The best way to combat chilly temperatures just might be warm, freshly baked cookies. Between winter weather and the many holidays this month, it’s hard not to declare this time of year one long, delicious Cookie Season. And would that be such a bad thing?
Cookies are fanciful holiday gifts, comfort foods, after-school snacks, and breakfast-on-the-run (don’t judge). And the traditions around baking and giving these sugar-y treats are just as diverse. Whether participating in an office cookie exchange, gathering family and friends for “Cookie Day” baking, gifting that special teacher their favorite dozen, teaching children and grandchildren how to make the secret family chocolate chip cookie recipe, or creating cookie masterpieces just for yourself—cookies enjoy a long history and a special place in our hearts (and stomachs).
To celebrate the season, I’d like to tempt you with some sweet recipes from the past, including ones pulled from our History Colorado collections and the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection. They speak to times of ingredient shortages and rising food costs—something that resonates today—as well as times of plenty. And while this compilation is a mere glimpse into a fantastic cookie world, the recipes included here were undoubtedly created with purpose and love and represent decades of Colorado traditions.
Gingery baked goods—perennial delights that have been around a very long time—are a good place for any aspiring baker to start. Whether or not your ginger snaps or gingerbread people are reserved for holiday treats or anytime comforts, there are a plethora of recipes to help you find the perfect balance of sweet and spicy.
A CLASSIC TREAT
Some bakers reserve their extra-special recipes for the holidays, while others favor the tried-and-true. I don’t know about your family, but mine always appreciates having a go-to favorite among the more ornately-sprinkled, over-the-top offerings. With its origins dating back centuries as the Scottish Oatcake, the equally practical and delicious Oatmeal Cookie (with its endless combinations of chopped fruit, nuts, sweets, spices, and, yes, even sprinkles!) might just be the tortoise of the cookie races.
FRUIT OR NUTS? OR BOTH?
Bakers in the ancient Middle East are thought to be the first to add butter, eggs, fruit, honey, and other delightful additions to the hard savory biscuits people were eating at the time. Eventually these ingredients and cooking methods made their way to various parts of Europe, forever changing the humble cookie. With or without the dairy additions, fruit and nuts have been cookie staples ever since, adding color, texture, and flavor to the baked favorites—not to mention a nutritional boost as well.
UP FOR A CHALLENGE
Historic recipes abound in the collections, and trying them out can be at once curious and fantastic. For those of you brushing up for the “pre-industrial-revolution technical challenge” à la “The Great British Baking Show,” a “quick oven” or to “bake quickly” means to bake in an oven that is preheated to about 375 degrees F, just until golden. (You can find a very handy resource for historic recipe conversions here.)
If, however, you are game for the reality TV-worthy test, try Mrs. R.I. Porter’s cookie recipe below, and let us know how you fare.
The collections are a fantastic resource, whether you are trying to track down a long-lost family favorite like melt-in-your-mouth Mexican biscochitos or crispy anise-flavored Italian pizzelles, looking to brighten your baking repertoire with some traditional Scandinavian cookies, or learning more about thrifty cooks of years gone by.
AND, OF COURSE, CHOCOLATE
Sometimes, you just need chocolate. And this recipe easily checks that box.
GO FOR IT
As I was putting this article together, my daughter was inspired to grab the family cookbook from the shelf (compiled in 1980 by my great aunt Shirley Ann and complete with typed pages and tole painting on the cover, all of which she had done herself) and whip up a batch of Gum Drop Cookies. Without a full-color photograph or precise instructions, it was both a challenge and a fun adventure to create something that didn’t reveal the finished product. Once she let go of “baking the unknown,” she enjoyed the process and declared the cookies as a new favorite, saying: “I mean, how often do you get to have a cookie with actual gum drops in it?”
KEEP IT UP
While baking up historic recipes for the holidays (or any other time) may present its challenges, don’t get discouraged if your first attempts fall flat. As bakers know, there are a myriad of factors that can come into play, from egg size and measuring techniques to oven calibration. And baking at altitude can be tricky.
And still, the efforts are well worth it. By spending time with recipes both handed down and recently discovered, we can make new connections or rekindle old ones with people and places that are important to us, even if we’re not side-by-side in the kitchen.
History Colorado’s collection includes fantastic cookbooks of all sorts, including the ones mentioned above. You can explore them for yourself at the Stephen H. Hart Research Center. Many thanks to research service assistant Cody Robinson for assistance in researching this article.
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