m sharing this is that I did find 3 sugar cookie in The Woman Suffrage Cook Book published in 1886. They were very simple recipes and two of them had nutmeg and one had lemon.
    I really enjoyed reading this post and will peak back to read more when I get a chance.

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