Recipe: Cookie History, Trivia and Old-Fashioned Scotch Shortbread

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The history of the cookie begins with the history of refined sugar.

The sugarcane plant was first domesticated in tropical Southeast Asia thousands of years ago.  It is believed that people in New Guinea first started using sugar cane as a food source sometime around 8,000 B.C.  The first people to extract juice from sugar cane is credited to those living in India.

Making sugar crystals from the juice began over two-thousand years ago.  The spread of the production and use of sugar went from Asia to Islamic communities during the medieval period.  Hungry soldiers, in 510 B.C. discovered reeds that could produce honey without bees.  Their “Ah-ha” moment was not followed up on, so sugar was to be rediscovered in 327 BC by Alexander the Great.  He spread war and sugar’s sweetness through Persia and the Mediterranean.

The expansionism and exploration by the 15th century Spanish and Portuguese governments, spread sugar south-west of Iberia, to the Canary Islands and other locations.  Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493 brought sugar cane seedlings to the Americas.

Sugar production improvements and increased yields during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries greatly increased due to large plantations using enslaved human beings.  With a greatly increased sugar supply, the very expensive, “fine spice” of sugar, became a lot cheaper and more accessible.

The increase in supply of sugar coupled with a reduction in cost was to recipes and baking what the Cambrian Explosion was to the fossil record.  The number of recipes increased dramatically with one sugary treat becoming especially popular…the cookie.

The first cookies can be dated back to  the 7th century AD in Persia…what is now Iran. Their goodness was spread through Europe during the Muslim conquest of Spain.  The Muslim invasion of parts of Europe, and subsequent Christian Crusades coupled with an ever increasing spice trade with Middle-Eastern countries, helped spread the “cookie” into Northern Europe.

Cookies began as  “test cakes.”  In those days, bakers used wood to heat their ovens and before they would chance a disaster by putting a large cake into a too hot or too cold oven, they would test the oven’s temperature with a small single-serving-sized cake.

Early cookies were not nearly as sweet as modern cookies and were baked until hard so they traveled well.  One of the earliest and most popular cookies was the “Jumble.” It was a hard cookie make from nuts, either honey or sugar and water.

By the 1300’s cookies were a common treat and could be found throughout Europe in palaces, merchant’s homes, peasant cottages and sold by street vendors.  Cookbooks from the Renaissance period contain many different types of cookie recipes.

The cookie was a gift to America from the Dutch during the early decades of the 17th century. The Dutch word “koekje” was linguistically garbled up by my ancestral countrymen until it became pronounced, “cookie.”   The first public reference to cookies in America came in 1703 when 800 were recorded as being served at a funeral.

Early cookies were made out of either a sweet dough or batter.  They were baked in single serving sizes and eaten with the hand.  The modern cookie baking technique of creaming together butter and sugar was not developed until the 18th century.  Today cookies are eaten in the homes of over 95 percent of our country. We lead the world in cookie consumption eating over 2 billion cookies a year.  That averages out to almost 300 per person or over 35,000 cookies in a lifetime.

Credit for one of our nation’s favorite cookies—the chocolate chip—goes to a Massachusetts innkeeper named Ruth Wakefield.  Rumor has it that when she ran out of nuts for her brown sugar cookies, she broke up a bar of baking chocolate and added that to the batter instead.  History was made!   She sold her very popular recipe to  Nestle Toll House in return for a lifetime supply of chocolate.

Whereas a baker in the north produced a hearty cookie, a southern colonial baker took great pains to make delicate cookies or “tea cakes.”  Tea cakes were flavored with the finest butter and a few drops of rose water.

Here is additional cookie trivia:

–  Gingerbread man cookies were created during the reign of Elizabeth I of England, when she ordered cookies to be made in the likeness of important court guests. This jovial cookie was outlawed in some places during the reformation, because Martin Luther was somewhat of a Christmas scrooge.  While he personally enjoyed writing the lyrics to worship music then attaching them to popular beer hall tunes, he disapproved of many holiday traditions since they could be traced to pagan practices.  The gingerbread man cookie, Luther felt,  could possibly be made in the likeness of saints…such as St. Nicholas. He did not condone the practice of praying to saints, but taught that our prayers should be sent directly to God and he felt the cookie undermined this belief. The city of Delft in the Netherlands was one place you could not, under the law, purchase a gingerbread man cookie.

– Animal crackers in their brightly colored boxes were designed 1902 to be edible Christmas ornaments.  The box string is for hanging them on your Christmas tree.   They were also America’s first commercially sold cookie.

–  The first cookie cutters were made in America by tinsmiths during the 1700’s.  There is a National Cookie Cutter Historical Museum in Joplin, Missouri.

–  Christmas cookies date back to Medieval Europe.  Cookies only began being left out for Santa during our nation’s great depression in the 1930’s. It was a practice initiated by parents to teach children about charitable giving.

–  Each Christmas Eve Santa eats over 300 million cookies.  Since, he visits over 500 million homes, he is gifted with an estimated billion cookies.  If he would take two bites from each cookie he would consume a total of 336,150, 386 delicious Christmas cookies. No wonder he has a bit of a weight problem.

–  American cookie jars were copied from British biscuit jars during the 1930’s Great Depression when more cookies were being baked at home than purchased at a bakery. Home cooks needed the jars for cookie storage.

–  The Oreo is the 20th century’s most popular commercial cookie.  It was developed by Nabisco in 1912.

–  I guess American’s are still somewhat of an honest lot, because 13.5% of us admit to having gobbled down 20 or more chocolate chip cookies at one sitting.  Either that, or Minnesotans who eat buckets of Sweet Martha’s chocolate chip cookies during our Minnesota State Fair were over represented in the polling.

–  Half of all cookies baked in American homes are chocolate chip cookies.  Consumption of commercially sold chocolate chip cookies increased 10% after the detailed nutrition facts were in included on their label.  The standard rounded Tablespoon of cookie dough can hold up to 50 chocolate chips.

–  Wally Amos, of Famous Amos Cookies, was the William Morris talent agent who discovered the singers Simon and Garfunkel.

–  2016 National Bake Cookies Day is December 18…my birthday.

And, now the final and yet most important fact about cookies….baking burns 168 – 348 calories an hour.

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Scotch Shortbread

Scotch Shortbread is a centuries old recipe. This finely textured buttery cookie is absolutely delicious.

In a medium-sized bowl mix together with your hands, 1 cup of soft butter, 1/2 cup sugar, and 2-1/2 cups flour.  Chill dough for at least one hour.

On a lightly floured board roll dough out to thickness of 1/2 or 1/3 inches.  Cut into fancy shapes.  Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for about 20-25 minutes in a 300 degree oven.

Yield: 2 dozen cookies.
Recipe Variation:   Chocolate-Shortbread Bars 

Use the above ingredients and combine as directed.

Do not chill the dough.

Gently press the dough into a 9 X 13 ungreased cake pan.  Bake for 25-30 minutes in a 325 degree oven.  The bars will just begin to lightly brown when done.

Sprinkle chocolate chips on top of the hot bars.  Return the bars to the oven for just a minute or two until the chips melt. Evenly spread the melted chocolate over the shortbread.

Garnish with chopped nuts, coconut, crushed peppermint candy cane or colorful holiday sprinkles.

When cool,  cut into 1 X 1/2 inch bars.

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