Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Little Cookie Detective Work

Among the many desserts that I never covered fully in Sweet Invention because I just ran out of time and space was the humble drop cookie, perhaps one of the defining recipes of the home-baked American repertoire. What I mean is all those doughs make with sugar and butter that spread in homey, irregular rounds: chocolate chip, oatmeal, peanut butter and their kind.

The word cookie is undeniably Dutch in origin (from koekje=small cake) and began to be used English-language American cookbooks by at least the 1850s. Still, what it seemed to mean at this point was a small cake, a kind of muffin, rather than what we would think of as a cookie. In those days drop cookies were mostly called drop cakes. These little cakes came here from England. The eighteenth century cookbook author Hannah Glasse has a recipe (she calls them drop-biscuits). These, however, resemble lady fingers in texture rather than what we would think of as a cookie. Closer to the idea of a cookie is something called a “rout cake.” Mary Eaton, a British cookbook writer gives a recipe in The Cook and Housekeeper's Complete and Universal Dictionary (1822):

To make rout drop-cakes, mix two pounds of flour with one pound of butter, one pound of sugar, and one pound of currants, cleaned and dried. Moisten it into a stiff paste with two eggs, a large spoonful of orange-flower water, as much rose water, sweet wine, and brandy. Drop the paste on a tin plate floured, and a short time will bake them.

(For an explanation of the name, see http://www.lynsted.com/html/georgian_-_rout_cakes.html.) Most drop cakes are what would consider a “cake”. And the same is true of early drop cookie recipes. The first real drop cookie recipe that I’ve been able identify (though the rout cakes do seem to be a distant ancestor) is something called “Boston Cookies” which begin to show up in the 1880s. These are essentially the earlier rout cakes but with less liquid and flour but more sugar. The Household: A Cyclopedia for Modern Homes (1881) gives the following recipe.

One cup butter, one and one-half sugar, two and one-half flour, one and one-half raisins chopped fine, one-half teaspoonful soda dissolved in a little warm water, three eggs, a pinch of salt and nutmeg and other flavoring to the taste. Mix well, roll thin, or better still, drop into the pans with a spoon and sprinkle granulated sugar over each.

When you look at the original Toll House cookie recipe, the proportions of butter, sugar and flour are identical (Nestlé later altered the proportions slightly.) This then may the direct ancestor of the drop cookie. Now to figure out whether it really did originate in Boston!

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